This is Uber’s plan to deliver on flying ‘cars’

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elf-driving and electric flying cars are coming. What this means for our cities in the future is unclear, so I chatted with Uber Head of Policy of Autonomous Vehicles and Urban Aviation Justin Erlich to learn more.

Erlich previously worked under Attorney General Kamala Harris, where he focused on emerging technology and the key policies that the government will want to have in place to ensure technology helps the people of California. During his time, autonomous vehicles were becoming more and more exciting, he said.

“And then there were things emerging with drones and the potential for air travel with people,” Erlich told me on this week’s episode of CTRL+T. “Then I came across this amazing role at Uber where it basically was looking to have someone lead policy for all advanced and emerging tech.”

As head of policy for that division, Erlich oversees essentially everything that’s not Uber’s main ride-hailing division. That includes self-driving cars, drones, freight and VTOL (vertical take off and landing).

The idea with Uber’s air travel, which may be referred to as UberAir, is to cover trips from one point of density to another, Erlich explained to me. The plan for now is to cover no more than 60 miles, which is due to the current limitations of batteries.

To get in your UberAir, you could enter in your destination and then the Uber app would tell you where the closest skyport is located. Then, you’d catch your UberAir to another place that is somewhat close to your final destination.

There are a couple of classic use cases, Erlich said. One is for super-commuting, like going from San Francisco to downtown San Jose. Instead of driving yourself, taking Caltrain or paying a bunch of money for an Uber car to take you all that way, you could hop in an UberAir, which would be a lot faster. Another use case is navigating in Los Angeles, which is a notoriously traffic-heavy city, from the airport to East Los Angeles.

Unlike Uber’s standard offering, UberAir will ideally be a totally shared experience. Part of that has to do with ensuring that the cost of UberAir will be affordable, Erlich said, and comparable to the prices Uber riders are already used to.

“Our hope and belief is that the time savings that you will get through air travel will incentivize people who might otherwise be used to the privacy of their own rides [being game] to share rides,” Erlich said. “If you ask about what’s the future of mobility — like when we have all these people wanting to move — we can think of these as packets of people and things moving in these really dense city areas. Everything will probably need to look like some form of fleets that are run by folks like Uber that are pooled with people sharing rides that are electric and eventually autonomous. I think that’s the sort of vision that we’re working towards both on the ground and in the air. And I think shared rides is a huge part of that.”

Part helicopter, part plane

Uber’s flying cars are a hybrid between a helicopter and an airplane, Erlich explained to me. I’m really pushing for the “flying car” terminology, but Erlich says it’s misleading and that we need to come up with a better way to describe them.

“It sounds awesome but it almost it conjures up an image of things taking off from the ground,” Erlich said. “And the technology there would be quite difficult and seems pretty far off, whereas I think a lot of these services will be moving from one rooftop to another.”

Instead of UberAir being a flying car, a helicopter or an airplane, you can think of it as a helicopter-airplane mashup, Erlich said. They will have fixed wings to help with gliding, similar to an airplane, to help it be more efficient and go faster. They will also have multiple rotors, while a helicopter has just one big fixed rotor and therefore one single point of failure, Erlich explained.

Those rotors, he added, will use distributed electric propulsion, which was invented by a NASA engineer, whom Uber has since hired. DEP helps to increase fuel efficiency, landing field length and performance handling while reducing emissions and noise. That means UberAir should theoretically be quieter and safer than a helicopter because of those multiple rotors and fixed wings.

“We can sort of imagine it is a much better, quieter, safer, more efficient helicopter. So part of the focus in that area is how do we make this seem more real and sort of capture what is actually the substance of the technology.”

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Another part of the focus, Erlich says, is educating people around the benefits of urban air travel, how it’s potentially safer and how it’s not a new concept. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a helicopter service between San Francisco and Oakland, operated by SFO Helicopter Airlines. At that point, however, it was expensive and not safe enough, Erlich said.

“But this idea of urban air travel isn’t actually as foreign as we might think,” Erlich said. “It just hasn’t happened recently. So part of it is around creating a discussion with communities about what the benefits are, why we think this is safer and getting them excited about what this could be.”

Roof hopping

The emergence of UberAir will likely result in a new market involving rooftop rentals. Similar to how ride-sharing services like Getaround and Maven have resulted in small businesses and private homes renting out their vacant parking spaces, we can imagine a world in which office buildings, parking lot structures and even private homes serving as UberAir landing pads.

“I think that the rooftop in the future can be an asset that we can really unlock by allowing new forms of travel,” Erlich said. “I think how that can look pretty different.”

Erlich noted how real estate developers might want to consider building airports and how cities with large parking structures may want to dedicate top floors to VTOLs, given there will be less of a need for parking.

“I think we’ll see a lot of flexibility and what it could look like and, in part, that has to do with our infrastructure needs over the next 10 years, [which] will probably change dramatically,” he said. “Our goal is we want to be as flexible as possible to make sure that we can basically be working with a whole host of partners who will be developing developing this potential infrastructure.”

The plan is to start with real pilots operating UberAir, Erlich said, but at some point, it’ll be autonomous.

“So I think integrating that into the core center of cities, I think will be a really exciting policy topic in the years to come,” Erlich said.

Uber expects to launch its first test run in 2020 in Dallas and Los Angeles. Uber will be flying it from one rooftop to another, ensuring it integrates well with the airspace. By 2023, Uber is looking to launch its first commercial flights.

Uber’s ultimate vision is to provide multi-modal transportation both within and between cities. Just last month, for example, Uber launched UberBike in partnership with bike-sharing startup JUMP.

“We’re definitely both looking at trying to meet short term needs and long term needs,” Erlich said. “And that’s one of the things that I think is exciting about the company is, you know, it’s breadth of what it’s trying to think about is certainly certainly big.”

An equitable future

Advances in transportation in cities isn’t always equitable and deployed with equity and accessibility in mind. Instead, transportation technology often gets deployed in ways that have “these wide systemic effects where we don’t totally realize them going in,” Erlich said.

“And so if we look at what happened with cars they completely reshaped our cities. We had suburban sprawl, we had certain neighborhoods being demolished in order to build freeways to build this road infrastructure, and that had obviously a huge impact on equity issues and sort of demographics and cities.”

In an ideal world, UberAir would be able to reach neighborhoods that are traditionally underserved by transit agencies. But in order to do that, Uber needs to remain conscious of the fact that it’s a goal it’s trying to achieve. That means ensuring the right policy infrastructure is in place and that’s where Erlich comes in.

We’re thinking about what this looks like for making things wheelchair accessible and so we’re having ongoing conversations with folks in that community,” Erlich said. “We’ll really need to be thoughtful long-term about where the routings are to make sure that we’re serving underserved communities in transit, and to make sure that this technology is made available to everybody.”

The goal is to continue to bring down costs and move toward autonomous flying in order to offer low enough prices for people who want to travel far, Erlich said.

“And particularly if they’re not able to live in urban areas due to real estate prices that this will help them live further away but not need to rely on personal car ownership.”

You can listen to my full conversation with Erlich here.

Why Google’s Bosses Became ‘Unpumped’ About Uber

It’s something Google understands well. Years ago, Google was tightly aligned with Apple. But the relationship soured as Google started developing smartphone software. Steve Jobs, who was Apple’s chief executive, rightly believed that Google’s Android would become a competitive threat to the iPhone.

When Google initially invested in Uber in 2013, Larry Page, Google’s chief executive at the time, and David Drummond, Alphabet’s top lawyer, were mentors, Mr. Kalanick said. Alphabet remains an investor in Uber.

The two companies, he said, had a “little brother, big brother” dynamic because Uber was “trying to get more of their time than they were willing to give.”

After Mr. Page repeatedly spurned meetings to discuss combining Uber’s ride-hailing service with Google’s work on self-driving vehicles in some sort of partnership, Mr. Kalanick said, his company started to develop its own autonomous car technology.

Uber hired a team of robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University, deepening the division between the two companies.

“Generally, Google was super not happy, unpumped about us doing this,” said Mr. Kalanick, who stepped down as Uber’s chief executive in June. He recalled that Mr. Page had been “angsty” and asked him: “Why are you doing my thing?”

But Mr. Kalanick said the engineers from Carnegie Mellon were not enough to catch up to Google’s self-driving car project, which would become Waymo. So Uber started talking to the Otto founder Anthony Levandowski, who was still working at Google, about helping Uber develop its laser sensor technology — an essential component for self-driving cars.

As Mr. Kalanick and Mr. Levandowski discussed ways to work together, they exchanged hundreds of text messages. The messages were presented in court on Wednesday and were mostly a variation on how important it was to win the race for self-driving cars.

Mr. Levandowski told Mr. Kalanick that “second place is first” loser. Mr. Kalanick said this wasn’t the first time he had heard this; it was something his high school football coach had said.

Mr. Kalanick said he did not recall, however, what he had meant by some of the text messages he sent to Mr. Levandowski, including one that read, “Burn the village.”

In another exchange, Mr. Levandowski sent Mr. Kalanick a link to a scene from the movie “Wall Street” in which Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, argues “greed, for the lack of a better word, is good.”

When asked whether he had watched the scene, Mr. Kalanick said he thought so. His emoji response was a hint. “I mean there is a winky-face there,” he said.

Once Uber and Otto struck a basic agreement for an acquisition in April 2016, months before the deal was announced, Mr. Kalanick told Uber executives in a meeting that “golden time is over — it’s now wartime.” At another meeting, he discussed how it was necessary for Uber to find and use “cheat codes.”

Mr. Kalanick explained that this phrase was not as nefarious as it sounded. Cheat codes “are elegant solutions to problems that haven’t been thought of,” he said. Tesla, for example, has customers pay tens of thousands for cars but loads those vehicles with sensors that provide data to support its self-driving car efforts.

Mr. Kalanick said he had another testy conversation with Mr. Page in October 2016, after Uber announced its acquisition of Otto. Interestingly, Mr. Page was worried that Uber was developing its own flying car technology.

Mr. Page has personally invested in flying car technology, although it is not clear whether Alphabet is working on it.

Mr. Kalanick insisted that Uber wasn’t working on flying cars, but he said Mr. Page was mad that Uber was hiring Google employees and taking its intellectual property. To which, Mr. Kalanick said, he responded, “Your people are not your IP.”

IP is an abbreviation for intellectual property.

As Uber’s lawyers questioned him, Mr. Kalanick recalled how he had had so much fun as the company’s chief executive. He liked “being in the trenches” with small teams. But when asked about the Otto acquisition and the hiring of Mr. Levandowski, Mr. Kalanick was understated.

“It’s not as great as we had thought at the beginning,” he said.

Continue reading the main story

Why Google’s Bosses Became ‘Unpumped’ About Uber

It’s something Google understands well. Years ago, Google was tightly aligned with Apple. But the relationship soured as Google started developing smartphone software. Steve Jobs, who was Apple’s chief executive, rightly believed that Google’s Android would become a competitive threat to the iPhone.

When Google initially invested in Uber in 2013, Larry Page, Google’s chief executive at the time, and David Drummond, Alphabet’s top lawyer, were mentors, Mr. Kalanick said. Alphabet remains an investor in Uber.

The two companies, he said, had a “little brother, big brother” dynamic because Uber was “trying to get more of their time than they were willing to give.”

After Mr. Page repeatedly spurned meetings to discuss combining Uber’s ride-hailing service with Google’s work on self-driving vehicles in some sort of partnership, Mr. Kalanick said, his company started to develop its own autonomous car technology.

Uber hired a team of robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University, deepening the division between the two companies.

“Generally, Google was super not happy, unpumped about us doing this,” said Mr. Kalanick, who stepped down as Uber’s chief executive in June. He recalled that Mr. Page had been “angsty” and asked him: “Why are you doing my thing?”

But Mr. Kalanick said the engineers from Carnegie Mellon were not enough to catch up to Google’s self-driving car project, which would become Waymo. So Uber started talking to the Otto founder Anthony Levandowski, who was still working at Google, about helping Uber develop its laser sensor technology — an essential component for self-driving cars.

As Mr. Kalanick and Mr. Levandowski discussed ways to work together, they exchanged hundreds of text messages. The messages were presented in court on Wednesday and were mostly a variation on how important it was to win the race for self-driving cars.

Mr. Levandowski told Mr. Kalanick that “second place is first” loser. Mr. Kalanick said this wasn’t the first time he had heard this; it was something his high school football coach had said.

Mr. Kalanick said he did not recall, however, what he had meant by some of the text messages he sent to Mr. Levandowski, including one that read, “Burn the village.”

In another exchange, Mr. Levandowski sent Mr. Kalanick a link to a scene from the movie “Wall Street” in which Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, argues “greed, for the lack of a better word, is good.”

When asked whether he had watched the scene, Mr. Kalanick said he thought so. His emoji response was a hint. “I mean there is a winky-face there,” he said.

Once Uber and Otto struck a basic agreement for an acquisition in April 2016, months before the deal was announced, Mr. Kalanick told Uber executives in a meeting that “golden time is over — it’s now wartime.” At another meeting, he discussed how it was necessary for Uber to find and use “cheat codes.”

Mr. Kalanick explained that this phrase was not as nefarious as it sounded. Cheat codes “are elegant solutions to problems that haven’t been thought of,” he said. Tesla, for example, has customers pay tens of thousands for cars but loads those vehicles with sensors that provide data to support its self-driving car efforts.

Mr. Kalanick said he had another testy conversation with Mr. Page in October 2016, after Uber announced its acquisition of Otto. Interestingly, Mr. Page was worried that Uber was developing its own flying car technology.

Mr. Page has personally invested in flying car technology, although it is not clear whether Alphabet is working on it.

Mr. Kalanick insisted that Uber wasn’t working on flying cars, but he said Mr. Page was mad that Uber was hiring Google employees and taking its intellectual property. To which, Mr. Kalanick said, he responded, “Your people are not your IP.”

IP is an abbreviation for intellectual property.

As Uber’s lawyers questioned him, Mr. Kalanick recalled how he had had so much fun as the company’s chief executive. He liked “being in the trenches” with small teams. But when asked about the Otto acquisition and the hiring of Mr. Levandowski, Mr. Kalanick was understated.

“It’s not as great as we had thought at the beginning,” he said.

Continue reading the main story

Are flying cars the future of transportation or an inflated expectation?

It seems like flying-car startups are finally taking over the “140-character” kinds of tech companies we are used to. With EU-based startup Lilium working on an all-electric autonomous flying taxi, garnering a $90 million Series B led by Tencent and supported by a number of well-known VCs (including Atomico), it’s clear that flying cars are transitioning from a fascinating concept to a quite-mature technology and promising investment thesis.

But will we see flying cars out in the world? And how will the market environment evolve?

The first thing I’d like to do to answer these questions is provide a snapshot of the current flying car ecosystem:

Company

Country

Founded


Raised
 (in millions)

Selected Investors

Lilium Aviation

Germany

2014

$101.4

Tencent, Atomico, e42 Ventures, Obvious Ventures

Volocopter

Germany

2012

$29.5

Daimler

Ehang

China

2014

$52

GGV Capital, GP Capital, ZhenFund, LeBox Capital

Joby Aviation

U.S.

2009

$15.5

8VC, Capricorn Venture Partners

AeroMobil

Hungary

2010

$3.2

LRJ Capital, InfraPartners Management

Moller

U.S.

1983

N/A

N/A

Zee.Aero

U.S.

2010

$100

Larry Page

Kitty Hawk

U.S.

2015

N/A

Larry Page

Terrafugia

U.S.

2006

$6.56

Haiyin Capital, Transcendent Holdings

PAL-V

Netherlands

2001

N/A

N/A

Cartivator

Japan

N/A

N/A

Toyota Motors

Neva Aerospace

U.K.

2013

$2.53

Schübeler Technologies GmBH

Hoversurf

Russia

2014

N/A

N/A

Malloy

U.K.

N/A

N/A

N/A

Aerofex

U.S.

N/A

N/A

N/A

Source: Crunchbase, PitchBook, Bloomberg and companies’ press releases

Here are a few observations:

The ecosystem is maturing. There are already 15 startups working on different concepts of flying cars (including hoverbikes), and more may be in stealth mode or early stage. In addition to this, several heavyweight corporations, such as Airbus and Toyota, are also developing this technology.

Speaking of geography, more than half of the companies are U.S.-based. However, there is a strong presence of EU-based companies, as well, including two cash-loaded startups, Lilium and Volocopter, which have been the biggest newsmakers in flying cars recently.

Detailing funding statistics, flying-car startups have raised $310.7 million to date from all branches of the venture capital ecosystem: typical VCs (e.g. Atomico), corporates (Daimler, Toyota, Tencent) and notable angels (Larry Page). It is worth mentioning that we’ve seen the largest amount of funding in this area in 2017, mainly driven by the massive Lilium ($90 million) and Volocopter ($29.5 million) rounds.

Summing up this data, there are quite a few flying-car startups, and there is notable interest in this area from investors — and it has increased significantly this year.

What are the dynamics behind this and why did it happen now? I’d outline two main factors driving this area forward: significant marketing momentum and maturation of required technology.

Detailing the first point, the flying-car concept has recently met the eye of large industry players, such as Uber (with its Elevate project) and UAE government (first public flying taxi tests), which is creating interest from not-so-aerospace-focused investors, such as Atomico and Tencent.

Another aspect is the rapid development of drone-related technology, which has proven its value for businesses’ bottom line and turned from consumer-focused toys to a helpful tool utilized in a variety of industries, such as construction and agriculture. A similar process is happening now with flying cars, as well, which now are analyzed in terms of delivery, emergency operations applications and disrupting nothing less than the entire mobility industry.

Indeed, the technology required for flying cars is finally here. The biggest challenge — creating safe and effective vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles (say, combining helicopter and plane) — is being solved with innovation in aircraft design (see the distributed propulsion concept for more details), and recent progress in autonomous flight and electric motors and batteries enables a visionary future with solar-powered self-flying cars crossing the skies in both large cities and rural areas.

However, despite that the technology is ready and there is a significant interest from both industry and investors, still there are some barriers — the largest and most challenging is integration of flying cars (and drones) into public airspace. This is a very complex problem in terms of regulation (should flying cars be remotely controlled by human operators or allowed to operate autonomously?), required infrastructure (how to track and control myriad unmanned flying vehicles and how to protect these cyber-physical assets?) and technology (how to coordinate thousands of flight paths in real time and provide collision management).

Both government agencies and large businesses are working on these challenges (e.g. in the U.S. it’s driven by NASA, with support from Google, Intel and Verizon, to name a few partners); such systems are far from country-wide implementation anywhere in the world.

Flying cars are definitely on the radar. Here are some prospects on how the market environment could evolve:

  • We’ll see flying cars in the mass market in around 10-15 years — this time is likely required to solve the problem of integration into public airspace and, in some sense, convince customers that the idea is not that much more crazy than, for example, ICOs or VR games.

  • Flying cars represent an interesting investment opportunity, and we’ll see more and more strategic investors and VCs funding this area. Moreover, we’ll very likely see some mergers and acquisitions in this sector, taking into account a significant number of corporates interested in flying cars, as illustrated by the recent Boeing acquisition of Aurora, a startup working on technology enabling autonomous flight.