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.

These are the arguments that define the Uber Waymo lawsuit


In a crowded courtroom in San Francisco, the trial that could determine the fate of Uber’s autonomous driving program is finally underway.

For the past year, lawyers for Waymo (the self-driving car unit spun out from Alphabet in December 2016) and ride-hailing juggernaut Uber have been sparring in court over evidence and witnesses and proceedings.

At the center of the lawsuit is an acquisition that Uber made in 2016, of a self-driving company called Otto, picking up that company’s brilliant-but-troubled chief executive — Anthony Levandowski.

Formerly known as Ottomotive, Otto was created by Levandowski, a former Alphabet employee, who was one of the founding fathers of autonomous vehicle technologies. For years, Levandowski worked (in somewhat odd business arrangements) with Google — and later Alphabet — as part of the pre-spinout Waymo project team.

For Waymo lawyers, the case seems to hinge on the ambitions of Uber’s ousted chief executive, Travis Kalanick, and his wooing of this wunderkind autonomous vehicle technology developer.

In opening arguments, Waymo’s chief lawyer, Charles Verhoeven, painted a picture of Uber as a company whose chief executive realized that the race to develop autonomous vehicles would define the future prospects of the company — and that future was looking increasingly grim.

“Internal documents indicate that Mr. Kalanick wanted to find ‘cheat codes’,” Verhoeven told the jury in his opening statement. “In their own words… in these documents… Mr. Kalanick said he wanted to use Levandowski to leapfrog Google.”

Ultimately Waymo is framing the case around Kalanick as the instigator, and that he initiated a plot with Levandowski to steal Waymo trade secrets and shield Levandowski from any consequences, including the offer to indemnify Levandowski and other executives from any claims of intellectual property theft.

Uber’s lawyers are arguing that the actions of the company were just natural Silicon Valley competition.

When Uber reached out to Levandowski, it was no different from the Warriors pursuing Kevin Durant to bring home a championship, Uber’s outside counsel Bill Carmody told the jury.

It’s an argument that will resonate in Silicon Valley where companies typically engage in a cutthroat competition for top talent.

If focusing on recruitment is one way to blunt the terrible optics of Uber’s internal messaging, then the focus on technology is another.

There are two pillars to Carmody’s defense of Uber’s actions. One: that everyone does it — including Alphabet. The other: that the technology Levandowski allegedly stole never made its way into Uber’s vehicles.

None of the eight trade secrets ever made it into Uber, Carmody argued.

“Uber regrets ever bringing Anthony Levandowski on board,” Carmody told the jury. “All Uber has to show for hiring Anthony Levandowski is this lawsuit.”

The strategies were already on display in jury selection according to a consultant on jury composition who observed the proceedings from a spillover gallery. Uber was challenging jurors who were emotional about issues, while Waymo was challenging potential jury members who were too technically savvy.

The one man who is at the center of this legal battle and its potential billions of dollars in damages will likely be silent, as he pleaded the Fifth Amendment almost a year ago. Indeed, perhaps never in a courtroom has so much been said about a man who will, himself, say so little.

Not great for us observers, but maybe just as both the plaintiff and defendant want things. That Anthony Levandowski was unscrupulous and unethical is something on which both sides will agree — which is perhaps why neither side may want to hear what he has to say.

We’ll be there to track and report what happens in court, so stay tuned for more.

Ford files a patent for an autonomous police car


If the fourth season of Black Mirror didn’t throughly freak you out, buckle up!

Ford has filed for a patent on an autonomous police car. While patent filings don’t always come to fruition, the mere fact that this idea is in development is mildly unnerving.

The patent, first spotted by Motor1, describes an autonomous police vehicle that would be able to detect infractions performed by another vehicle, either on its own or in conjunction with surveillance cameras and/or road-side sensors.

The AI-powered police car could then remotely issue citations or pursue the vehicle. Or (and this is where it gets really creepy), “the method may further involve the processor remotely executing one or more actions with respect to the first vehicle,” according to the patent.

In other words, the autonomous police car could wirelessly connect to the original car to communicate with the passenger, verify identity, and issue a citation.

In fact, Ford’s patent filing describes a machine learning algorithm that would be able to determine whether or not a vehicle breaking the law warrants a warning as opposed to a citation, and relay that decision to the driver.

The patent also describes a method by which police offers within the autonomous police car could manually take over control of the vehicle or use its wireless connection to various databases to gain more information on those breaking the law.

Again, a patent does not a forthcoming product make. We’re many years from potentially being pulled over by a robot car. That said, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that patrol police fall victim to the age of automation.

Featured Image: Takahiro Yamamoto/Getty Images

Yandex takes its self-driving test cars out for a spin in the snow

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Russian software giant Yandex took its prototype self-driving taxi out for its first real-world snow test last weekend. It says the Prius model prototypes clocked up 300km in total during the test. It’s put out the above video demoing the two cars in action.

“We have been working to prepare algorithms for winter ‘at garage’ for a while, so last weekend tests in real world was just the first time we got all confirmations,” Dmitry Polishchuk, head of Yandex.Taxi’s self-driving project, told us.

Computer vision systems for autonomous vehicles can’t of course be engineered to only encounter perfect road conditions. Just like human drivers these systems need to be ready and able to adapt, come rain or shine.

On the weather front, snow is considered especially challenging, given it can mask road markings which could confuse navigation systems, while also adding a potentially slippery surface to the driving mix. So it’s an important step in the testing process.

That said, there are lots more steps to go. Yandex has not yet tested the self-driving prototypes on public roads where they will encounter their biggest challenge: Interacting with human drivers.

It says it hopes to start public road tests next year, although that will also first require a thawing in the local regulatory landscape — as Russia currently prohibits the use of self-driving vehicles on public roads.

In the meanwhile, Polishchuk claims the first snow test for the Yandex.Taxi prototype went off smoothly. “There was nothing unexpected,” he says, adding: “Computer vision algorithms should be specially tuned to work properly when the snow is falling and covering road surface, and driving technology should count slick surface when choosing speed mode.

“We will continue tests during the whole winter to make sure our technology for driverless car is reliable for such condition.”

The company debuted its self-driving car project in May, saying it was using custom-built hardware plus generally available mass market components for the prototypes, while also developing its own self-driving software in house — drawing on its existing expertise in image matching for search and translating text within photos within its language service offerings.

In related news, earlier this week Russian regulators gave Uber and Yandex the greenlight for a joint venture in Russia. In July the companies announced their plans to merge operations in the region, with Uber and Yandex both investing in a new joint company — but Yandex owning a majority share of it.

Tencent is reportedly testing its own autonomous driving system


Tencent is making progress on its own autonomous driving system, according to Bloomberg. The report says that Tencent, one of China’s largest tech firms and the maker of WeChat, already has a prototype and is testing the system internally.

If Tencent’s autonomous driving tests goes well, that would help it catch up with fellow Chinese tech giant and rival Baidu, which recently launched a $1.5 billion investment fund as part of Apollo, its autonomous vehicle initiative, and plans to mass produce Level 4 self-driving cars by 2021 with BAIC Group.

Tencent has signaled its interest in autonomous driving technology for a while now. About three months ago, it announced an alliance to work on artificial intelligence technology for autonomous cars, with members including Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford computer scientist who played a key role in the development of Google’s self-driving car; Xu Heyi, the chairman of Chinese state-owned auto maker BAIC Group; and electric car startup Nio founder Li Bin.

Tencent’s auto and driving-related investments include Nio, Didi Chuxing and a 5% stake in Tesla (it also wanted to invest in Here, a digital mapping startup, but was denied regulatory approval).

TechCrunch has contacted Tencent for more information.

Featured Image: VCG/VCG/Getty Images