When the flying version of the Toyota Camry comes along, Uber wants to be sure to have its logo on the windshield.
The ride-sharing giant planted a flag in the still-very-hypothetical flying-car space in Oct. 2016 when it launched a 98-page white-paper into the digital ether about the “future of on-demand urban air transportation.” This is Uber playing savvy defense. If flying cars actually happen and become something more than an expensive toy for the affluent, Uber needs to be in the game. The odds of that, however, are still long – at best we’re still four years away from an air taxi actually taking fares.
And the company has been smart enough to refrain from trying to build a rig of its own. Uber announced partnerships with five manufacturers trying to cobble together a capable machine and lined up a phalanx of investors, engineers and architects to help catalyze this Jetsons future. On Tuesday, Uber will host its annual “Elevate” conference, a summit bringing all of these players together.
In a phone call this Friday, Eric Allison, the Elevate chief and bona fide doctor of aeronautics acknowledged that Uber realizes it has a lot of clock to run out before these birds arrive. Almost half of the event will highlight scooters, self-driving sedans and other transportation tech. A few days ago, the company announced a new helicopter shuttle in New York that will take its most loyal passengers from lower Manhattan to JFK airport for about $200 a person.
This is the long-game for Uber: owning the trip from start to finish, by whatever machine necessary. “We deeply believe that this only makes sense as a multi-modal concept … a pure end to end journey with a single press of the button,” Allison said. “It’s all about the trip, not the vehicle.”
Next week, Uber will announce at least one more partner working on a vehicle and its third test city (this one outside the U.S.) to join Dallas and Los Angeles on the beta round. The thought leaders will conclave and, you know, think. There will, however, be a glaring absence on the roster of speakers: Vahana, the flying-car skunkworks set up by Airbus. Vahana isn’t an Uber partner as of yet, though it is arguably the leader in the space. Deep in rural Oregon, it has already built two working machines and completed about 80 test flights, hitting a range of 50 kilometers and speeds over 100 miles per hour.
While the Uber team assembles, the Vahana gang will be preparing to display one of its rig off at the Paris Air Show, which sounds like a good party. Uber would be smart to swing by, if it has time.