Uber has moved a step ahead in its plan to make autonomous “flying taxis” a reality, signing a contract with Nasa to develop the software to manage them.
The company’s chief product officer, Jeff Holden, announced the new service contract at Web Summit in Lisbon, alongside its intention to begin testing four-passenger, 200mph UberAir flying taxi services across Los Angeles in 2020, its second test market in the US after Dallas.The battery-powered aircraft looks like a cross between a small plane and a helicopter, with fixed wings and rotors.
The company noted that its flying taxi service would be purely electric and that a journey that would take 80 minutes by car in rush-hour traffic could be reduced to as little as four minutes. Uber intends to have some form of its air service operational for the 2028 LA Olympics, but experts remain sceptical as to whether autonomous flying taxis will ever become a reality.
Holden said that the vehicle is intended to soar over traffic congestion, sharply reducing city travel times. Uber hopes it will eventually become a form of mass transport and cost commuters less than using their own car, though initially it will be more expensive than that.
The company is not intending to build any flying taxis itself but has previously announced partnerships with five aircraft manufacturers to lead the development and manufacturing of the necessary VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft.
The scheme still faces plenty of challenges, including certification of the new vehicle by authorities, pilot training and conceiving urban air traffic management systems that prevent collisions.
Uber is keen to move on from a troubled period in which its image has been damaged by investigations that found rampant sexual harassment of employees and multiple reports of drivers assaulting passengers. Holden said those episodes did not slow development of the flying taxi project.