Uber looks to clear its fly­ing cars for US take-off

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page - By James Tit­comb

UBER is mount­ing a charm of­fen­sive with the US gov­ern­ment as it presses ahead with plans to send fly­ing cars into city skies in as lit­tle as two years.

The tech­nol­ogy gi­ant will this week host of­fi­cials in­clud­ing Don­ald Trump’s trans­port chief, and the head of Amer­ica’s airspace watch­dog, at a sum­mit in Los An­ge­les, at which it hopes to es­tab­lish it­self as a leader in ur­ban flight.

Uber has hired a roster of se­nior Nasa and aerospace em­ploy­ees in the last year to de­liver chief ex­ec­u­tive Dara Khos­row­shahi’s plans for swarms of ro­bot-driven air­borne ve­hi­cles that trans­port pas­sen­gers across cities.

It claims the ser­vice will be cheaper and faster than ex­ist­ing taxi ser­vices, up­end­ing ur­ban trans­port and ad­dress­ing grow­ing conges­tion fears.

Mr Khos­row­shahi, who took charge of Uber last year, has over­hauled much of the ride-hailing app’s busi­ness but has out­spo­kenly backed Uber El­e­vate in the face of scep­ti­cism.

Uber has re­treated from some in­ter­na­tional mar­kets and was forced to halt tests of driver­less cars fol­low­ing a death in March, putting more pres­sure on the aerial divi­sion if Uber is to jus­tify its $72bn (£53bn) val­u­a­tion.

On Tues­day, Elaine Chao, the US trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary, and Daniel El­well, the chief of the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Au­thor­ity, will ap­pear at Uber’s “El­e­vate” sum­mit as it out­lines its plans to be­gin aerial tests in cities in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les, Dal­las and Dubai in 2020.

It be­lieves that an aerial taxi ser­vice will be avail­able to the public within five years, and will even­tu­ally be­come a com­mon way of com­mut­ing across cities. Uber has said the ve­hi­cles will be con­trolled by pi­lots at first, but will ul­ti­mately be au­ton­o­mous and bat­tery­pow­ered. The cost of flights could even­tu­ally be cut to 50 cents per mile, Uber said, equiv­a­lent to the cur­rent cost of driv­ing, with jour­neys that cur­rently take up to an hour and a half be­ing re­duced to a 15-minute trip.

Reg­u­la­tion is likely to be a key bar­rier for the com­pany, with strict airspace rules lim­it­ing traf­fic close to build­ings. But the White House has re­laxed rules on drone flights, amid fears that reg­u­la­tions are putting the US at a dis­ad­van­tage, and may be swayed by sim­i­lar ar­gu­ments re­gard­ing pas­sen­ger air­craft.

Uber has tan­gled with gov­ern­ments around the world over its ride-hailing app, but un­der Mr Khos­row­shahi has struck a more con­cil­ia­tory tone, say­ing it wants to work more closely with reg­u­la­tors.

Uber has ap­pointed a string of in­dus­try heavy­weights in the last year to push its plans through. In March it hired Eric Al­li­son, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Zee.aero, a fly­ing car com­pany backed by Google founder Larry Page, to run Uber’s aerial divi­sion.

In Au­gust, it poached Tom Prevot, a Nasa vet­eran, and in Fe­bru­ary last year, it ap­pointed Mark Moore, an­other se­nior of­fi­cial at the space agency, as its lead en­gi­neer for aerial ve­hi­cles.

Uber ex­pects that its fly­ing cars would use ro­tors to take off and land ver­ti­cally, but use fixed wings over longer dis­tances.

Reg­u­la­tion is likely to be a key bar­rier with strict air space rules lim­it­ing traf­fic close to build­ings

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