CES 2019: Equity, Teamwork Key to Enabling 'Flying Taxis' in Cities

As Uber gets ready to pilot commercial aerial vehicles in 2023 in Dallas and Los Angeles, municipal officials said significant challenges confront all cities around transportation equity and solving underlying issues.

LAS VEGAS — Urban elevated travel or, more literally, flying taxis, may be coming very soon to two U.S. cities. But industry and public sector officials said the likely roll-out won’t immediately lead to autonomous airborne transportation; and when it does, all residents should have the chance to get a front seat, in a discussion at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

The Jan. 7 panel, “Flying Taxis, Build Them, But Will They Come?” followed two important developments. In May, Uber announced it would invest more than $23 million to develop an all-electric, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft in France during the next five years. Also on Jan. 7 at CES, Uber announced its support for a full-scale VTOL aircraft by Bell which the company said jointly with Bell represented “a major step in its Elevate initiative to create an on-demand Uber Air network.”

But during the panel, which convened executives from Deloitte, Enbraer, Uber and the city of Boulder, Colo., executives offered more earthly views on how the technology might eventually deploy and the reception it might find in U.S. cities.

Julia Richman, chief innovation and technology officer for Boulder, told an audience of more than 150 that equity will be essential for cities to work toward as they pilot new forms of transportation — ensuring the options are viable and within reach of residents from all social and economic backgrounds.

Robin Lineberger, global aerospace and defense leader at Deloitte, began the conversation by noting that the technology company had surveyed nearly 11,000 car buyers globally to determine whether they viewed “these air vehicles,” piloted or autonomous, as viable, safe ways to beat congestion on the ground. Results were not overwhelmingly positive, he said: 52 percent said they didn’t yet agree the concept was a viable solution to urban and suburban congestion. Twenty-four percent did not see it as a viable alternative and 28 percent were undecided. Meanwhile, just 20 percent felt they’d be safe.

This, Lineberger said, prompted Deloitte to convene the panel to consider what the industry should do to ensure the vehicles are “viable and safe.” “But also, to ensure that we’re managing potential consumer expectation and consumer sentiment over the coming years so if we build it they in fact will come,” he said.

Tom Prevot, director of engineering for airspace systems at Uber, confirmed to Government Technology that the company intends to pilot the aerial vehicles in 2023 “for commercial operations in Dallas and Los Angeles,” and in one international city not yet selected.

“And by 2020, we want to basically have initial demonstration flights to prove out some of the technology, to show that they actually meet the requirements, the noise requirements and things like that,” Prevot said. Like panelist David Rottblatt, who is business development director at EmbraerX, the disruptive innovation division of the aerospace company, Prevot said those first vehicles will definitely be piloted.

“We will have to first collect lots of data and make sure that we can do all the safety, and we can prove out all the technologies that will be required to fly actually unpiloted,” Prevot added.
“We believe that a phased approach will be best and it’s something that communities will be excited to participate [in]. We know that passengers will want to see that pilot, will want to have confidence that the aircraft is stable and safe,” Rottblatt said.

In a separate interview, Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said the city’s focus thus far has been on engaging the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and private companies including Uber that operate in this space “to start to unpack what it looks like to try to integrate these into the fabric of a city.”

“The way that we make sure that these devices and these new mobility ideas serve everyone is to involve everyone, and the city is really the best position to do that. These devices have the potential to transform cities in positive ways, but they also have the potential to just repeat the problems that we experience on the ground,” Reynolds said.

During the panel, Richman offered a sobering perspective on the challenges cities face. She told listeners a recent $100,000 Bloomberg Mayors Innovation Challenge grant Boulder used to pilot Lyft, offering free rides in Boulder’s four poorest neighborhoods, generated just $265 in usage. Boulder found other areas in which to make use of the grant, but the experience told the city that “there’s a huge segment of the population who are not involved in new mobility at all.”

“And so, we’ve also launched a pilot coming out of that to look at SMS-based communications with our community because we don’t do that now and we figured, there’s a whole need here we’re not serving,” Richman told GT afterward.

Boulder has taken steps toward regulating unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones: In October, the city implemented an internal operational procedure signed by the city manager, to help govern and manage drones. The city also built a governance group to handle requests around UAS and enable standardization and commonality across the enterprise. Boulder has had lots of departments “getting into the business of it,” particularly among first responder agencies, and officials wanted to consider how to treat UAS, its usage and how residents were kept informed.

“The policy really defined all of that for our internal purposes,” Richman said.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Techwire.net, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.
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