SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST

Uber’s vision for the future of ride-hailing: Driverless cars and autonomous air taxis

Posted March 16th, 2018

Ride-hailing company Uber launched in 2010 built on a simple concept: Push a button, get a ride.

Its popularity was driven by its ease.

Much in the same way, Uber and other high-tech companies are now trying to build the next phase of ride-hailing on that same simplicity. 

Uber says it is partnering with aircraft firm Bell to bring an on-demand helicopter transportation service to market by the mid 2020s. The San Francisco-based ride-hailing company, which is also working with other tech firms to bring the project together, said it imagines a transportation system entirely powered by on-demand ride services.

Bringing new transportation methods such as the air taxi and autonomous vehicles to market “is a gradual process,” Nikhil Goel, project manager at Uber’s aviation and advanced programs division, said during a South by Southwest session.

“The first (air) vehicles will be piloted. And these will take place with demonstrations in the North Texas area starting in the 2020 time frame, and those demonstrations will allow us to really push the community acceptance piece of it,” Goel said.

Uber’s plan is to have complete control over cities’ transportation systems.

In the future, Goel said, Uber wants customers to be able to plot a start and end location on a phone app, be picked up by an Uber vehicle, dropped off at an Uber airport, take an air taxi to the the final destination’s nearest airport and have another Uber car link the last leg of the trip. Eventually, Uber plans to have both its vehicles and air taxis completely autonomous, with a pilot only taking control in emergencies. 

To that end, Uber and Bell are working on an air taxi with four seats. Uber is also working with automobile companies such as Volvo to develop a market-ready, self-driving vehicle. Both the air taxi and autonomous vehicles are being designed to be electric, using new battery technology, and to be as silent and sturdy as possible. 

RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMANPeople check out the Uber/Bell air taxi model at South by Southwest on Tuesday, March 13, 2018.

Executing those plans won’t be easy.

Uber is competing against companies such as Boeing, which is building its own air taxi, and foreign players such as Ehang, a passenger drone run by by a Chinese tech firm. 

One of the main obstacles to wide-spread adoption of autonomous vehicle technology is that humans don’t yet trust it.

That’s why companies and research organizations around the world are investing in making the new technology more human-like, industry experts say.

Research firm Humanising Autonomy, for example, was founded in London by engineers and designers who believe autonomous vehicles and other future transportation options will not smoothly transition into society if they don’t integrate with human behavior. 

"As humans we’re equipped with sensory (features) -- we're able to understand what other humans are doing and react to it and predict,” Maya Pindeus, one of Humanising Autonomy’s  founders, said at SXSW. “If we want autonomous technology ... we need to take a much more human-centered approach to this technology. Technology should be designed around the human, and not the other way around. It should allow a vehicle to understand what a person is doing and to be able to communicate back.”

Humanising Autonomy is working with automobile companies such as German-based Daimler AG to construct human qualities in futuristic vehicles, which they said could include light systems and other features to communicate with humans. 

RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMANNikhil Goel of Uber, far right, joins Mike Berry, Michael Thacker and Gwen Lighter to speak about the next level of aviation tech and the role that air taxis could play in transporting people, on Tuesday, March 13, 2018.

In addition, companies in both the autonomous and air taxi markets will have to be in compliance with regulatory agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration.

For Uber, which came up as a disruptive technology notoriously known for trying to skirt governmental transportation policies around the world, Goel said the company will have to work closely with the FAA and other agencies if the new transportation system is to be achieved.

A little over a year ago, the FAA approved new aviation standards that are supposed to make it less costly and faster to bring small aircraft into the market. Goel said Uber is trying to take advantage of those new rules.

“It is a very integrative approach that we need to take, not only with the FAA, but with the cities, states and with the countries not only in the United States, but around the world,” Goel said. “We have been very surprised to see the FAA actually taking a very progressive stance on this with the the new consensus-based standards. It allows for us to move very quickly.”

As with other advances in transportation technologies, moving to market will require widespread policy acceptance across county, state and city boundaries, Theo Blackwell, the city of London’s chief digital officer, said during a SXSW session. 

Major cities like London and New York are beginning to form networks for a future when air taxis and autonomous vehicles move seamlessly through their roads and airways, Blackwell said.

“Common standards will be adopted when cities talk to one another .. so we create the framework of future innovation,” Blackwell said. “Technology today is too driven by, ‘we are disruptive, and regulation (can) get out of the way.’ As opposed to a view from history, which (is) innovation happened when we agreed on standards, and then we allowed things to flourish. Cities have a crucial role to play in that.”

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