Updated: Mar 1
Mark Moore is Uber's Engineering Director of Aviation and one of the driving forces behind the ride-sharing giant's Uber Elevate / Air initiative. For those not familiar we recommend heading over to our earlier article 'The NASA Aerospace 'Ninjas' helping Uber Elevate' for some background on both Mark's expertise and the other NASA mega-brains behind Uber's push into aerial mobility.
Last week saw the launch of the US Air Force's Agility Prime initiative (as covered in our post Agility Prime: The Pentagon's eVTOL Power Play) and one of the most anticipated talks was Mark Moore's update - it was so insightful that we thought it worth clipping out on its own for anyone interested. All credit for the video goes to the AFWERX team and the talk can be found in full here on the AFWERX YouTube channel alongside coverage from all five days of the event along with content from the cracking breakout sessions which provided access to some of the Advanced / Urban Air Mobility industry's leading entrepreneurs and investors. We've summarised some of the key points below the video.
The big change driving the Advanced Air Mobility movement is a shift in aviation propulsion technologies - electrification - and more specifically Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP)
Single point failures in aviation should become a thing of the past
eVTOL enables transportation itself to transform into distributed systems - (see Aerial Mobility investor Peter Shannon's excellent 2018 post Aerial Mobility as Nodal Transportation for some insightful background on this)
Node based transportation infrastructure (such as eVTOL) can rapidly adapt to societal needs in months, rather than the decades that additive ground pathway networks take
One of the big drivers for Advanced / Urban Air Mobility has been congestion found in the world's cities, which Moore expects to return as the world emerges from the impacts of COVID-19 shutdowns
However if urbanisation trends post-coronavirus do shift instead to greater distribution it was noted that eVTOL air mobility networks can adapt to fulfil needs for regional and rural reach in ways that road and rail infrastructure cannot
It was reiterated that a collaborative ecosystem approach, involving both private and public sector partners, is required to realise the Uber Elevate vision, and both Uber and Agility Prime's efforts to stimulate this were acknowledged
In answering questions from Colonel Nathan Diller (Assistant Director of Aeronautics at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Team Lead for Agility Prime), it was noted that:
Whilst the commercial operators in Silicon Valley are moving fast this industry is "bigger than any one company" with tens of billions of dollars of investment required
Looking across Uber Elevate's eight partners announced to date, the cost to produce just one experimental (ie uncertified for commercial passenger use) aircraft is $100-150m USD
To certify such an aircraft requires an estimated further $700m - $1bn USD (see our article Do eVTOL air taxis need a $1bn runway?)
The DoD and NASA can help evidence the broad variety of missions for which eVTOL aircraft can be applicable, especially helpful in trying economic times to help convince companies and their investors to "stick with this" shared vision of future mobility
To build wider awareness of the technology and its potential it's important "to lock-in a common vision, common requirements and interfaces" - both inside organisation and amongst partners, government researchers, private companies and the public
Buy-in from the public is crucially important, and community engagement is just getting started
Moore wanted to avoid the belief that eVTOL is "...just an extrapolation from helicopters. It's not. These vehicles are...so much more capable, so much quieter, so much safer, so much more efficient. And we need to bring everyone along on this exciting journey."
Will Uber still be here by the time eVTOLs take-off?
It's hard not to get excited by Moore and Uber's ambitious vision, and there's nothing here we don't agree with. There are some question marks however around the financial viability of Uber itself - the company reported a loss of $8.5bn in 2019 alone (Source: The Verge). Their revenues have been savaged by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with one estimate suggesting demand for rides in their ground vehicles might be down by as much as 83% is some areas (Source: New York Times).
In an update to analysts in mid-April the company withdrew further guidance for 2020 saying it was unable to forecast revenues for the year (as many other publicly traded companies have done it should be noted). One bright light is Uber's food delivery business Uber Eats - revenues there are expected to have exceeded those from their ride sharing service for the first time ever in March 2020 (NYT / Second Measure).
Food deliveries by drone were already being trialled by the company pre-pandemic (as we mention in this article on Google's drone delivery subsidiary Wing). That said there's some refocusing going on with TechCrunch reporting on May 4th that the service has been withdrawn in seven markets - Czechia, Egypt, Honduras, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Ukraine. The company's ground network of cars and drivers is being shifted towards grocery deliveries in the near-term as consumer demand moves there, as evidenced by recently announced partnerships with French supermarket giants Carrefour in Paris and Galp service stations in Spain (Source; The Verge).
That said the company reportedly had $10 billion available in unrestricted cash and credit lines of up to a further $2bn at the end of 2019, which might prove enough to weather the COVID-19 storm. We hope they do, and that their Elevate plans become a pillar of their future strategy. It's worth noting that the 2023-25 timelines insiders put on the first eVTOL projects flying passengers is now roughly in sync with when some analysts expect commercial aviation to return to 2019 levels of demand. With public transport currently less enticing than ever and an accelerated transition to remote working changing the way we all look at commuting - perhaps electric flying taxis will come along at just the right to to fit into a new, green and 'nodal normal' for travel and transport?