A year ago, Uber announced that Dallas would be the test ground for a new ride-hailing service that could allow customers to travel through the skies to work, home or a night out, thousands of feet above congested highways.
The tech company and its local partners have pushed ahead since then to make air taxis a reality.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco-based company unveiled the latest prototype and design specifications for aircraft manufacturers that build the four-person flying taxis. The flying taxis — called electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft or eVTOLs — would be similar in size to helicopters, but quieter and more energy-efficient. They would be flown by a pilot, powered by an electric battery and available in dense urban areas.
Customers would request the flight through the Uber app.
In its new guidelines, Uber said the flying taxis will travel between 150 and 200 miles per hour and at a cruising altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the ground. That's much slower and lower to the ground than commercial flights, which cruise around 500 mph at 35,000 feet. It also set a goal for vehicles to fly 60 miles on a single charge.
Back in Texas, Bell is working to build the eVTOLs. Dallas-based real estate developer Hillwood Properties plans to break ground on the first vertiport, a mini-airport where the flying taxis would take off and land, in Frisco.
Uber aims to begin flight demonstrations in Dallas-Fort Worth in 2020 and start commercial service by 2023. It gave the latest updates on the project at a two-day conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday and Wednesday. Its first annual summit was in Dallas in 2017.
Uber has announced two other test markets for the flights: Los Angeles and Dubai.
Uber has put together a team of specialists to work on the project. It hired Mark Moore, a veteran engineer for NASA, to be its director of engineering, and Celina Mikolajczak, a lead battery expert for Tesla, to focus on developing electric batteries for the eVTOLs. It tapped aircraft companies, including Bell, Brazil-based Embraer and Boeing-owned Aurora Flight Sciences, to develop and manufacture eVTOLs that could be used for the service.
Uber announced Tuesday that it will collaborate with NASA, an existing partner, to run simulations of the small aircraft flying in Dallas-Fort Worth airspace during peak times for air traffic. NASA will do the computer modeling and simulations at a research facility at DFW International Airport to identify safety issues and set industry standards.
At the Uber Elevate Summit, Uber Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden told the audience that the company has four major challenges as its prepares to take flight: operating safely and at scale, managing airspace as it becomes more heavily-trafficked, developing long-lasting electric batteries and working with manufacturers to build the vehicles. But he said the company is on track to launch its demonstration flights in 2020.
Uber plans to make the air taxis affordable, with the help of technology and widespread adoption. Eric Allison, Uber's head of aviation, said the electric aircraft will be less expensive than helicopters to maintain and operate.
When Uber launches the service, he said it will cost about $5.73 per passenger mile to operate — so prices to customers would be similar to Uber Black, the company’s high-end car service. The company will drive down costs by using software to operate efficiently and make sure each flight is full. In the near-term, that would lower the cost to $1.84 per passenger mile — so rides would cost about what UberX does — and in the long-term, it would drop to $0.44 per passenger mile, he said.
An overgrown field in Frisco will be the first vertiport in the Dallas area. Construction is expected to begin this fall, but don't expect to see flying taxis yet, Hillwood Properties President Michael Berry said. He said helicopters will initially test the network, which will have connection points in Frisco Station, DFW International Airport, Fort Worth Alliance Airport, downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth.
The first vertiport will be on the ground in Frisco Station, a development of offices, apartments, retail and a park that neighbors The Star, the home of the Dallas Cowboys. Later, they will be built on the rooftops of buildings and parking garages.
Uber and Dallas developer Hillwood are working together to identify the best locations for the vertiports, said Moore, Uber's director of engineering. He said they have looked for noisy places, such as sites near freeways. They recorded frequency and decibel levels of the soundscapes, so that manufacturers can try to develop aircraft that mimic them.
Hillwood and Uber have also discussed basic specifications for the vertiports. They will have a loading area where passengers get dropped off and picked up by Uber cars, charging stations for the electric batteries, passenger lounges and security areas.
When he first heard of Uber's idea, Berry said he was skeptical. But he became convinced when he saw major aircraft companies spending millions of dollars to develop the flying taxis.
In London and New York City, people pay more for condos near the subway. In the future, he said, vertiports will be the desirable transit hubs that drive up real estate prices.
And Hillwood sees another potential business opportunity, too. It'd like companies that make electric batteries, propellers and aircraft to move to Fort Worth Alliance Airport, which is managed and operated by Hillwood.
“Our corporate philosophy is all built toward the next big idea,” Berry said. “No idea is too crazy. We want to be involved with things that are outside of the box.”
Michael Thacker, Bell's executive vice president for technology and innovation, said one of the project's challenges will be persuading the public to trust the futuristic mode of transportation. Bell has taken a simulation of the air taxi to trade shows and set it up for its own employees at its Fort Worth headquarters.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, attendees of Uber Elevate's Summit could try it out in L.A.
"The idea is to give people as realistic of an experience as we can to understand how aviation could become a part of their everyday life," he said.
The simulation walks participants through each step of being a passenger: They check in for a flight on a tablet. They step into a room that simulates an elevator with windows that flash scenes of the outside as they "ride" up to the rooftop. Then, they take a seat in a prototype of the aircraft and put on a virtual reality headset to "fly" above a city.
Bell has decades of experience building aircraft used by the military and industries, such as oil and gas. But Thacker said it's been a different experience to design for customers, many of whom have never flown in a helicopter.
He said he expects early adopters to be frequent aviation users, business travelers and people who take the flying taxis for a special trip, such as flying to the airport for a honeymoon — similar to the way people spring for a limo for an occasion.
“We have the opportunity to fundamentally change transportation, mobility and aviation,” he said. “It isn’t just another aircraft, but a different way of flying.”