Uber Air, a part of Uber Elevate, is the San Francisco-based giant’s foray into aggregating flying taxis. Pilots have been announced for Dallas and Los Angeles in the next couple of years. These flying machines seem as futuristic as an urban commute can get, and yet they’re very nearly here. To find out more about, we caught up with Eric Allison, Head of Uber Aviation Programs, on his plans and strategy for Uber Air, on the sidelines of the first Global Summit of the Future of Mobility in New Delhi.
On Thursday, in New Delhi, Eric Allison, Head of Uber Aviation Programs, spoke about the future of mobility. Prior to joining Uber, Eric was the CEO of Zee.Aero, an air taxi company.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
YourStory: After being the CEO for Zee.Aero, how would you define the ride-hailing and flying taxi space to have evolved?
Eric Allison: It has been an amazing journey for me to watch this industry grow in the past eight-and-a-half years. From a point of being a stuff of sci-fi, it now seems like an inevitable part of the future. It is an enormous change and is super exciting too. There are still technological challenges, the batteries are never good enough as we want them to be. But it is something we can overcome soon.
YS: How has flying cars technology emerged and grown?
EA: A flying car isn’t something you can fold into a suitcase like George Jetson from the Jetsons. The idea of shared mobility, of not owning an asset - whether it is a ground asset or an air asset, is an important part of that magic that makes science fiction a reality along with technology. Today, there is a possibility of being able to deploy it at scale.
The realisation came to me a couple of years ago. I have been focusing on vehicle technology pretty closely, but watching what Uber did with ride sharing is fascinating.
YS: What is your plan for Uber Elevate to take it off ground?
EA: Uber Elevate has taken a partner-heavy approach. This is too big a thing for a single company to do. It is too much investment and thus it makes sense to work with partnerships. We believe this is a big industry that is forming, and there will be demand. The investments made from the partners, vehicles and by us will all be justified.
India is a country we can start and launch from, and we are looking at a city-based approach. We are taking a measured approach and we have started meeting legislators and are starting to understand the land. We’ve done enough preliminary research to understand that the potential fits to our core business.
But now, we are starting to dig in. We want to understand how the pathway in these different cities looks like. To understand the roadblocks and pathways, we are looking to understand the way to solve those roadblocks in the given timeframe, and work with partners in the official regulatory side.
YS: Why does the approach look different and very measured unlike Uber’s modus operandi?
EA: Every new modality, every new innovation demands a different approach.
The surest way for something to fail is they build an Uber of something else. Because that something else probably demands a different approach. And you have to be an adaptive organisation to realise that new solutions need new approaches.
You see us doing that around the world. For example, Jump has been very important to us because they have built great relationships with cities. That demands a different approach. We are approaching air in a different way. We are dividing our approach based on what we intend to achieve, regardless of our other approaches.
YS: How do you look at pricing and costs?
EA: We have looked at costs very carefully and more so in the US. We have what we think is reasonable progression of cost introduction targets, based on capabilities and technology. At the moment, it is at a US context, in a seat and miles basis, but we are looking to take those models into an Indian context. The costs here will be significantly lower.
It’s similar to UberX in India which is not the same as the US and it’s cheaper here. We have also taken a hyperlocal approach to product specific focus, which are engineered to this market. Our goal for this is to be a mass market product. It will take a while to get there, but we are aiming at it. And if we can serve even 50 percent of the market, it’s a huge shift. The ability to work in the Indian context is compelling.
Uber Air will be a big player in the future of mobility. The idea to use air for ride-sharing is compelling. Congestion is getting bad to worse. Urbanisation is the driver of economic growth, but if we grind it to a halt because of mobility, it’s a problem. Uber Air will solve that.