Houston Roman Slavik

Urban developers and planners are rethinking design to incorporate new transportation, like autonomous vehicles and the HyperLoop. But, what to do with UberAir? How will this translate to urban design?

Self-driving and electric flying cars are coming. What this means for our cities in the future is unclear, so I chatted with Uber Head of Policy of Autonomous Vehicles and Urban Aviation Justin Erlich to learn more.

Erlich previously worked under Attorney General Kamala Harris, where he focused on emerging technology and the key policies that the government will want to have in place to ensure technology helps the people of California. During his time, autonomous vehicles were becoming more and more exciting, he said.

“And then there were things emerging with drones and the potential for air travel with people,” Erlich told me on this week’s episode of CTRL+T. “Then I came across this amazing role at Uber where it basically was looking to have someone lead policy for all advanced and emerging tech.”

As head of policy for that division, Erlich oversees essentially everything that’s not Uber’s main ride-hailing division. That includes self-driving cars, the division of Uber that had a major win in court yesterday following a settlement with Alphabet’s Waymo. Erlich is also in charge of policy for drones, freight and VTOL (vertical take off and landing).

The idea with Uber’s air travel, which may be referred to as UberAir, is to cover trips from one point of density to another, Erlich explained to me. The plan for now is to cover no more than 60 miles, which is due to the current limitations of batteries.

To get in your UberAir, you could enter in your destination and then the Uber app would tell you where the closest skyport is located. Then, you’d catch your UberAir to another place that is somewhat close to your final destination.

There are a couple of classic use cases, Erlich said. One is for super-commuting, like going from San Francisco to downtown San Jose. Instead of driving yourself, taking Caltrain or paying a bunch of money for an Uber car to take you all that way, you could hop in an UberAir, which would be a lot faster. Another use case is navigating in Los Angeles, which is a notoriously traffic-heavy city, from the airport to East Los Angeles.

Unlike Uber’s standard offering, UberAir will ideally be a totally shared experience. Part of that has to do with ensuring that the cost of UberAir will be affordable, Erlich said, and comparable to the prices Uber riders are already used to.

“Our hope and belief is that the time savings that you will get through air travel will incentivize people who might otherwise be used to the privacy of their own rides [being game] to share rides,” Erlich said. “If you ask about what’s the future of mobility — like when we have all these people wanting to move — we can think of these as packets of people and things moving in these really dense city areas. Everything will probably need to look like some form of fleets that are run by folks like Uber that are pooled with people sharing rides that are electric and eventually autonomous. I think that’s the sort of vision that we’re working towards both on the ground and in the air. And I think shared rides is a huge part of that.”

Part helicopter, part plane
Uber’s flying cars are a hybrid between a helicopter and an airplane, Erlich explained to me. I’m really pushing for the “flying car” terminology, but Erlich says it’s misleading and that we need to come up with a better way to describe them.

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