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An artist’s conception shows an electric-powered VTOL aircraft taking off from a vertiport on the roof of an office building. (Uber Illustration)

Uber has been talking about flying cars for months, but today the ride-sharing company fleshed out its plan to become a flight-sharing company in 2020.

“We actually get to live in this era of flying cars,” Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, said today at the first-ever Uber Elevate Summit in Dallas. “I hate that term, by the way, but we’ll have to live with it.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth region in Texas and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates have been targeted as the pilot cities for the Uber Elevate Network, Holden said. Eventually, the company sees urban aviation as a service that can roll out to the hundreds of cities that Uber serves around the world.

UberAir service could reduce the time required to get between San Jose in California’s Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Marina from two hours to 15 minutes, Holden said. The network also could be designed to pick up passengers at stops along the way during what he called “multi-mobile trips.”

“We think we can start this for roughly the cost of UberX,” he said, referring to the company’s low-cost ride-sharing service. That’s based on an estimated $1.32 cost per passenger mile for early-scale operations, with the cost falling below the variable costs of owning a car over the long term, he said.

“When you sanity-check that, you say, ‘Why is this possible?'” Holden said. “It’s possible because we’re radically changing the type of aircraft we’re talking about here, and we’re doing it at mass scale.”

He said UberAir would require the creation of new types of vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft that rely on electric propulsion to reduce the cost, noise and inefficiency associated with helicopters. He announced an array of partners to develop those eVTOL aircraft, including Bell Helicopter, Embraer, Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel and Mooney International.

“Each of them brings something specific that we think is very powerful to maximize the ability to rapidly develop and deliver these to market,” Holden said.

Aurora said it conducted the first test flight of its eVTOL subscale prototype last week, and plans to deliver 50 aircraft to Uber for testing by 2020.

The first-generation eVTOLs are likely to be piloted, and powered by a hybrid electric system. But Holden said that as battery technology and autonomous control systems mature, the aircraft could become all-electric, autonomous air taxis.

Uber is targeting the 2020 Dubai Air Show for a demonstration of the aviation network, and working with partners in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to create an urban air network in the same time frame.

A graphic shown during the Uber Elevate Summit shows the first five hubs anticipated for Dallas-Fort Worth and for Dubai. The Texas hubs are located at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and in the vicinity of downtown Dallas, downtown Fort Worth, UT-Dallas and the city of Frisco. (Uber via YouTube)

“Imagine literally landing at an airport, taking like an air train or just walking to another aircraft, getting on and landing at your final destination in minutes,” Holden said. “This is what we’re bringing to Dallas.”

Within the next year, Fort Worth-based Hillwood Properties will start developing vertical-takeoff airports – better known as vertiports – at four locations including Hillwood’s development in Frisco, a Texas city located between Dallas and Fort Worth, Holden said.

Uber is also partnering with ChargePoint to develop electric charging stations for the eVTOL aircraft.

“The race is on,” Holden said. “It’s a sprint in Dallas and Dubai to get to scale.”

He said computer models suggest the aviation network could get on the order of 200,000 trips per day in the two cities.

“That’s a material impact to moving people around in a city, and doing it in a way that’s just like a fantasy,” Holden said. “You’re up over the top of your city. It’s a dream to be flying over your city. … I’m being a little overexcited, maybe, if you can’t tell. Our modeling has told us that this is all very doable.”

Some aviation industry analysts are skeptical that new-technology aircraft will get anywhere soon. Nevertheless, flying-car schemes have been on an upswing lately.

In just the past week, Kitty Hawk unveiled its first working prototype for a personal aircraft that flies over water, and Lilium took the wraps off an eVTOL craft that it’s testing in Germany. The list of companies testing small-scale aircraft also includes Airbus, Joby Aviation, Terrafugia, E-volo, Ehang and AeroMobil.

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