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Uber air taxi boarding
An illustrative video clip shows a passenger preparing to board a future Uber air taxi. (Uber via YouTube)

Thanks to a lift from NASA, Uber says it’ll be testing its flying-car prototypes in Los Angeles as well as Dubai and Dallas-Fort Worth in 2020.

The UberAir transport system will take advantage of the unmanned aerial vehicle traffic management system, or UTM, which is being developed by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and other partners.

Uber and NASA have signed a Space Act Agreement to formalize their partnership, Jeff Holden, Uber Technologies’ chief product officer, said today at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal.

“We need a foundational reboot of the airspace system,” Holden said. “With NASA’s cooperation, we’ll work with the FAA, airports, we’ll be able to actually introduce this quickly and grow it into a completely new, very autonomous air transport system.”

Former NASA official Mark Moore will help lead the effort as Uber’s director of engineering for aviation. The Space Act Agreement involves transfer of expertise, but no transfer of funds.

Holden unveiled Uber’s plan for doing “ride sharing in the sky” six and a half months ago. Back then, he singled out the Dallas area in Texas and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as the first test beds. Today, he added Los Angeles to the mix.

“We’re allowing air taxis to move from the Hollywood movie sets to the L.A. skies,” Holden said.

He noted that the original “Blade Runner” movie showed air taxis flying around Los Angeles in a fictional 2019. ” ‘Blade Runner’ was only off by one year, which is pretty impressive for a 1982 prediction,” Holden joked.

UberAir’s 2020 plan calls for setting up “skyports” at Los Angeles International Airport, downtown L.A., Santa Monica and Sherman Oaks. Holden said Uber was partnering with L.A.-based Sandstone Properties to build the skyports.

A graphic displayed at the summit suggested that a trip in an air taxi from LAX to the downtown Staples Center would take 27 minutes, compared with 80 minutes for an UberX ride.

UberAir flight
A graphic shows a hypothetical flight path for a trip from LAX to Staples Center. (Uber via Facebook)

The prototype that Holden showed off in a computer-generated video clip would use a distributed electric-propulsion system and provide four passenger seats. “This all-electric bad boy flies 150 to 200 miles an hour,” he said. “It ranges up to 60 miles on a single battery charge.”

Once passengers arrive at a skyport, they would hook up with an Uber ground vehicle to get to their final destination.

How much will all this cost? “Our target, and this is ambitious but I think it’s very achievable, is to make this less expensive than driving your own car,” Holden said. He said advanced manufacturing techniques and efficiencies of scale would contribute to bringing the price down.

Holden said the air taxis would be provided by several manufacturing partners — including Aurora Flight Sciences, which has just been acquired by the Boeing Co.

Holden saw Boeing’s acquisition, which was announced last month, as a positive sign for Uber’s plan. “This brings billions of dollars of potential investment capital into the industry,” he said.

There are several other players in the nascent flying-car market. Boeing’s European archrival, Airbus, is developing a self-piloted aerial vehicle called Vahana. Vahana’s hardware has been shipped to Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton for flight testing in the weeks ahead.

Other ventures testing flying cars include Terrafugia, China’s EHang, Switzerland’s Passenger Drone, Germany’s Volocopter and Lilium, Slovakia’s AeroMobil, Japan’s Cartivator Project — and Kitty Hawk, a California company that’s backed by Google co-founder Larry Page.

Not everyone is sold on flying cars: Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, has said “it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution.”

Instead, Musk is funding a venture called The Boring Company that aims to short-circuit traffic congestion in Los Angeles and other areas by building underground tunnels through which cars can be transported.

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