Uber will be launching a multi-million dollar community engagement plan this year to prepare for the start of Uber Air services in 2023.
Speaking at the Vertical Flight Society’s Transformative Vertical Flight meeting in San Jose, California, on Jan. 21, Uber’s engineering director for aircraft systems, Mark Moore, said that noise will be a key focus of the plan, which will leverage lessons learned from previous community engagement efforts by airports.
“The thing that jumps out in these lessons learned is: Never surprise the community that you’re trying to go into. Give them plenty of time and data and understanding of what you’re trying to do so they can buy into it,” Moore said.
“That’s why we’ve got to be three years ahead with our community engagement plan to socialize that these vehicles are quiet, how quiet they are, and how they’ll be operating and that they will be a good neighbor.”
Through its Elevate initiative, Uber is aiming to debut urban air taxi services in three launch cities — Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, Australia — using clean, quiet eVTOL aircraft. The company has now named eight vehicle partners, one of which, Joby, has committed to having aircraft ready by the target date of 2023.
“It is not hype at all. These are very real vehicles,” Moore said, referencing Jan. 13 comments by Jay Merkle, executive director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Office, that at least six urban air mobility aircraft are well along in their type certification.
In the same remarks, Merkle highlighted the importance of community engagement and acceptance in the context of UAS, noting that “if you don’t engage the public with a robust program, then they tend to make up their own answers as to what you are doing or what you are not doing, and how it benefits them or how it doesn’t benefit them.”
In San Jose, Moore said that Uber “completely agrees” with Merkle’s sentiments and is now “spooling up a multi-million dollar community engagement plan, which starts this year and carries all the way to our introduction of service in 2023.”
The plan has several elements, he said. First, Uber is taking the background noise data it has collected in its launch cities and integrating it into the simulation tools it is using to plan routes and skyport locations. The goal, he said, is to ensure that Uber Air operations don’t increase Leq — equivalent continuous sound level, a measure of background noise — by more than 1.5 decibels.
“It’s not just about the noise at take-off and landing with the skyports — flyover noise is just as important,” he noted, adding that Uber has a decided preference for winged eVTOLs over wingless multicopters.
“If you stay in powered lift during that entire cruise, you will not be able to have a good overflight noise signature, almost certainly,” Moore said. “Getting onto that wing gets you to a very, very low noise overflight at an altitude such as 1,000 feet, which makes sense for these short urban trips.”
Uber will also be stepping up its “socializing” efforts, conducting outreach to explain how and why eVTOL air taxis will be quieter than helicopters (at least 15 dB quieter, under Uber’s targets). The company is also working with the FAA and other stakeholders to develop a new noise metric that is more suitable for urban air mobility operations, “so that we can have a much better understanding of what is a true annoyance and how to avoid it,” Moore said.
Moore will be discussing these efforts further at The ((Quiet)) Electric VTOL Revolution, a Vertical Flight Society panel at HAI Heli-Expo 2020 sponsored by eVTOL.com and Vertical Magazine. The panel will also feature Ben Goldman of Joby Aviation, Pamela Cohn of Hyundai Motor Group, Juliet Page of the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, and Jim Sherman of VFS.
Moore acknowledged that Uber’s emphasis on being a good neighbor isn’t purely altruistic — rather, it is essential to the company’s high-volume business model.
“If you have a noisy vehicle, you’re going to do way less trips,” he said. “And if you do way less trips, it’s going to be much more expensive because you can’t amortize those vehicles effectively. So very much from day one we understood the noise of that vehicle is tightly coupled to the economics that that vehicle can achieve.”
Elevate Summit will happen
In the same session on Jan. 21, Moore confirmed that Uber will be holding a fourth annual Elevate Summit this year, although the company is not yet prepared to reveal the date or location.
“The Elevate Summit is such a cool event,” he said, teasing that it may coincide with long-promised eVTOL flight demonstrations in 2020. “We are working with our partners to try to see how we can blend that type of experience with the vehicles with all of the magic that happens at the summit.”
Moore also indicated that while Uber does not intend to operate aircraft itself, the company is actively working with flight training companies and the military to prepare to meet its demand for pilots. He suggested that Uber is particularly interested in recruiting military tiltrotor pilots, whose skills have been under-utilized in the civilian world due to a lack of commercial tiltrotors.
Longer term, he said, the creation of a simplified vehicle operation certificate for easy-to-fly eVTOL aircraft should further increase the pool of potential pilots. “We all have to thank what the F-35 has done with the unified control system,” he said. “It is the basis for essentially every one of these stabilized digital fly-by-wire aircraft that are out there, and they are very intuitive.”
Moore also praised the FAA for being a “fantastic partner” to Uber, contrasting the agency’s current flexibility with the more prescriptive approach embodied in the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA’s) Special Condition for Small-Category VTOL Aircraft. He specifically took issue with EASA’s redundancy requirements, which he suggested are premature at this early stage of the industry.
“We are committed to the highest level of actual safety that’s possible, and that means much more than just slapping on a 10-9 number on the functional level of safety of the vehicle,” he said. “We need to get to actual levels of safety that [are] equivalent to commercial transports. And you can’t do that by just looking at the vehicle, because the vehicle is only responsible for about 10% of the failures. You’ve got to take a holistic view on safety that embraces the operations.”