Uber is confident that its eVTOL air taxis will have near-term operating costs of around $700 per flight hour, at least 35 percent less than a comparably utilized single-engine helicopter.
Mark Moore, director of engineering for vehicle systems, walked through the company’s cost estimates on June 12 at the Uber Elevate Summit in Washington, D.C. The third annual summit brought together major players in the eVTOL space to continue advancing Uber’s vision for large-scale aeromobility.
According to Moore, eVTOL aircraft offer “fantastic” savings in maintenance and energy costs, which are the two largest cost drivers for helicopters. Keeping hourly operating costs to $700 or less will be key to Uber’s vision of making rides on Uber Air affordable for the masses — competitive with the price of an Uber X or Uber Pool ride today. That’s a goal that Moore described as “very realistic.”
As a baseline for comparison, Moore used the Bell 407GXi, a light single-engine helicopter similar in size to many of the eVTOL concepts now in development. Including the costs of a pilot, depreciation, insurance, and heliport infrastructure and operations, Uber estimates that the average 407GXi flying 700 hours per year has an operating cost of $1,831 per flight hour. If that helicopter were to fly 2,000 hours per year — a common target for eVTOL air taxis — that hourly cost would fall to $1,253, Moore said.
Of that figure, $477 can be attributed to maintenance costs and $276 to the cost of energy, which for the 407GXi is jet fuel. The maintenance estimate includes a 1.25 multiplier as an “idling penalty,” reflecting the need for helicopters in high-utilization applications like tourism to remain idling while passengers are loaded and unloaded.
Not only can electric motors be started and stopped almost instantaneously, eliminating the need to idle, the costs to maintain and replace them are much lower than for a turbine engine. Other critical parts that drive up maintenance costs on helicopters are likewise eliminated on eVTOL aircraft. Uber estimates that total hourly maintenance costs on its eVTOL air taxis will be just $112 per flight hour.
“A lot of that is getting rid of that part criticality,” Moore emphasized. “They don’t have to have as frequent inspections [as helicopters].”
Uber expects direct energy costs for its air taxis to come in at just $21 per flight hour. However, the company also anticipates that certified aerospace-grade batteries will cost 4.1 times as much as automotive batteries. “You’ve got to be honest — these batteries are expensive; you’ve got to amortize them as part of the cost,” Moore said. Uber estimates that amortized battery cost will be $76 to $90 per flight hour, assuming a battery salvage value of $50 per kilowatt hour.
What about pilots? Uber wants its air taxis to eventually fly autonomously, but expects to need certified pilots in the near term — specifically, 3.1 pilots per vehicle, factoring in training and vacation time. Despite the worsening pilot shortage in the helicopter industry and the airlines, the company thinks it can attract pilots from both sectors at an annual expense of $110,000 per pilot, including payroll taxes, benefits, and training.
“We’ve done many surveys; one thing pilots really like . . . is the 40-hour-per-week job and staying in the same city. That’s not what’s offered by many of these other companies,” Moore said. Uber is also working toward a simplified vehicle operation framework that would make it easier to recruit pilots from outside the aviation industry.
As for acquisition costs, Moore noted that conventional helicopters have exceptionally high acquisition costs per pound of empty weight: $700 to $1,100, which is comparable to the figures for commercial jets ($900 to $1,100) and much higher than those for general aviation (GA) airplanes ($200 to $300). This is due in part to very low production rates (Uber estimates that only 1,367 helicopters are produced annually, along with 2,262 GA airplanes and 1,641 commercial jets).
In the early stages of eVTOL manufacturing, high development costs will be amortized over several years of low-rate production, yielding acquisition costs in line with those of light aircraft today.
“As we get to 10,000 units per year, which we think is very reasonable by 2030, and we get those economies of scale; high-volume production of these non-critical components — that’s when we can get that cost savings and get these vehicles under $1 million a piece,” he said.