Uber considering Sydney for flying vehicle trial, as leadership turmoil rages on

Uber refers to its flying-car program as Uber Elevate, and it could soon be ferrying Sydney residents around. Phoito: Uber
Uber refers to its flying-car program as Uber Elevate, and it could soon be ferrying Sydney residents around. Phoito: Uber

Sydney is in line to be among a small group of cities selected by US ride-sharing giant Uber to be part of a futuristic trial of flying vehicles, as the company starts laying the ground work to make short-distance urban air transportation a reality by 2023.

The ride-sharing company released a white paper on how to fast forward on-demand urban air transportation in October last year, in a plan that would involve it developing aircraft that can take off and land vertically for city use.

In April it announced it had teamed up with Bell Helicopters, Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer, and Mooney to build the vehicles and the necessary infrastructure to support and power them. Now one of the company's most senior executives says traffic nightmares endured by Sydneysiders makes the harbour city an ideal option for early development.

"The New South Wales government is very excited about cracking transportation problems in innovative ways and Sydney certainly has a traffic issue," Uber's chief product officer Jeff Holden told The Australian Financial Review while visiting Sydney.

A Joby S2 concept VTOL from Uber's flying cars plan. Jeff Holden says they would take off from 'vertiports' on the outskirts of cities.
Photo: Uber

A Joby S2 concept VTOL from Uber's flying cars plan. Jeff Holden says they would take off from 'vertiports' on the outskirts of cities. Photo: Uber

"We have a rigorous framework [for selection] and we look at how much the city needs it. We're looking for congested cities that have a particular geographic pattern that lends itself to it. In urban aviation you have an aircraft that can travel about 60 miles at 150 to 200 miles per hour, they have to be very quiet, energy efficient and they need to take off and land from vertiports on the outskirts of the city.

"We have no bias in terms of geographic location and it doesn't need to be near the US. Sydney is a clear option." 

Rather than looking like a flying car, the early vehicle sketches look more like an elongated helicopter with multiple small propellers.  

The "vertiports" will be hubs with multiple takeoff and landing pads for the flying electric vehicles where commuters will be able to board short flights to other parts of the city. 

Uber has been trialling self-driving cars. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Uber has been trialling self-driving cars. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

A-team executive

Mr Holden joined Uber in 2014 having previously started and sold his business Pelago to Groupon and also worked closely alongside Amazon chief Jeff Bezos for nine years.

He is considered as one of Uber's A-team execs and as well as being its top product boss, he is leading the Uber Elevate team working on the flying vehicles. He also spearheaded the company's push into self-driving cars.

"We looked at all the barriers to doing it [producing a flying vehicle] and we used the helicopter as our starting point. We realised why they didn't work – it was the noise, safety issues and efficiency – so we needed a new type of vehicle," he said.

"That showed us the path and galvanised the aviation community because a) it now seemed believable and b) they believed if Uber was behind it, there will be hundreds of millions of active users by the time it launches, which is a huge demand."

Uber has already committed to trials of the flying vehicles in Texas and Dubai in 2020 and while it is not responsible for building the aircraft, it has supplied manufacturers with the requirements for the vehicles and is working with government and regulatory bodies to make this futuristic vision a reality.

Once the program is at scale, Uber believes the cost of a flight for consumers will be similar to the price of UberX today, with a longer term goal of making it more economically efficient than owning a car.

Autonomous cars

While for now they're still a thing of the future, Mr Holden said Uber was tracking well in its trials of self-driving cars. This is despite the company being forced to move its autonomous fleet from San Francisco to Phoenix late last year after the Californian department of motor vehicles revoked the registration of 16 of its cars.

It also has a trial running in Pittsburgh. 

The registrations were revoked after multiple cars were caught running red lights, but at the time Uber blamed human error. 

At this stage all of Uber's self-driving cars have a human driver in the seat who can opt to take control, or step in when prompted in conditions such as bad weather.

"At this point human intervention in the rides is quite infrequent. Usually it's the driver choosing to intervene, rather than it needing a human to," Mr Holden said.

"We're focused on the urban centre. We feel like we have to solve that problem in order for it to become legitimate, unlike auto manufacturers who are looking at highway autopilots."

In March there was an accident involving one of Uber's self-driving cars in Arizona when a second car controlled by a person "failed to yield" to the Uber vehicle making a turn.

Leadership turmoil

While Uber continues to push ahead with its bold tech visions, the company itself has gone through a period of turmoil spurred by issues such as sexual harassment within the organisation and its leadership.

Co-founder Travis Kalanick was forced by investors to resign from the chief executive position in June following a string of other executive resignations and is now under pressure from one of the company's biggest investors Benchmark Capital to resign from the board, or be forced out.

On Friday, Benchmark filed to sue Mr Kalanick on claims of fraud, breach of fiduciary duties and breach of contract.

The lawsuit centres on a June 2016 decision to expand the Uber board by three positions to 11 seats, one of which has been filled by Mr Kalanick.

The company alleges that Mr Kalanick has been trying to control the remaining two vacant positions to fill the board with his allies in an effort to protect him from scrutiny and clear the way for an eventual return to the CEO role.

Mr Holden said the cultural problems at the company had come about thanks to its period of hyper growth, a lack of management training and a willingness to turn a blind eye to poor behaviour.

"Success paves over management mistakes and you build up a debt," he said.

"The cultural intent is very strong and we've built a really durable fabric to it, but there are small pockets of challenges where people who haven't been managers before didn't get training because we've grown so fast.

"We have work to clean up the debt we've created from going through extreme hyper growth, but I feel good that it's solvable and we'll come out the other side a better, stronger company."

Losses start to narrow

Uber has also been criticised this year for its huge losses. In April it took the unusual step for a private company of disclosing its fourth quarter and full year 2016 financials, showing net revenue had jumped to $US6.5 billion, but its net loss had hit $US2.8 billion, excluding China.

But Mr Holden said losses are starting to narrow while growth continues strongly.

"We had a great first quarter... Gross bookings are up, net revenue is up, and our losses are narrowing significantly. The narrowing of our losses in the first quarter puts us on a good trajectory towards profitability," he said.

afr.com