Five Key Questions Post Uber Elevate Summit

As thought leaders in the complex, competitive, and highly technical world of mobility, The Stone Agency is helping leaders in both the public and private sectors cast a vision and bring to market the future of 3-dimensional transport—moving people and things in new ways.

We were honored to be invited to the 2019 Uber Elevate Summit. The third annual event held this year in Washington, D.C. hosted urban air mobility trailblazers, experts, and partners from across the globe. And Uber didn’t disappoint with its progress in on-demand aviation buoyed from their leadership position in the rideshare space.

“Today, the ever-elusive flying car future we have all envisioned is one step closer.”—Nikhil Goel, Head of Product at Uber Elevate and emcee for the 2019 Uber Elevate Summit.

Over the course of two days, powerful keynote speakers and panels shared everything from breaking announcements about innovative partnerships to proposals for new mobility hubs, Skyports and more. Reflecting on the updates that illustrate how quickly we are moving from far-out ideas to real-life options, here are our top five thought-provoking questions following the Uber Elevate Summit 2019:

1. How Different is Air Safety?

In the race toward smarter mobility, concerns about personal safety are paramount. Operational and economic efficiencies are key but bringing these innovations to market safely impacts everything from consumer acceptance to regulation and was a focus at the Summit. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is challenged to “craft new rules that support more complex low-altitude operations” while they have not yet sanctioned widespread drone use. It will take time to integrate new technologies with existing airspace regulations.  

The FAA is making strides to ensure public safety in this rapidly emerging field. In 2017, it launched its Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP) to bring “state, local, and tribal governments together with private sector entities, such as UAS operators or manufacturers, to accelerate safe drone integration.”

The FAA has selected 10 participants for IPP, including the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT). Fittingly, the First in Flight state is working with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) delivery companies such as Zipline, Matternet, and Flytrex to create a network of distribution centers that deploy drones to make medical deliveries. “Blood and other supplies currently travel by courier to hospitals and testing facilities. With drones, medical providers would get the test results and supplies they need much faster,” an agency press release notes.

The NCDOT’s goals for the IPP are:

  • To foster a meaningful dialogue on the balance of local and national interests related to unmanned aircraft systems.
  • To provide useful data to the U.S. Department of Transportation for expanding and implementing unmanned aircraft systems into the National Airspace System.

The FAA IPP drone delivery systems, such as Matternet Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Wing Aviation, will provide case studies that allow regulators to take safety data and apply it to all types of transportation modes and vehicles on a continuous feedback loop for further safety enhancements.

2. Where are the Opportunities for Improvement on Existing Vehicles?

An average of 10,000 riders per day take an Uber from JFK Airport to Manhattan and vice versa. With traffic, the ride can take up to two hours some days. Enter Uber Copter, which has the potential to take an hour off this trip. Uber Copter was introduced as the first consumer manifestation of Uber Air. These aircraft are already being built and flights will start as early as next month in New York.

At the Summit Uber also introduced new versions of its current electric products with the 5.8 JUMP bike that allows for a push-button swap of the battery and the Scooter v2 that is more durable and easier to ride than prior models. Both are major components of Uber’s New Mobility movement, that identifies, tests, and scales the next generation of businesses. Electric modes of transportation are changing the way we travel in all corners of the world, especially in cities like Raleigh and Durham that have been ranked high for quality of life.

Demand for a variety of transportation methods is growing in and around the places people most want to live, work, and play, but change is not without growing pains.

Raleigh specifically is no stranger to the debates surrounding e-bike and e-scooter rules with the recent announcement that Bird and Lime are exiting the market citing burdensome regulations, and Gotcha Mobility and others filling in the void and taking over locally. With many U.S. cities lacking light rails, metros and subways, it is crucial that we adapt and embrace new modes of transportation.

While Uber is a progressive innovator, there are other players getting creative. Now, UPS is expanding its mastery of logistics beyond providing truck or plane delivery services and is also moving into low-altitude methods of delivery via drones. Also, traditional aircraft manufacturers are racing to develop urban air vehicles, expanding their commercial offerings. 

Urban aircraft manufacturers looking to rise above (pun intended) must tackle engineering, safety, certification and business hurdles to compete and win in this crowded space. Fortunately, progress over the last decade interconnecting the physical and virtual (autonomous cars, sensors, batteries) have allowed developers and manufacturers to coordinate their efforts and avoid handling roadblocks on their own.

3. Some Partnerships are in Place, But What Other Industries Need to Join In?

During the Summit, Uber and AT&T announced their partnership, which aims to “Boost Uber’s Commercial Air Service Planned for 2023.” Connectivity is a crucial component to the success of eVTOL vehicles and drones and is the key to integrating machines with their programming and commands. Without connectivity, none of this new technology will work, so leaders must prioritize the worldwide 5G race.

Uber also announced its new eVTOL partner, Jaunt Air Mobility. Uber Elevate Director of Engineering Mark Moore said, “Jaunt Air Mobility has assembled a highly talented team of experienced engineers with a long history of designing and certifying eVTOL vehicles. Martin Peryea, Jaunt’s chief technology officer, has led many helicopter development programs as a chief engineer and brings invaluable insights to developing low noise, reliable, and safe aircraft.” We’ll likely see more of these manufacturer and mobility partnerships as other industry players integrate with valuable affiliates.  

Uber also introduced Signature Flight Support, which is Uber Elevate’s Operations and Infrastructure partner in the building of Skyports. We caught a glimpse of what future cities will look like when it comes to infrastructure.

Now is the time to forge valuable partnerships—not only within the mobility industry—but also with other less-obvious players in the ecosystem such as real estate, regulatory, and marketing. For example, it is possible that the best real estate investments could be foregoing garages and private parking spots for rooftop landing pads.

The complex planning, logistics, and technical framework required for successful urban air mobility necessitates cooperative relationships. The Stone Agency is currently exploring opportunities to address foundational needs, robust communication capabilities, and air traffic management in the quest to make urban air mobility a reality in North Carolina. We believe the only way national, regional and local opportunities will become realities is to have transparent alliances.

4. What Can Be Learned from Uber Air’s Pilot Cities?

Dallas and Los Angeles are Uber Air’s two main U.S. launch cities and it was announced at Uber Elevate that Melbourne, Australia will be the third pilot city to test fly Uber Air. After reviewing several major cities around the world, Uber leaders said they decided on Melbourne as the first international market for aerial ridesharing.

Susan Anderson, Regional General Manager for Uber in Australia, New Zealand and North Asia made the announcement: “Australian governments have adopted a forward-looking approach to ridesharing and future transport technology. This coupled with Melbourne’s unique demographic and geospatial factors, and culture of innovation and technology, makes Melbourne the perfect third launch city for Uber Air. We will see other Australian cities following soon after.”

Kate Fraser, Head of Public Policy for Uber Urban Aviation, shared the five key factors that influenced the decision:

  • Market economy viability
  • Environment (weather patterns)
  • Policy and regulations
  • Support at the local, state, and federal levels to help expedite the industry
  • A group business transportation network to tie into

But, how will these criteria expand as incoming data from test cities is recorded and analyzed? What else will be important as critical success factors?

Data patterns from test flights in these three cities will report not only the usage (how far, how fast, how often) and the purpose of the flights, but the safety of the flights, which will lead to more early adopters of urban air mobility products and services. And these learnings can be applied beyond big cities.

5. How Difficult Will It Be to Gain Consumer Trust?

According to a variety of experts at the Summit, the biggest hurdle in the industry will be public acceptance, and new technologies will never reach their full potential without it.

All stakeholders in the industry must work together for the betterment of the movement so that consumers will have an easier time accepting these revolutions and feel safe enough to utilize them.

The real question is, will the speed of trust keep pace with the speed of travel?

Those looking to encourage universal adoption can take a page from the playbook of leaders who pioneered the ridesharing industry, overcame the fear of “stranger danger”, and inspired people everywhere to get in unfamiliar vehicles.

Presenters at the Uber Elevate Summit discussed how important it is to educate the public on the benefits of the new technologies.

Other factors influencing consumer acceptance included:

  • Electronic license plate/remote identification, especially since driver/rider ID has been a hot issue recently in ride sharing
  • Aircraft must be battery or electric powered to remain as quiet as possible when in use

This industry is about movement—moving people, services, perspectives, and preferences. Changing behavior will require trust. How quickly can consumers’ trust be established with these emerging technologies? With so much focus on the speed to deliver new mobility options and the rigor associated with the regulatory process, the strategic importance of gaining trust should not be overlooked.

Breaking boundaries with low-altitude air vehicles for the greater good—medical, disaster relief, and the military—are ways to begin to establish trust with the public.

At The Stone Agency, we understand how to move people within communities—public and private—resulting in collective win-wins.

The Stone Agency has a bird’s eye view of ecosystem players in the mobility arena. Our experience brings leaders in communication, vehicle development, finance and regulation to an intersection.

Amidst all these questions, what we do know is that cities are 3D, so it’s time to revamp our current two-dimensional transportation grids and utilize three dimensions to transform the future.

What ways will you leverage these new modes of mobility? What problems do you think you could solve with a faster and more affordable means of transportation? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

Michele Stone is the president and co-founder of The Stone Agency. She has a voracious curiosity about all-things mobility and heart for coalescing communities. For more information on The Stone Agency’s strategic planning, consulting, and business leadership capabilities, follow Michele on Twitter: @michelestone.