Kitty Hawk Who? Uber’s Best-Laid Plans for Flying Cars, Air Travel

Xconomy Texas — 

If all goes as planned for Uber, and the company launches an air-transportation service in 2020, it will need to hire a lot of pilots.

Exactly how many is a little unclear: One of the executives leading Uber’s effort to apply its ride-sharing model to air travel contended during a panel at South by Southwest that the company will hire more pilots than any other business in history.

That means Uber will need to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to determine training regulations for the company’s pilots; Uber believes the piloting requirements should be simpler than a traditional pilot because computer systems may control much of the work, said Nikhil Goel, who leads product management for advanced programs at Uber. Goel’s responsibilities include both Uber Elevate, the company’s air travel work, and Uber Beacon, an in-car hardware product.

Early on, pilots will have more responsibility in the aircraft; that will diminish over time as automation takes over the operation of the vehicle, much like what currently happens in commercial aviation, Goel said. Who will own those vehicles, known as vertical take-off and landing aircraft, and whether the pilots will be full-time employees remains unclear, Goel said. The company is still working through options for both issues.

“What we’re excited about is super-innovative new business models that are merging with [original equipment manufacturers], that are merging with Uber, that are merging with third parties who are also interested in being a part in the ecosystem,” Goel said in an interview after the panel. He declined to provide any examples of who those groups are.

In related news, “flying taxi” firm Kitty Hawk said Tuesday it has signed an agreement with the government of New Zealand to test self-flying planes in that country. Kitty Hawk is led by CEO Sebastian Thrun, the former director of Google X, and is backed by Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page. The company hopes to establish a commercial network of flying taxis in New Zealand within three years, according to a New York Times report.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Uber’s current pursuit of autonomous vehicles may shift the ride-hailing industry away from freelance drivers, who use their own cars, to the use of fleets of cars owned by ride-sharing companies or others. That Uber has made deals with automotive companies, including Volvo and Daimler, for self-driving cars could provide some insight into its thinking for its air travel business.

“We’re trying to figure out what works best for all the different players involved,” Goel said.

The company appears to be investing in the air travel project, despite its being years away and requiring a technological leap, particularly in the batteries the type of aircraft it plans to use would require. (Uber plans to have the aircraft be fully electric.) Uber hired Tesla battery pack development engineer Celina Mikolajczak for its Uber Elevate team in January.

The company is also working with Fort Worth, TX-based helicopter maker Bell on developing potential air taxis, as well as commercial real estate developer Hillwood, on potential heliports that could be located on top of skyscrapers.