Uber executives are providing an update on their plans to put flying cars in the air by 2020, with commercial rides beginning in 2023, but the most pointed comments from CEO Dara Khosrowshahi address the rideshare company’s present challenges.
Khosrowshahi’s interview with CBS News came in conjunction with today’s kickoff of the second annual Uber Elevate summit in Los Angeles, which focuses on Uber’s plans to operate fleets of electric-powered, vertical-takeoff-and-landing air taxis.
“We want to create the network around those vehicles so that regular people can take these taxis in the air for longer distances when they want to avoid traffic at affordable prices,” Khosrowshahi told CBS.
The company is focusing in on a reference model for the eVTOL aircraft: Multiple electric-driven rotors will provide vertical helicopter-style lift. After rising in the air, two of the rotors flip to a horizontal position to push the winged hybrid craft forward at speeds of up to 200 mph.
The cockpit will accommodate four people, which Khosrowshahi said is “one of the key tenets for this technology.” The company plans to use cloud-based trip management tools to maximize the passenger load for each flight and make Uber’s cost formula work.
Over the next few years, Uber will calibrate the price for its air taxi service to accommodate what the company says will eventually amount to several million rides a day.
Eric Allison, the company’s head of aviation program, showed a chart indicating that UberAir could conceivably charge $90 for a 29-minute ride between locations that would cost $60 and take 69 minutes using the UberX car service instead.
Uber is working with a range of aerospace partners to develop the eVTOL aircraft, including Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, Embraer and Bell. The company is also working with NASA on an air traffic management system that will accommodate air taxi trips.
The current plan calls for demonstration flights to begin in Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles as well as Dubai in 2020, with regular commercial service starting up by 2023. By then, Uber hopes to ramp up to “automotive-scale manufacturing” of air taxis, said Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer.
Khosrowshahi said the aircraft will be human-piloted at first, but will eventually be operated autonomously.
The issue of self-driving vehicles is a sensitive one for Uber, due to an accident involving an Uber autonomous car that killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March. In the wake of that fatality, Uber suspended its self-driving tests nationwide.
In the CBS interview, Khosrowshahi said Uber was conducting a “top-to-bottom audit of our procedures, training, software, hardware, what our practices are.” He said there’s no question that Uber will resume its autonomous vehicle program, “but we want to be safe when we get back on the road.”
He also addressed Uber’s sexual-harassment issues, which led to last year’s ouster of Uber’s previous CEO, Travis Kalanick. Khosrowshahi was brought over from his previous job as the CEO of Bellevue, Wash.-based Expedia to take Kalanick’s place.
When CBS News’ Bianna Golodryga asked Khosrowshahi when he expected to turn around Uber’s corporate culture, he replied: “If it’s not changed right now, then I failed.”
“I will tell you that the company took it upon itself to change,” Khosrowshahi said. “The change didn’t start with me.”
He said “what happened in the past was deeply unpleasant and wrong, but the company from a bottoms-up standpoint started changing, and I think it continues apace.”
Golodryga then asked how important it is for Uber to provide a workplace where women employees can feel safe. “It’s ‘game over’ if we don’t,” Khosrowshahi replied.