Uber is looking to North Texas as a testing ground for its initiative to make intra-urban flying vehicle rides a reality. The company announced Tuesday that Dallas and Fort Worth are its first U.S. partner cities for what its dubbing the “Uber Elevate Network.”
The company hopes to have the first demonstration of how such a network of flying, hailed vehicles would work in three years.
Uber is also working with Dallas’ Hillwood Properties to plan vertiports, sites where the aircraft would pick up and drop off passengers. Fort Worth’s Bell Helicopter is among companies partnering with Uber to help develop the actual vehicles, called VTOLs because they would vertically take-off and land.
The announcement was made at a three-day Uber Elevate Summit being held in Dallas.
“This is an opportunity for our city to show leaders from around the world and across industries why Dallas should be a part of building a better future for urban mobility,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said in a prepared statement.
Uber's ambitious plans comes as the company experienced fast revenue growth but $2.8 billion in losses last year. Tuesday's announcements also comes on the heels of a series of scandals at Uber, including several of its top executives exiting the company in fast succession and amid an ongoing internal investigation into sexual harassment claims. Uber also faced widespread customer backlash earlier this year for a decision to keep operating at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City amid a taxicab boycott in response to President Trump’s initial travel ban.
And it follows just days after the New York Times reported that Uber had previously “been secretly identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased — a fraud detection maneuver that violated Apple’s privacy guidelines.”
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Bell is developing propulsion technology to build electric airborne vehicles “that are quieter than the usual helicopter.”
“It’s not going to happen right away, tomorrow, but the technology is definitely there,” said Bell chief executive Mitch Snyder told the newspaper. “We definitely believe the hybrid electric is something we could go make and fly right now. But I think full electric, to give it the range and everything you want out of it, is not quite there.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a prepared statement that she is “thrilled” her city is part of the Elevate initiative.
“Being in the North Texas region, which encourages innovation and responsible businesses to thrive, we trust that this will be a beneficial choice for the development of the Elevate project,” she said.
Fast Company reported that Uber is portraying Elevate as “a cheap alternative to building new roads and expanding public transit,” but noted that Rawlings maintains Dallas has to provide as many transportation options as possible.
“Anytime there’s innovation in the marketplace, I don’t think anybody truly knows the results of these things, or the costs,” Rawlings told Fast Company. “We’ve got to be multimodal — there’s no question — in this city.”
Rawlings' support for Uber's high-flying plans comes as Dallas is at the center of several transportation-related fights over the city's future. Rawlings has been a strong advocate of a controversial high-speed bullet train that could whisk passengers from his city to Houston in 90 minutes. That project, which is being developed by a private firm, is the target of several bills moving through the Texas Legislature this session, though none that could fatally disrupt ongoing development of the rail line have passed either chamber so far.
Rawlings is also among champions of a controversial toll road that would be built within the Trinity River floodplain next to a planned urban park, a project that could indirectly delay planning on how to rebuild, renovate or tear down other downtown Dallas highways.
Meanwhile, the mayor has opposed calls to divert some sales tax revenue from public transit to help shore up a multibillion dollar shortfall in the city’s police and firefighter pension fund, which is facing a financial crisis that threatens to raise property taxes, slash city services or prompt an exodus of first responders.
Fast Company first reported the Elevate initiative and said "a hodgepodge of local, state, and federal agencies all have to get on board" for the project to take off in the U.S. but Uber could face a smoother path in Dubai, its other partner city.
“It’s a monarchy, so they have the ability to move very quickly with things that they get behind strategically,” says Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, told Fast Company. “The certification of machinery and the approach to getting the aircraft through could be a much faster path [than in the U.S.].”