Uber’s plan to fill the skies above cities with swarms of electric-powered flying taxis is getting its own dedicated laboratory. The company announced Thursday that it will build a new Advanced Technologies Center in Paris focused on its ambitious Uber Elevate project, the ride-hail company’s first research and development hub located outside North America.
Uber says it will spend €20 million ($ 23.4 million) over five years to engineer all the backend technology, including AI algorithms and air traffic control systems, necessary to support a full-scale aerial taxi service. The company also announced a five-year research partnership with École polytechnique, the prestigious French engineering school located in a suburb southwest of Paris.
Initial projects with include:
machine learning-based transport demand modeling, high-density low-altitude air traffic management simulations, integration of innovative airspace transport solutions with European aviation regulators such as EASA and the development of smart grids to support future fleets of electric on the ground and in the air transport.
“Building the future of our cities will require the best and brightest minds working together,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement. “With world-class engineers and a leading role in global aviation, France is the perfect place to advance our Uber Elevate program and new technology initiatives. We’re excited to partner with École polytechnique to shape the future of urban mobility, on the ground and in the air.”
The choice of Paris is interesting, especially given Uber’s rocky history in the City of Lights. The company faced resistance from taxi groups as it has expanded across France. The government shut down its low-cost UberPop service in 2015, following widespread taxi protests that turned violent, and arrested two executives on charges of operating an illegal transport operation. Uber temporarily shut down service in Paris in 2016 to protest new government regulations aimed at cracking down on ride-hailing apps.
The new center will join Uber’s other Advanced Technologies Group hubs in Pittsburgh, Toronto, and San Francisco. Those facilities are focused mostly on the company’s self-driving car program, which has been scaled back since a self-driving Uber vehicle killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, last March.
Uber just held its second annual Elevate conference in LA, during which it unveiled a new concept aircraft, a roster of manufacturing partners, a new agreement with NASA and the US Army, and a whole bunch of cool, futuristic looking renderings of possible “Skyports.”
The Paris lab will open this fall, staffed with engineering, machine learning, and computer vision talent, said Eric Allison, the newly appointed head of Elevate, in a blog post. Research will focus on capabilities across airspace management, autonomy, real-time communication networks, energy storage, and charging systems, he said.
But don’t expect to see Uber’s flying taxis buzzing passed the Eiffel Tower any time soon. Dallas and Los Angeles are currently the only two cities that have agreed to host test flights starting in 2020, with a third international city expected to be added at a later date. Uber recently released its criteria for the third city, including a metropolitan population of greater than 2 million people, dispersed population hubs, an airport at least an hour away from the city center, and a willingness to back carpooling services.
Uber first introduced its plan to bring ride-sharing to the skies in 2016, but the project still faces significant hurdles. The kind of aircraft Uber envisions shuttling passengers from rooftop to rooftop — electric, autonomous, with the ability to take off and land vertically (also known as eVTOL, pronounced ee-vee-tol) — don’t really exist yet, nor does the infrastructure to support such a vehicle. Experts suggest that engineering and regulatory hindrances may seriously hinder flying cars from ever taking off in a meaningful way.
That’s not to say flying cars aren’t having a moment: at least 19 companies are developing flying-car plans. These include legacy manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, and small startups like Kitty Hawk, owned by Google founder Larry Page. Meanwhile, Uber has made significant strides in partnering with a handful of aircraft manufacturers, real estate firms, and regulators to better its chances of developing a fully functional, on-demand flying taxi service.