Uber Asked LA Mayor to Vouch for the Safety of its Still-Hypothetical Flying Taxis

A confidential FAQ that Uber sent Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti contains unprovable claims about its eVTOL technology.
December 15, 2017, 5:00pm
Image: Uber

Uber’s flying taxis will be serving Los Angeles by 2020. At least, that’s what the company promised the public last month, when it proudly announced a partnership with the traffic-beleaguered city.

On November 8, the day of the reveal, both Uber and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti praised the pilot program. Garcetti, who is no stranger to Silicon Valley, called the metropolis the “perfect testing ground for this new technology.” But a spokesperson for the mayor told the Los Angeles Times that the city hadn’t even started “conversations about regulation, environmental effects and zoning.”

Emails obtained by Motherboard between Uber and Garcetti's staff, however, show that Uber sent a confidential FAQ with talking points for the mayor, five days prior to the announcement. The FAQ contains unprovable claims about Uber’s flying taxi technology. Uber briefed the mayor’s staff on questions he might receive, and suggested he say that concerns—about pollution, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) compliance, safety, and noise—had already been vetted or thoroughly considered.

The emails, which Motherboard obtained through a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request, show the ridesharing company tried to assert control over how the Los Angeles mayor would speak about the pilot project, called “Elevate.”

Two days before the announcement, Uber tried to change Garcetti’s “perfect testing ground” quote to name UberAIR, specifically. The mayor’s office rejected this suggestion.

Image: Sarah Emerson/Motherboard

“We have included a section for questions we believe the Mayor could likely receive following the announcement,” Sarah Ashton, a spokesperson for Uber’s policy team, said in an email, referencing the FAQ, to Garcetti’s communications staff. The email was also sent to Wyatt Smith, Uber Elevate’s Head of Business Development; Justin Erlich, Uber’s Head of Policy for Autonomous Vehicles and Urban Aviation; and Ron Stone, owner of Strategic Government Affairs, who lobbied the City of Los Angeles’ transportation department on behalf of Uber, according to 2017 lobbying forms.

Garcetti does not appear to have used these talking points in on-the-record interviews. Since this technology is in its infancy, we tried to fact check the claims in Uber’s FAQ, but were unable to do so. Technical details about eVTOL design, and claims about transportation benefits, for instance, were unverifiable.

The mayor’s office would not comment on the credibility of Uber’s FAQ.

“We always welcome new ideas with the potential to change how people live their lives. We are in the earliest stages of learning about this technology and how it might impact our communities, and look forward to continuing the discussion in the coming months and years,” Alex Comisar, a spokesperson for Garcetti, told me.

In its FAQ, Uber suggested that in response to safety questions, Garcetti could assure people that, “For Uber, safety is a top priority.” Providing no evidence to validate this claim, Uber wrote: “eVTOL [electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft] designs will be markedly safer than today’s helicopters because they will not need to be dependent on any single part to stay airborne (e.g., a single rotor) and will ultimately use autonomy technology to significantly reduce operator error.”

Image: Sarah Emerson/Motherboard

The future safety of flying cars is unknowable at this point. That’s because fully-realized semi-autonomous eVTOLs—ones capable of taking off and landing, while simultaneously carrying payloads—only exist as manufacturer concepts or as prototypes that have not been subjected to the type of study that would be necessary to make such a claim. Uber also cannot predict how aerial taxi networks, which are hypothetical (Uber is partnering with NASA to research new air-traffic control systems), will impact eVTOL safety, since variables like in-air collisions and poor weather also play a part.

In its 2016 whitepaper explaining its proposed air taxis, Uber uses chartered helicopters as a baseline for safety estimations, with the company’s ultimate goal being to create eVTOLs that are safer than cars. The report lists a series of hurdles known to aviation—pilot error, collisions, loss of control, and weather conditions—before concluding that “advanced pilot aids and autonomous systems” will mitigate dangers presented by either the vehicle itself or environmental hazards. “Achieving high perceived safety is also valuable, especially during the initial adoption,” the whitepaper adds.

Uber told me it wants to mimic the autopilot functionality in commercial aircraft. When I asked Uber to specify these technologies, a spokesperson sent me links to the Wikipedia pages for “autopilot” and “flight envelope protection,” which is a type of aircraft control system. I was also pointed to a 2016 Forbes opinion piece, stating that “nobody died in a crash on a United States-certificated scheduled airline” anywhere in the world last year, for the seventh straight year.

“Autopilot systems are very mature—for conventional fixed-wing aircraft,” Missy Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, and associate professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, told me.

“Flight envelope protection for eVTOL vehicles is similar, but not the same. And it would have to go through significant testing to be certified. The only routinely flying VTOL aircraft, the Osprey, [which has been in use for more than 25 years,] still has a very high accident rate, since they have not yet figured out flight envelope protection issues,” Cummings added.

It’s impossible to say, with any certainty, that flying cars will be safer than regular ones. And it’s not up to Uber to decide. Before flying taxis are allowed to operate, the FAA will need to certify them for airworthiness and other safety-related credentials, which the agency hasn’t done yet. Since Uber is introducing an entirely new type of aircraft, this could take years, but the company hopes the FAA will accelerate this process.

“Uber must certify its eVTOL designs with the FAA to carry paying passengers. During that process, the agency would ensure the design meets all applicable regulations intended to protect the safety of the traveling public,” FAA spokesperson Les Dorr told me.

When I asked the FAA, again, to confirm or deny Uber’s safety claim, Dorr replied: “No, we aren’t commenting on their claim.”

Uber also wanted Garcetti to vouch for its battery technology. On the topic of emissions pollution, it suggested that Garcetti could say: “Uber’s eVTOL aircraft will be all battery-powered (no combustion engines) and will make use of electric propulsion so they will have zero operational emissions.”

That may be Uber’s plan, and battery technology is improving. But even Uber’s whitepaper notes that batteries today aren’t sophisticated enough to support eVTOLs as Uber envisions them.

Electric flight “has never been certified for commercial operations. This is a very time consuming process, and I would put such certifications about 7 to 10 years out from the time such an aircraft was actually first flown, which it hasn’t,” Cummings said.

Image: Sarah Emerson/Motherboard

Claims about the aircraft’s loudness, which Uber said “will be barely audible” at altitude, and no more than one-third as loud as helicopters on take-off and landing, are also speculative. “There is no data that I know of that demonstrates the loudness levels of this size and type of aircraft, since this aircraft has never been built,” warned Cummings.

Uber also claimed its aircraft could relieve air congestion, by allowing people to transfer between local airports, putting less stress on major hubs like LAX.

Image: Sarah Emerson/Motherboard

Uber and Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), a city department that oversees LAX, indeed discussed a partnership, but whether Uber accurately represented the benefits of its service—allowing other airports to relieve LAX air congestion and traffic—is debatable.

“As per our discussion in person on May 23, operations at LAX may be tricky, but we remain optimistic given future plans for the airport,” Nihkil Goel, Head of Product for Advanced Programs at Uber, said in an email to LAWA Chief Innovation and Technology Officer, Justin Erbacci.

“We would like LAX to be a part of [Uber’s announcement with the City of Los Angeles] somehow if possible,” Erbacci said in an email dated October 12 to Wyatt Smith, Head of Business Development at Uber Elevate.

LAWA did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the accuracy of Uber’s claims about air congestion and traffic.

“That’s a bit farfetched,” Seth Young, director of Ohio State University's Center for Aviation Studies, said of Uber’s claim about relieving air congestion.

In the best-case scenario, Young told me, Uber aircraft would save “30 to 45 minutes of travel time between the two airports.” But “the number of people actually using UberAIR between LAX and BUR is going to be so small—compared to the overall passenger volumes on airline flights out of LAX or BUR—that it is highly unlikely that airline schedules will be positively affected. An express bus driving the HOV lanes between the two airports would be more productive.”

While Garcetti didn’t repeat these claims, some were reported by the media (similar claims by Uber are on its website). A Reuters story said eVTOLs will produce zero emissions. Popular Mechanics wrote that Uber’s flying taxis will be safer than conventional helicopters.

“Safety of eVTOLs in emergency situations may vary based on aircraft design, as this impacts the ability for an aircraft that loses propulsion to be able to glide,” Susan Shaheen, co-director of the University of California, Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center, told me after reviewing the FAQ.

“More research may be needed to understand the full risks, impacts, and mitigation measures of avian hazards on this type of transportation mode, particularly given their relatively low level of operation.”

Uber supplied the mayor with deceptive talking-points about its technology, knowing this information could become public. The company was unwilling to substantiate its claims on the record, and instead pointed me to its whitepaper.

This is merely one way that Uber has tried to influence local governments without first engaging the public. Uber didn’t need, or get, legal approval to announce its pilot program in Los Angeles. And while nothing compels it to do so, Uber’s neglect to participate in public discourse so far is significant, and troubling.

Instead, the company continues to abuse its unique position—having created a market that necessitates new laws and rules—by plowing ahead and expecting regulatory structures to catch up. Uber calls this innovation, but if the cost is flouting laws along the way, should it be called something else?

Three cities have agreed to host Uber Elevate pilot programs. Dubai, Dallas Fort-Worth, and Los Angeles are all slated for take-off in 2020.