Uber’s ambitious and quixotic effort to launch a flying taxi service is coming in for a landing. According to Axios, the ride-hailing company has agreed to sell its Uber Elevate division to secretive startup Joby Aviation.
The news comes as Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi attempts to push his company closer to profitability, which includes the sale of the money-losing parts of the business. The company is also said to be exploring the sale of its autonomous vehicle division. A spokesperson for Uber declined to comment.
Uber first announced its interest in launching a network of electric flying taxis in a white paper published in 2016. Under Uber’s calculations, a two-hour, 12-minute slog from San Francisco to San Jose would become a breezy 15 minutes by flying car. A two-hour, 10-minute battle through São Paulo gridlock would be transformed into an 18-minute pleasure ride.
Last year, Uber starting offering helicopter trips from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The trips were meant to offer a taste of what the experience would be like to use the Uber app to summon a flight rather than a car ride, and the company certainly saw it as an opportunity to gather data for its air taxi plans.
Those plans were ambitious, and perhaps doomed, from the start. It relied on a technology — electric-powered aviation — that was still under development and had yet to be tested as part of a commercial service. And it would have been costly to implement, requiring the construction of a vast network of rooftop or ground-level “skyports” and regulatory approval from a host of federal, state, and local agencies.
The choice of Joby Aviation as buyer makes sense. In December 2019, the ride-hailing company said it would join forces with the Northern California-based aerospace company, which has been working on electric aircraft for over a decade. Joby was the first company to commit to Uber’s aggressive timetable to launch a flying taxi service by 2023. A spokesperson for Joby declined to comment as well.
Joby is the brainchild of inventor JoeBen Bevirt, who started the company in 2009 and operated it in relative obscurity until 2018, when Joby announced it had raised a surprising $100 million from a variety of investors, including the venture capital arms of Intel, Toyota, and JetBlue. The money helped finance the development of the company’s air taxi prototype, which has been conducting test flights at Joby’s private airfield in Northern California. Bevirt helps run an incubator outside of Santa Cruz that’s been described as a quasi-commune.
Unlike the dozens of other companies that are currently building electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, Joby has kept much of its project under wraps. The few renderings that are out there show a plane-drone hybrid with 12 rotors and room in the cabin for four passengers, though a spokesperson previously cautioned that what Joby is working on now is “entirely new.”
The company lifted the curtain in January 2020, when it announced it had closed on a massive $590 million round of venture capital funding. Joby also announced that it was teaming up with previous investor Toyota to launch an air taxi service using its new aircraft.
The all-electric aircraft has six rotors and seats five, including the pilot. It can take off vertically, like a helicopter, and then shift into forward flight using tilt rotors. Joby says it can reach a top speed of 200 mph, travel 150 miles on a single charge, and is 100 times quieter than a conventional aircraft.
Of course, many companies — Joby included — have promised revolutionary new aircraft for years, only to miss deadlines or fail to live up to past promises. Kitty Hawk, the flying car venture backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, had to reorganize amid reports about breakdowns, battery fires, and returned deposits. Another startup, Zunum, is locked in a bitter legal fight with its former investor, Boeing.
The jury is still out on whether an electric vertical takeoff and landing-based air taxi system would make an appreciable contribution to a next-generation transportation system, or whether it would simply be an escape hatch for the super-rich to avoid street-level traffic congestion.