Bell flying taxi A flying taxi concept from helicopter company Bell. Picture: Toby Shapshak
Bell flying taxi A flying taxi concept from helicopter company Bell. Picture: Toby Shapshak

In the fabulous science-fiction film The Fifth Element Bruce Willis drives a cab. A grimy yellow cab that has the look and feel of the iconic taxis that you associate with bustling cities in the US.

Except, Willis’s cab flies.

Flying cars are sci-fi lore, from Star Wars to Back to the Future, but they are edging towards reality, and one of their champions is Uber. The ride-sharing company that started out in taxi-starved San Francisco has grand plans that involve flying taxis, self-driving cars, food deliveries by drone, and electric scooters and bikes.

The only way to leave gridlock behind is to soar above it, Uber argues. While cities have been able to grow vertically, transport is still stuck on the ground, in the "second dimension". "We want to take the transportation grid into the third dimension," Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said last week at the two-day Uber Elevate conference in Washington, DC, where the firm outlined its vision for the future.

Its enormous data sets allow Uber to calculate how traffic — or at least its traffic — moves in the 700 cities where it operates. About 93-million people a month use Uber in 53 countries. This translates to 15-million trips a day, it says. In total its drivers have done more than 15-billion trips.

Uber envisages a "multimodal" transport model that combines its Uber Jump electric scooters and bicycles with UberX, UberPool and the premium Uber Black service.

"We want to be your every-day-use case when you wake up and go to work, or go out to eat or go to see a friend," Khosrowshahi said.

He headed Uber’s disappointing IPO last month. It expected to reach a $100bn valuation, but is trading significantly lower, and was valued at $67bn earlier this week. It also lost $1bn in the first quarter, on $3.1bn revenue.

Khosrowshahi, who says Uber wants to be "the Amazon and the Google" of transport, says urban traffic has reached saturation point and will only get worse as the planet’s population grows. "In 1800, 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. In 2008, 50% lived in large cities. The UN estimates by 2030 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities."

Uber showed off a reference design for an electric four-seater "aero taxi" and announced Jaunt Air Mobility as a new partner for building these helicopter-like aircraft. It already has partnerships with Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences, EmbraerX, Karem Aircraft, Pipistrel Vertical Solutions and Bell.

These vertical take-off and landing aircraft have to be electric, safe and quiet, according to the Uber Air vision.

A design concept for an Uber air taxi, by Safran Cabin. Picture: Uber
A design concept for an Uber air taxi, by Safran Cabin. Picture: Uber

And it has begun to test its flying taxi concept with Uber Copter, a service between JFK Airport and Lower Manhattan that will take eight minutes and cost between $200 and $225 (about four times the fare for a traditional yellow cab, not driven by Willis). The entire trip, including Uber cars at either end, should take 30 minutes, compared with an hour in normal traffic and twice that in rush hour. It launches on July 9.

Uber is piloting its Air concept in Los Angeles and Dallas, and last week announced Melbourne as its first international trial city. It expects to launch the Air service by 2023.

Uber also unveiled its new self-driving car from Volvo, and an Uber Eats trial to deliver food in San Diego via drone. Currently it uses commercial drones, but the vision entails a plane-like model with four rotors that tilt forward for flight. The drone’s nose swings open to reveal a cardboard box containing the food.

To solve the "last 100m" delivery problem of landing a drone safely in an urban area, it is exploring using the roof of an Uber Eats car as a landing platform. The car’s driver will deliver the food to the customer’s door.

Shapshak attended Uber Elevate as a guest of Uber