Photo: Uber

On Thursday, Uber announced its shortlist of countries that are being considered as future markets for its soon-to-be-launched “flying taxi” service. Uber Air, as the service is known, aims to launch demonstration flights in several cities in 2020 and a paid flying taxi operation by 2023. The company also said it plans to expand its experimentation with delivery drones for its Uber Eats service.

Last year, Uber named Dallas and Los Angeles as its first two launch cities. Today, the company said five countries are being considered for a third spot: Japan, France, Brazil, Australia, and India. (Dubai was originally selected as Uber’s first international city, but that deal ultimately fell through.) After settling on a final city, Uber says it will launch its flying taxi service there within the next five years.

The news comes as Uber looks beyond its origins as a fancy car service and into new modes of transportation, including bikes, scooters, and, yes, even “flying cars.” Uber’s plan to fill the skies above cities with swarms of electric-powered air taxis is only two years old, but the company has already convened two well-attended summits and landed dozens of partners in aircraft manufacturing, battery technology, real estate, and government regulation.

Potential Uber Air routes in Tokyo.
Image: Uber

To be sure, the technology that would power Uber’s air taxi network is still nascent and won’t leave the testing phase for some time. There is also still no guarantee the tech can support the type of service Uber envisions. The need for batteries that are lightweight enough to power these short flights across cities is one possible hurdle. The willingness of customers to trust Uber to keep them safe while flying above dense, heavily populated cities is another.

But the company is clearly trying to capitalize on a recent explosion of interest in lightweight, electric-powered, vertical takeoff and landing (known as VTOL, or eVTOL) aircraft. There are at least 19 companies developing flying car plans, including legacy manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, and small startups like Google co-founder Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk.

Today’s announcement came during an aerial transportation summit in Tokyo convened by the Japanese government with representatives from 21 companies, including Uber, Boeing, Airbus, and others. Uber recently released its criteria for the third international city, including a metropolitan population of more 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.

According to Uber, each country on its shortlist has its unique advantages. Japan is a leader in public transportation, technology, and automotive innovation. India has some of the most congested cities on the globe. Australia is already embracing urban air transport. France is where Uber is building its new advanced technology hub. And Brazil already has thousands of helicopters in use as taxis buzzing over its cities — some of which can already be hailed through Uber.

The company will now consult with stakeholders in each country as it weighs its decision. Uber expects to announce the chosen country in six months, after which it will launch its flying taxi service sometime within the next five years.

Image: Uber

On drone delivery, the company says it finds the idea of sending thousands of prepared meals soaring through the air across cities via drone “compelling.” Uber Eats is a huge source of revenue for the money-losing ride-hail company, and recent data suggests it’s the fastest-growing meal-delivery service in the US. Additionally, Uber says the Asia-Pacific region is the fastest-growing market for Eats globally, with food delivery trips growing six times over the past 12 months. The idea of using drones to grow and expand that business is something Uber wants to integrate into its broader flying taxi project.

Earlier this year, Uber said it would take part in a wide-reaching commercial test program in San Diego that had been approved by the federal government. Since then, Uber says it has been working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration, the US Department of Transportation, and the City of San Diego. It’s also had several “successful” test flights.

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