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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Uber wants flying taxis. What do New York drivers say about that?

Uber announced an effort to bring flying taxis

Uber announced an effort to bring flying taxis to Los Angeles last week. Don't expect to hail a flying car in New York anytime soon, though. Photo Credit: Uber

There’s just enough open air near the Sixth Avenue Bank of America tower for Uber drivers who congregate there to contemplate flying.

It’s not a completely crazy thought: Uber announced last week a partnership with NASA to bring flying taxis to Los Angeles, with demonstrations starting in 2020. One way to fight traffic, maybe: with an all-electric, 200-mph ride that’s “price competitive” with an uberX trip going the same distance.

The Los Angeles plans for vertically launching vehicles and futuristic ports follow similar proposals for Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai announced earlier this year. Maybe it’s time for the company to start alerting its drivers?

“I heard about the flying cars,” said Abel Dedegbe, sticking his head out of the driver’s side window of his Mercedes-Benz E350 on a recent afternoon. “Sign me up right now.”

The 51-year-old Harlem resident says he’s a risk taker. Originally from Ivory Coast, he spent three decades practicing martial arts and braving injuries. He and his wife bought tickets to one of those skydiving simulations. As a kid, he loved planes.

A notification popped up on one of Dedegbe’s three phones, three different ride-sharing apps being the way you make a living in this business. He canceled the ride to consider the future.

“Listen, if there’s an exam to take,” he said, “I don’t mind to study.”

It may be some time before the future comes to NYC

An Uber research paper from 2016 mentions New York as a city with decent helicopter infrastructure. There would need to be dozens of ports, perhaps on the tops of parking garages.

Downsides: NY weather like fog or thunderstorms. Not directly mentioned but certainly an issue are flight restrictions imposed by three major airports nearby. The paper makes glancing mention of that little thing, security.

An Uber spokeswoman says there aren’t substantive plans to bring flying taxis to the five boroughs. On top of everything else, it’s hard to see Mayor Bill de Blasio, who spent political capital trying to regulate Uber early in his first term, rolling out the red carpet. (“No conversations with Uber on this,” emails spokesman Eric Phillips.)

Still, people like Dedegbe can dream. Wouldn’t it be nice to leave the congested streets behind, he asks: the stop and start. The darting bikes. The jaywalkers. Who wants to pilot a car through all of that?

Other drivers resting along the curb on Sixth Avenue considered the ups and downs: maybe you’d get a better fare. The adventure of it, the responsibility. A little bit of a thrill. But of course, there’d be something more than a fender bender should something go wrong.

“Nah,” said Milen Roussenov, 48, of New Jersey by way of Bulgaria. He looked warily up at the distant Empire State Building, a straight shot but, you know, 100 stories up. “It’d be dangerous,” he said.

Roussenov had already been in the game years before Uber came to town, driving black cars for a Brooklyn car service. Real cabbies are “down to earth” people, he said. They have earthly concerns: paying a mortgage, keeping the car clean and running, staying awake on the road.

But he allows that maybe newer drivers would be crazy enough to flit around the city by air. Those people hustling app to app to make ends meet, rarely taking a break, buying a new car just for Uber. Dreamers of a sort.

Fly above the crowd

“Take me as a test driver, I’ll give it a try,” Dedegbe said before pulling away to chase calls.

“This business is getting saturated,” he noted on the way out. He could use an elevated paycheck. The week before, he said he had worked 10-hour days for five days and only made $500. Run those numbers against $6,000 a year in car insurance.

Maybe Dedegbe will become a pilot someday. Uber maintains that the fixed routes and advanced equipment of uberAir would mean pilots need less intensive training than they might for helicopters. To be a commercial pilot you need hundreds of hours of pilot-in-command experience, the flight research document notes, but the more things become autonomous the less (theoretically) time you’d need to train. (A future fight with the Federal Aviation Administration, maybe . . .)

Of course, maybe you, too, see the endgame in all of this, noted prominently in the research document: “autonomy is likely to be implemented over time.”

That’s already the coming business model on the ground, if Uber’s experiments in places like Pittsburgh are successful. Then the sky is just another takeover.


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