Loyola University Chicago School of Law, J.D. 2019
Flying home from a baseball game is much more of a reality than we think. In the fourth quarter of 2016, Uber released a white paper detailing a roadmap of their proposed adventure into the air taxi business—the autonomous air taxi business and in doing so, they headlined conceptual aircraft ideas using vertical takeoff and landing (“VTOL”) technology. The paper outlines Uber’s plans for the next 10 years, including the compliance milestones and hurdles involved in achieving what seems like science fiction. Living like the Jetsons requires a deep dive into the various compliance issues that surround such a life.
Aircraft certification compliance
One of the major hurdles Uber is facing is the fact that VTOL technology in the case of civilian use is a new-in-kind certification. Historically, new-in-kind certifications have not been perceived as being efficient. First, the manufacturers, Uber, and the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) will have to agree on what set of regulations to apply to these VTOL aircraft. Part 23 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (“FARs”) governs “general aviation airplanes,” and Part 27 of the FARs governs “small helicopters.” VTOLs arguably deserve attention from both.
After agreeing on which sets of regulations to apply to VTOL aircraft, the parties would then agree on how to determine the compliance of the vehicle with the aforementioned regulations. Since Uber will be garnering regulatory approval from agencies not only in the United States, the equivalency of certification is important to ensure compatibility with US and overseas agencies. Uber will be working with both the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (“EASA”) to achieve congruency in compliance to permit Uber’s expansion test cases are complete and satisfactory within the cities that Uber chooses. Once the experimental process has passed and regulatory compliance is verified, mass production will begin. This will not be a quick process, but Uber has a plan to accelerate the process.
Pilot certification compliance
Uber acknowledges the extensive training pilots must undergo to fly commercially in the United States. Part 61 of the FARs govern initial pilot training. Once a pilot is trained through Part 61, and if that pilot wishes to fly for an airline (eventually), that pilot will be required to meet the requirements of Part 135. These regulations require, in most cases, over 1,000 hours of flight time for one particular pilot. Again, Uber, as has the airline industry has over the past few years, acknowledges that we will incur another pilot shortage.
But this pilot shortage will not hinder Uber’s operations for long. Uber plans to eventually roll up VTOLs that are autonomous. This shift to autonomous flight will greatly “shift” the pilot skill requirements currently required to fly for a carrier. This is instructive in Uber’s mission, and one of the first insights into the company’s ultimate plans. Pilots for this intensive Uber project are merely a means to an end.
Noise pollution compliance
Years of litigation surround the idea of opening an airport near a neighborhood and the issues that inevitably ensue. We may have reached a new era of Causby. While the airspace above personal property came under the radar in the times of Causby, Uber’s plans may require revisiting Causby-type litigation. Currently, Uber’s plans don’t even begin to compare to the airspace question that occurred in Causby, and are certainly not akin to any of the current jurisprudence or regulatory schemes out there. Indeed, Uber has addressed even the slightest of details, including noise pollution. Noise pollution regulations for helicopters are governed under 14 CFR 36 Subparts H & K. Helicopters routinely hover at low altitudes; VTOLs will be no exception. In taking off from roofs of hospitals or other tall buildings, noise pollution is a concern that absolutely needs to be addressed.
Not surprisingly, Uber plans to reduce noise pollution to one-fourth as loud as the smallest four-seat helicopter currently available at market. They’ve earmarked clear objectives to include long-term and short-term annoyances. Understandably, while probably not necessary for acceptance into the market (over time), Uber seemingly acknowledges the barrier to entry (not to mention the science-fiction appeal) and appears to be taking the most conservative actions in the areas that, at first glance, do not appear to strike regulatory chords.
Transportation safety will always be a discussion point. And even more so, it should be when introducing the concept of flying cars. Uber outlines transportation safety data based on the regulatory schema that govern that mode of transportation (comparing passenger cars, with Part 121 (airlines) with Part 135 (air taxi, charter)).
The conclusions derived from the flying data provided under the separate regulatory regimes indicate a need for improvement in the current Part 135 air travel. In Uber’s attempts to bring new technologies to the area of air travel, settling for an average annual fatality rate of 18 is arguably unacceptable.
The future is bright
Uber’s 98-page whitepaper clearly outlines the talking points and details associated with paving way for this new means of transportation. Flying cars seemed like a thing of the distant-future, but thanks to advances in engineering and great minds attempting great things, flying cars are actually waiting for us just around the corner.