Uber Air engineering head thinks Elon’s tunnels are a bad idea

'I will throw down the gauntlet and challenge him any day.'

At Michelin's Movin' On sustainable mobility conference this week in Montreal, Uber Elevate Director of Engineering Mark Moore discussed his vision for airborne transportation. Referring to the service as Uber Air, Moore related how electric, vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft are the key to taking daily transportation to the third dimension, making short trips of 20 to 60 miles eight times quicker than driving. He talked about how quiet electric aircraft make better neighbors than noisy helicopters, and how the low need for infrastructure and the efficiency of sharing and automation will make it more cost effective as the tech evolves.

Then in a panel moderated by FlightGlobal Managing Editor Stephen Trimble, the former NASA engineer (in his own words) threw down the gauntlet, challenging Elon Musk's ideas about building tunnels underground to manage traffic congestion. Speaking about Musk's tunneling endeavor, The Boring Company, Moore said, "Boring. Hmm. Not a good name for a company." He said he'd love to challenge Musk to a debate on airborne vs. subterranean mobility. Moore also cited the heavy costs of tunneling. "It is about as expensive of an infrastructure solution as you can imagine."

Tunneling costs are already on Musk's lists of concerns, though, and he believes he has solutions to make his underground dreams more affordable. On The Boring Company's FAQ page, the company outlines a number of ways it intends to reduce the costs of tunneling, such as increasing boring power, using electricity and automation, tunneling continuously, and reducing the tunnel diameter to the minimum it needs to move cars, people, and goods around. The FAQ page also states, "Unlike flying cars, tunnels are weatherproof, out of sight and won't fall on your head." Musk has also stated in the past that, "If somebody doesn't maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you."

Moore took umbrage with that idea. "The last of my concerns is that a hubcap is going to come flying off and hurt someone," he said. Moore added, "These are not flying cars. These are very sophisticated, electric, vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. They don't even have hubcaps."

Moore is not convinced about tunneling costs either. "I do not see it as an economically feasible solution. I think it's a great precursor to trying to build communities on Mars." He added, "I will throw down the gauntlet and challenge him any day that we can prove what we're doing is much more economically feasible, and much more able to meet the needs of what users really need, which is high-productivity travel solutions."

Moore did add that Musk is a "hero" of his. "He's done incredible things with Tesla and SpaceX."

Uber plans to begin testing its VTOL mobility system in Dallas in 2020, with plans for a commercial launch of the service in 2023. Uber Air needs little infrastructure, and can land at "vertiports" on, say, the top of a parking garage without disturbing those nearby. This allows Uber to provide door-to-door trips when combined with its car service. The trials, Moore said, will help prove the safety of the system and allow people to get used to the idea of electric flying taxis. Once that happens, people will be treated to fast, safe, and efficient air travel, avoiding the congestion and the perils of the highway.

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