Finally: The Flying Car, Courtesy of Uber

Uber Elevate

When we imagined the 21st century in the late lamented sixties, two features were always there: the cities on the Moon and the planets, and the flying cars. Much to our chagrin, neither materialized. But now SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to build cities on Mars, and Uber is envisioning a fleet of flying cars, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Everyone’s favorite ride-hailing company released a 98 page whitepaper titled “Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation,” written by the “Uber Elevate” team. One of the authors, Uber Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden, penned a summary with the same title in Uber’s Medium publication “Uber Under the Hood.”

“On-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes,” says Holden.

Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.

The whitepaper and the post outline Uber’s vision of a network of small, electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft that will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities.

Of course VTOLs have many advantages over cars – we knew that in the sixties – and a VTOL transportation network infrastructure has many advantages over today’s car transportation and the congested, polluted and ultimately unlivable city spaces that come with it. Holden describes all these advantages in detail but, since it’s kind of obvious that flying cars are good, he focuses more on the challenges and potential roadblocks, both technical and regulatory.

Uber expects that that the daily long-distance commutes in heavily congested urban and suburban areas and routes under-served by existing infrastructure will be the first use cases for urban VTOLs – or, using the term that Uber seems poised to introduce, Uber Elevate. Then, a path to high production volume manufacturing will enable VTOLs to achieve a dramatically lower per-vehicle cost and make them “an affordable form of daily transportation for the masses, even less expensive than owning a car.”

Of course, Uber wants Elevate to boost its ride-hailing business model. The vision is nothing short of breathtaking: using the Uber app on your phone, you could book a flying car to come and pick you up anywhere in the city in minutes, just like today you book a Uber ride.

Today, if you live in a city like New York, with a large Uber ride-hailing network, you don’t really need to own a car. Why should you bother with the cost and hassle of owning a car (maintenance, insurance, parking, etc.) when you can get a Uber ride in minutes anytime 24/7? That will apply to flying cars as well. In fact, Uber expects that only a few people will buy the first flying cars, and the rest will use Uber flying cars as a service.

“Initially, of course, VTOL vehicles are likely to be very expensive, but because the ridesharing model amortizes the vehicle cost efficiently over paid trips, the high cost should not end up being prohibitive to getting started,” notes Holden. “And once the ridesharing service commences, a positive feedback loop should ensue that ultimately reduces costs and thus prices for all users, i.e. as the total number of users increases, the utilization of the aircraft increases.”

Will Uber VTOLs Fly Themselves?

Self-Driving Uber
Self-Driving Uber

It’s no mystery that Uber wants its cars to drive themselves eventually. The world’s first self-driving Uber cars are on the road in Pittsburgh, the Steel City. Uber knows that it is vulnerable to regulatory attacks based on the employment status of its drivers, and has a creative solution – no drivers.

In 2015 Uber established a strategic partnership with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to jointly develop technologies for self-driving cars at the company’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, near the CMU campus. In a recent move to boost Uber’s research and production capabilities for autonomous vehicles, the company acquired Otto, a technology startup that makes self-driving trucks.

We immediately wonder whether Uber VTOLs are also meant to fly themselves eventually. The whitepaper quotes NASA’s optimism about “fully autonomous air-taxis” and mentions “Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP) and autonomous operation technologies” among the main technical challenges to overcome. Passages like “VTOL operations, at least until autonomous operations become commonplace, will require commercial pilots” seem to indicate that Uber has autonomous flying in mind indeed.

But Uber doesn’t want to open this front, not yet. Holden’s post mentions autonomous flying only in passing and as an assistance to the human pilot. “DEP and partial autonomy (pilot augmentation) are key pieces of the safety equation,” says Holden. VTOLs “will ultimately use autonomy technology to significantly reduce operator error.”

Thanks Uber for the flying car! Elon Musk, please don’t forget those cities in space.

Images from Uber.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.