The Jetsons
Warner Bros./Getty
Mackenzie Schmidt
November 09, 2017 02:09 PM

Uber is pushing to become the world’s next airline — without buying any planes.

Instead, the company believes that a fleet of flying cars could solve the dilemma of daily commutes to work and between meetings in increasingly congested cities.

And with the announcement on Wednesday that Uber has secured a contract with NASA to develop software to make “flying taxis” possible, that push seems one step closer to reality.

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The private car service company’s argument is compelling. As the company reports in a whitepaper about its vision for “vertical take-off and landing” — or VTOL — vehicles:

“The average San Francisco resident spent 230 hours commuting between work and home — that’s half a million hours of productivity lost every single day. In Los Angeles and Sydney, residents spend seven whole working weeks each year commuting, two of which are wasted unproductively stuck in gridlock. In many global megacities, the problem is more severe: the average commute in Mumbai exceeds a staggering 90 minutes.”

Many city dwellers can relate. After growing up watching George Jetson take off each day in his automobile-briefcase-spaceship-thingamajig, who wouldn’t want to fly to work instead of sitting on a highway?

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Flying Ubers in 2020

So how realistic is Uber’s plan, announced earlier this year, to start offering flying taxi services in Dallas, Dubai and Los Angeles by 2020?

We asked an expert industry watcher, Tim Robinson, editor in chief of AEROSPACE, the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. As it happens, the future of flying cars is something of an obsession for him.

“[2020] is only two years away now, unless they have something hidden in Area 51. I don’t know how exactly that would work. Airbus reckons it might be ready in 5-7 years, at least in terms of a full workable model. The key is going to be getting a regulator who will let you trial this. So Dubai is a good example,” Robinson said. “Interestingly, the Chinese Ehang — the one-person passenger drone — will be trialed in the U.K. next year … These are small-scale trials, so I think 2020 would be a little bit optimistic.”

Ehang isn’t the only one-man drone to fly. The Lilium Jet, developed by intrepid entrepreneurs in Germany, has also had a successful maiden flight in Munich this year, and earned $90 million in funding to see the project through.

“This is an area where there is a lot excitement and there are a lot of startups getting involved,” Robinson said. But a lot of pieces still have to come together: “I think you need people who understand safety, and who understand that it’s going to be part of a system as a whole … If your small quadcopter goes wrong in mid air, and you lose your drone, that’s fine, but with people onboard it’s a different process.”

And after addressing airworthiness and safety, there’s more, he says.

“Second, how do you integrate flying cars? How does it work in the airspace? How does it link? Have you got the infrastructure thought out? How will it integrate with [air traffic control]?” Robinson asked. “Those things separate the more sort of science-fiction ones from the people with a realistic chance of making this work.”

Take-Off Delays

In fairness to Uber, they’ve addressed some of these questions.

During the Web Summit conference in Lisbon on Wednesday, Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, announced a new partnership with NASA to develop a dedicated air-traffic management system which would support the company’s plans to launch flying taxis.

NASA said that it intends to extend programs already underway with the FAA to manage the airspace for drone applications. Uber would be part of the fourth phase of this program, which is scheduled to start in 2019.

In their proposal for flying taxis, Uber also addresses some of Robinson’s other questions by suggesting that it could use existing urban infrastructure, like helipads. Plus, Uber argued in its proposal, building VTOL infrastructure based on a “distributed network of ‘vertipoints’” would be cheaper than building more roads and bridges. Besides, VTOL aircraft would be electric and would reduce the CO2 impact of today’s cars and, Uber says they would be much quieter than cars for this reason.

Robinson is not so convinced about the noise, though, when considering estimates of future fleets of 30,000 cars flying around in a city.

“If you think of a small quadcopter drone, and the buzzing sound it makes, can you get the noise down?” he asks, and Uber says it can: “At flying altitude, noise from advanced electric vehicles will be barely audible. Even during take-off and landing, the noise will be comparable to existing background noise.”

Uber also believes the problem of air traffic management can be fixed, sort of. “Urban airspace is actually open for business today, and with ATC systems exactly as they are, a VTOL service could be launched and even scaled to possibly hundreds of vehicles,” Uber proposes.

Part of their argument is that VTOL would fly at much lower altitudes than airplanes and might not even need air traffic control as we know it today. Automated systems might do a good job to separate VTOL from drones and helicopters.

Still the ride-share company is aware that there may be some complications. “There are promising initiatives underway, but they will play out over many years and their pace may ultimately bottleneck growth,” Uber states. Robinson sees another hurdle for flying taxis which might be harder to overcome: our fear of flying. That’s been around for years, even though airplanes are the safest form of transport.

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Robinson believes the solution might be found on the ground. “If people get used to driving in autonomous cars, then small pilotless air vehicles is less of a leap,” he says. “Eventually, people would be so accepting of autonomy that it will be like getting on a lift with no lift operator today; or getting on an autonomous train or subway system. Nobody thinks twice about that. Or chairlifts or cable cars.” Bottom line, both Uber and Robinson agree that a future full of flying cars is a very exciting prospect.

 

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