WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Most urban transportation systems today are at capacity and, or, gridlocked. Using the airspace above cities is one way to alleviate those burdens.
There’s no doubt that Uber has redefined the world of business and sparked a revolution. Whether it’s because they’re masters at tapping into what’s rapidly become to be known the “1099” economy – 1099 being the tax code used by contractors and consultants in the US – or whether it’s their ceaseless pursuit of expansion at all costs as they try to cement their position on the global stage.
Now though, the company that turned taxi drivers in France into rioting protesters and put its first fleet of self-driving cars onto the streets of Pittsburg and San Francisco is turning its attention to the next revolution in travel.
They’re promising flying cars.
Flying cars! How many times as a child did you read about flying car projects or watch films where people raced around cities at break neck speeds hundreds of feet above the streets below? Lots.
A few months ago I wrote an article discussing how Uber had started partnering with Airbus to trial and progress its flying car of the future vision and now, finally, after literally months – maybe even weeks of waiting, the official announcement is here.
What they’ve announced, backed up by a detailed 99 page report, is an urban airborne, on demand, personal transportation network called “Elevate” which will use fully autonomous and fully electric aircraft that take off and land vertically. So, instead of sitting stationary in rush hour traffic on the M4 sipping your Starbucks watching your life ebb away soon you’ll be able to dial up your own VTOL aircraft and sip that Starbucks at 2,000 feet cruising at 150 mph. And all for the cost of an UberX today.
Ubers flying cars though aren’t really flying cars – they’re way cooler. Think of a souped up, scaled up quadcopter drone crossed with a helicopter and you’re getting warmer.
The dream of flying cars has been around as long as planes and automobiles themselves. The idea landed the first of many Popular Science covers in 1926 when Henry Ford promised the tech was nigh in 1940. However, as is the case with so many visionaries – the vision was there but the technology wasn’t. Now the vision is there – and we have the technological capability to make it a reality.
Now, Uber plans to be the one to make the dream happen, with a chunk of help. The San Francisco based transportation goliath has no intention of designing, building or manufacturing its own flying vehicles. Instead they’re trying to catalyze the market, bringing together private-public partnerships who can together solve a pile of technical, regulatory and infrastructure problems – from battery density to aircraft certification to air traffic control.
“If you can do all those things,” says Jeff Holden, Uber’s product chief, “you’ve got the potential for a new transportation method, but only if you can do all those things.”
Once the pieces are in place, Uber can do what it’s already done with cars – enrol pilots, who will eventually be replaced by autonomous systems, connect them with its massive customer base, create intelligence based route plans and collect its share of the fares.
“We’re just turning the corner now to make that possible,” Holden says, “our intent is to help the industry get there faster.”
Believe it or not, building a flying car isn’t the hardest part of this scheme – countless of them have already been made by hobbyists and multi-nationals alike and while most of them are rough around the edges some of them, even now, are good enough – provided of course that manufacturing could be scaled up.
Within five years, according to the white paper, Uber expects the market to produce a fully electric, mass market VTOL plane that can fly 100 miles at about 150 mph, carrying multiple passengers and a pilot.
Aviation experts say that timeline makes sense. Boeing and Airbus have already introduced new lightweight, composite materials and fly-by-wire systems to into the market and even consumer drones are becoming increasingly sophisticated – using a mix of artificial intelligence and virtual reality that make flying them as easy as flicking a key on your smartphone. Meanwhile in other sectors of the economy there have been huge leaps in battery design, manufacturing and sensor systems.
Holden predicts that Uber Elevate will operate fixed wing, tilt-rotor aircraft, which take off from helipads instead of space hungry runways and roads, then swing their propellers forward for efficient level flight a few thousand feet up.
Battery power has no hope of running a 150 passenger jet at Mach 1 but it could work for these slower, lighter aircraft. Because each propeller lifts more than it weighs, and electric propulsion does away with the weight and complexity of linking rotors to an engine, you can slap on a whole pile of the things. As a bonus, using lots of little rotors instead of one big one – as on a traditional helicopter – cuts down on noise concerns which would be unwelcome in an urban environment.
Ubers initial partners will be California based Joby and Airbus – who Uber partnered with earlier this year when they first began trialling an on demand helicopter service to ferry passengers between the Bay and the Sunset Festival.
“I think the switch could happen very, very quickly,” says Tom Aldag, director of R&D for the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, “but there are a lot of headwinds.”
The greatest danger to Ubers vision is none other than good old red tape
“From a certification standpoint, it’s a humongous stretch,” says Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, “you’re talking about multiple novel technologies, and the last word the FAA wants to hear is ‘novel.’”
Right now, the agency doesn’t even have a framework to certify commercial electric aircraft. It’s never certified a civilian VTOL plane, although, apparently, it is looking at the AgustaWestland AW609 civil tiltrotor and Bell’s 525 helicopter.
And, Anderson says, the FAA will not be thrilled about semi-autonomous planes whipping humans through the glide paths of civilian aircraft and today’s navigation systems are far less sophisticated than what these aircraft, which will have to, at some point, competently navigate an urban environment, would demand.
Yet Holden remains optimistic, mostly because of the agency’s consensus based standards system which has already led them to certify the US’ first drone delivery.
Electric propulsion and semi-autonomous software are fundamental to making this kind of aircraft viable and safe, Holden says, so regulators should accept them.
“I feel like we can drive a lot of the thinking, and marshall people to put together a compelling proposal for the standard.”
The FAA might go along with it, but don’t put your money on the 2021 arrival date.
“For them to apply all these novel topics in the space of five years is really tough to conceive of,” Anderson says.
Say someone really figures out how to make this plane, and the FAA says it’s OK to fly. And say the FAA and NASA finally implement the long-promised “NextGen” air traffic control system, to keep these things from smacking into one another.
Then Uber has to implement the service. Holden says the company might buy the aircraft and hire pilots to fly them, or team up with a manufacturer who holds onto the titles while the ride sharing giant connects them with passengers and advises on routes. Either way, he says today’s model, where people drive passengers in their own cars, won’t apply here. Owning a plane requires a lot more capital.
No doubt Uber will find willing passengers and pilots eager for a payday. The trickier part will be getting local governments on board, especially since the company boasts a less than sterling history of getting along with regulators.
“We’re coming into this in a collaborative form,” Holden says. He expects to spend the next few years convincing local lawmakers they should embrace flying cars as a way to cut down congestion and it’s not a bad argument.
“There is a clear market for on-demand aviation if you could make it practical, and that’s driven a lot by surface road congestion,” says John Hansman, who runs MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation. And if cities don’t go along at first, maybe they’ll get on board when residents start demanding the ever-so-cool service the folks across the river take to work.
The good news for Uber is that unlike other futuristic forms of high speed transportation, like maglev trains and Hyperloop, most American cities already have the infrastructure to run flying cars. The US has nearly 6,000 helipads, most of them privately owned.
“One of the most fundamental problems of most transportation solutions is that they lack infrastructure,” says Mark Moore, NASA’s chief technologist for on-demand mobility, who reviewed the white paper. But that’s not a problem here.
“That’s pretty cool, and potentially much more agile and nimble.”
Holden expects Uber Elevate could launch in a bit more than five years, and that over the following five it would garner users and spread to new routes. After all, what Uber rider wouldn’t pay the same fare, or even extra, to fly instead of drive?
And if you really just want to take a short trip, where flying at 150 mph wouldn’t really work? No worries – that’s what the self-driving cars are for.