Space & Innovation

Uber Wants You to Ride in a Flying Car

The ride-hailing company proposed an expansion into the sky to carry customers right over gridlock.

The writing is in the sky. Flying electric cars are coming and the ride-sharing company Uber wants to access whole fleets of them.

Instead of getting stuck in maddening traffic for two hours, a commuter in San Francisco could soar through the air from the Marina district to downtown San Jose in a mere 15 minutes - and do it without having to hail a helicopter. That's the super-futuristic vision that Uber describes in a detailed white paper the company recently published.

"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," Uber's chief product officer Jeff Holden wrote in a description of the company's plan.

Instead of helicopters or traditional fixed-wing aircraft, the new transit approach would involve vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft that are small and electric. Ideally these eco-friendly flying cars would have a max distance of at least 120 miles, an airspeed of 170 mph, and battery cell specific energy of 400 Wh/kg. Uber won't actually be building them, but wants to strike a deal with whoever does for a new service called Elevate.

Parking garages, unused helipads, and empty land near highways could be turned into new hubs called "vertiports," forming an extensive network. A single pad would become a "vertistop." Uber points to São Paulo, Brazil, where the company operates a helicopter-based taxi service. The company say hundreds of flights take place daily in São Paulo.

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This isn't Uber's first time seeing potential in the sky. The company regularly offered helicopter-hailing for big international events, including Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. But those particular rides cost about as much as a first class airline ticket.

The new fleets will be different, according to Holden and his team. They predict that VTOL aircraft will become affordable daily transportation for the masses and cost less than owning a car. Yes, the whole system will cost a bunch of money to start, but the ride sharing model is expected to create a positive feedback loop that brings prices down.

Electric vehicles on the ground have the advantage of being quiet so, in theory, the aircraft shouldn't create more noise pollution. Pilot augmentation technology could reduce training time. Uber also stressed that they would require the aircraft to be certified by the government agency overseeing flight in any country where they operate.

Numerous hulking hurdles must be overcome, though, not least of which is the current lack of commercially available aircraft that fit the bill. Uber's white paper highlighted current battery technology and vehicle efficiency challenges. Those can't be dismissed. The aircraft also need to be safer to ride than driving a car. Plus, we'll definitely need new air traffic control systems.

Elevate is a lot to take in - and a lot that can be dismissed as far-fetched. Dream on, the naysayers exhort. Well, dreaming is fine by me, so long as this doesn't turn into a transportation nightmare.

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