Inwards Uber’s Plan to Take Over the Skies With Flying Cars
Inwards Uber’s Plan to Take Over the Skies With Flying Cars
In less than a decade, Uber has redefined the idea of supple labor and gutted the American taxi industry. The company launched a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. It's on its way to becoming the most valuable startup ever.
Whatever. Today, Uber is promising flying cars.
Within a decade, according to a 99-page white paper released today, Uber will have a network—to be called “Elevate”—of on-demand, fully electrical aircraft that take off and land vertically. Instead of slogging down the 101, you and a few other flyers will get from San Francisco to Silicon Valley in about fifteen minutes—for the price of private rail on the ground with UberX. Theoretically.
These aren't flying cars in the sense that they both drive on the ground and soar through the air. Uber is using the much more arousing, Jetsons sense of the term: a future that lifts you over the fierceness of traffic jams and congested roads.
That fantasy has been around as long as planes and automobiles. The idea landed the very first of many Popular Science covers in one thousand nine hundred twenty six . Henry Ford promised the tech was nigh in 1940. And it's exactly the sort of thing Silicon Valley's proponents say modern technology companies can and should produce—instead of futile apps and infantilizing on-demand services.
Now, Uber plans to be the one to make the desire happen, with a chunk of help. The San Francisco-based transportation goliath has no intention of designing or building these things, instead hoping to catalyze the market, bringing together private and government parties to solve a pile of technical, regulatory, and infrastructural 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 fresh transportation method.”
Once the chunks are in place, Uber can do what it's already done with cars: enrolling pilots, connecting them with its massive customer base, advising on routes, and collecting its share of the fare.
“We're just turning the corner now to make that possible,” Holden says. “Our intent is to help the industry get there swifter.”
Believe it or not, building a flying car isn't the hardest part of this scheme. Within five years, according to the white paper, Uber expects the market to produce a fully electrified, vertical-takeoff-and-landing plane that can fly one hundred miles at about one hundred fifty mph, carrying numerous passengers and a pilot.
Aviation experts say that timeline makes sense. Boeing and Airbus have already introduced lightweight, composite materials and fly-by-wire systems to commercial aviation. Consumer drones have proven sophisticated software can make flying a multi-propeller aircraft as effortless as thumbing an iPhone. Computers and electrical cars have shoved battery technology forward, and the US Department of Energy is spending ems of millions of dollars to accelerate research.
Holden predicts Uber Elevate will operate immobile wing, tilt-rotor aircraft, which take off from helipads instead of space-hungry runways, then sway 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 0.8, but it could work for these slower, lighter aircraft. Because each propeller lifts more than it weighs, and electrical propulsion does away with the weight and complexity of linking rotors to an engine, you can spank on a entire 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.
Uber has slew of potential playmates. Last year, NASA flew its GL-10 Greased Lightning, with ten motors , for the very first time. California-based Joby Aviation plans to have two-seat, 12-motor, fully electrified VTOL taxis in operation within five years. Germany's eVolo says its Volocopter— with a whopping eighteen propellers —is supposed to be ready for market in 2018. The Pentagon has put $89 million into Aurora Flight Sciences' LightningStrike, a hybrid-powered VTOL that resembles a big harmonica pursuing a little harmonica.
“I think it could happen very very quickly,” says Tom Aldag, director of R&D for the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University. “There are a lot of other headwinds, however.”
What indeed might keep flying taxies from soaring is old-fashioned crimson gauze. “From a certification standpoint, it's a humongous open up,” says Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “You're talking about numerous 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 electrified aircraft. It's never certified a civilian VTOL plane, tho’ it's looking at the AgustaWestland AW609 civil tiltrotor and Bell's five hundred twenty five helicopter.
And, Anderson says, the FAA will not be thrilled about semi-autonomous planes whipping human brogrammers through SFO’s slide path. Today's navigation systems are far less sophisticated than what these aircraft would request, controlling a dozen or more propellers at the same time.
Yet Holden remains optimistic—mostly because of the agency's consensus-based standards system. Since the mid-1990s, the FAA has permitted the private market to draw up the rules that govern fresh types of aircraft, which it then tweaks and approves. That's how the FAA created the Light Sport Aircraft class, which ushered in fresh designs like Icon's stall-resistant, folding A5 .
The last word the FAA wants to hear is 'novel.'
Richard Pat Anderson, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Electrified 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 two thousand twenty one arrival date. “For them to apply all these novel topics in the space of five years is indeed raunchy to conceive of,” Anderson says.
Say someone indeed figures out how to make this plane, and the FAA says it's OK to fly. And say the FAA and NASA ultimately 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 rail 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. Possessing a plane requires a lot more capital.
No doubt Uber will find willing passengers and pilots glutton 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. And that's not just with cars; in January, Uber dropped its makeshift, promotional helicopter service in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival after officials said the flights violated county codes and posed a safety hazard.
“We're coming into this in a collaborative form,” Holden says. He expects to spend the next few years coaxing local lawmakers they should embrace flying cars as a way to cut down congestion.
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 service road congestion,” says R. John Hansman, who runs MIT's International Center for Air Transportation. And if cities don't go along at very first, maybe they'll get on board when residents begin requiring the ever-so-cool service the folks across the sea take to work.