For Uber, Are On-Demand Flying Cars the Next Frontier?

Henry Leung
by Henry Leung
for uber are on demand flying cars the next frontier

One of my favourite childhood cartoons was The Jetsons, an animated sitcom where technology had transformed the world into a futuristic utopia. The intro of every Jetsons episode features the family commuting in a flying car.

Last Thursday, Uber published a white paper promising flying cars in the next decade. After 60 years as a cartoon, are The Jetsons becoming a reality?

The Dream

The 98 page white paper, titled “Uber Elevate – Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation,” can be summarized in one sentence: “A network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities.”

The promise is a great one: “Imagine traveling from San Francisco’s Marina to work in downtown San Jose—a drive that would normally occupy the better part of two hours—in only 15 minutes.”

Uber is speculating the timing is right for three main reasons.

First of all, current routes are underserved by existing infrastructure and the proposed Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft would appeal greatly for those with longer distance commutes. Secondly, recent technological developments have allowed VTOL aircraft to be quieter, faster, and cheaper than traditional VTOL aircraft like helicopters. Finally, VTOL infrastructure development would be significantly cheaper than traditional ground-based infrastructure.

Sounds fantastic?

The Reality

The problem: much of the technology and regulations do not exist. To be fair to Uber, the longer part of the white paper discusses these “market barriers” to entry.

The technological barriers are considerable. The proposed vehicle of choice, a VTOL aircraft does not exist commercially. The most similar aircraft would be the military Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, which is much larger and not powered by the desired quiet electric drivetrain.

The electric propulsion technology desired faces all the same challenges as the current generation of electric cars. While Tesla has promised its Gigafactory will reduce lithium-ion battery cost by more than 30 percent, there are also issues with battery capacity, charging speed and durability.

In one of my past jobs, I designed an airport traffic control tower for a small airport in Boise, Idaho. The amount of processes and regulations required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was astonishing. There was a tendency to defer to historical design standards, and not innovate with ground-breaking ideas. For this new transportation system to work, the FAA would need to certify the proposed new VTOL aircraft, a process that could take as long as 20 years. In addition, there would be new regulations required for air traffic control with the huge amount of new low-altitude, low-speed aircraft.

Uber admits its plan is ambitious and would need “all the key actors in the VTOL ecosystem — regulators, vehicle designers, communities, cities, and network operators — [to] collaborate effectively.”

For Uber Elevate, Uber isn’t physically investing into any of the technology or infrastructure, but instead will be a “facilitator” encouraging the technology and using it in the same way they are using existing car technology.

Still, I have my doubts about Uber’s commitment to the technology.

In September, Uber launched a fleet of its in-house developed self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Uber spent a considerable amount of time and effort on these autonomous cars and will likely have them market ready 3 to 5 years earlier than its competitors.

For Uber Elevate, there isn’t a similar investment in the technology. Talk is cheap. Until Uber (or someone else) makes a sizeable investment, The Jetsons flying car will just stay an animated fantasy.

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2 of 24 comments
  • George B George B on Nov 02, 2016

    If only someone would invent a way for a road full of cars to pass over a perpendicular road full of cars so that none of the lanes of traffic needed to stop. Cars "flying" over other cars, but on pavement.

  • 415s30 415s30 on Nov 08, 2016

    I hate Uber and Lyft drivers in SF, the pricks stop anywhere and block traffic at busy times, total dicks who think they can do whatever they want. With all the construction and issues in SF right now we don't need them making it worse.

  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.