By on November 1, 2016

Uber VTOL Aircraft, Image: Uber

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.

V22 Osprey, Image: Wikipedia

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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24 Comments on “For Uber, Are On-Demand Flying Cars the Next Frontier?...”


  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “There was a tendency to defer to historical design standards, and not innovate with ground-breaking ideas.”

    This should be printed on the business card of everyone commenting at TTAC.

    Which is why I can tell you this isn’t anywhere near our real future, and also it seems the person who drew the headline photo had just watched Minority Report.

  • avatar
    bikegoesbaa

    Flying cars are the future, and they always will be!

    • 0 avatar
      dont.fit.in.cars

      Correct. I have degree in Aviation, years fixing planes, pilots license (500 hours) internships in airports and build aircraft. EVERY time I hear flying cars, I go mad. I physically want to murder everyone who continues to perpetrate this myth. A broadsword cutting off legs, war hammers to skulls, fish hooks to eyes. Stack them in B-52 bomb bays and wing racks, dump them 800 miles off shore. If I could place them on an island and nuke it, I’d do it. I would vote for Hillary, if those words were never spoken again. Yeah that’s how I really feel.

      Logistics, regulations, engineering…you think regulations building cars is a mountain, that’s a mole hill considering aircraft, then who would carry enough insurance to work on them.

      Off the planet with them all.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        ARTHUR: You fight with the strength of many men, Sir knight.
        I am Arthur, King of the Britons.
        [pause]
        I seek the finest and the bravest knights in the land to join me
        in my Court of Camelot.
        [pause]
        You have proved yourself worthy; will you join me?
        [pause]
        You make me sad. So be it. Come, Patsy.
        BLACK KNIGHT: None shall pass.
        ARTHUR: What?
        BLACK KNIGHT: None shall pass.
        ARTHUR: I have no quarrel with you, good Sir knight, but I must
        cross this bridge.
        BLACK KNIGHT: Then you shall die.
        ARTHUR: I command you as King of the Britons to stand aside!
        BLACK KNIGHT: I move for no man.
        ARTHUR: So be it!
        [hah]
        [parry thrust]
        [ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT’s left arm off]
        ARTHUR: Now stand aside, worthy adversary.
        BLACK KNIGHT: ‘Tis but a scratch.
        ARTHUR: A scratch? Your arm’s off!
        BLACK KNIGHT: No, it isn’t.
        ARTHUR: Well, what’s that then?
        BLACK KNIGHT: I’ve had worse.
        ARTHUR: You liar!
        BLACK KNIGHT: Come on you pansy!
        [hah]
        [parry thrust]
        [ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT’s right arm off]
        ARTHUR: Victory is mine!
        [kneeling]
        We thank thee Lord, that in thy merc-
        [hah]
        BLACK KNIGHT: Come on then.
        ARTHUR: What?
        BLACK KNIGHT: Have at you!
        ARTHUR: You are indeed brave, Sir knight, but the fight is mine.
        BLACK KNIGHT: Oh, had enough, eh?
        ARTHUR: Look, you stupid bastard, you’ve got no arms left.
        BLACK KNIGHT: Yes I have.
        ARTHUR: Look!
        BLACK KNIGHT: Just a flesh wound.
        [bang]
        ARTHUR: Look, stop that.
        BLACK KNIGHT: Chicken! Chicken!
        ARTHUR: Look, I’ll have your leg. Right!
        [whop]
        BLACK KNIGHT: Right, I’ll do you for that!
        ARTHUR: You’ll what?
        BLACK KNIGHT: Come ‘ere!
        ARTHUR: What are you going to do, bleed on me?
        BLACK KNIGHT: I’m invincible!
        ARTHUR: You’re a loony.
        BLACK KNIGHT: The Black Knight always triumphs!
        Have at you! Come on then.
        [whop]
        [ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT’s other leg off]
        BLACK KNIGHT: All right; we’ll call it a draw.
        ARTHUR: Come, Patsy.
        BLACK KNIGHT: Oh, oh, I see, running away then. You yellow
        bastards! Come back here and take what’s coming to you.
        I’ll bite your legs off!

    • 0 avatar
      Testacles Megalos

      one word: Brockway.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    In today’s sensitive and empowered environment, the archaic references employed at the end of the Jetson’s opening sequence would certainly draw ire from various groups. She appropriated his wallet!

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Great, so now our traffic jams will be in the sky blotting out the sun.

    Except that this won’t ever happen. The energy cost of suspending people and equipment in the air is just too high for personal short-distance transportation. For personal transport, flight only makes sense when you can achieve speeds that are impractical on the ground – i.e. when you are a conventional airplane flying at high speed and altitude.

  • avatar
    JMII

    We already have flying buses… they normally have United, Delta or American painted on the side.

    The problem with fly anything is over coming gravity. Wings work really good for this since you only need enough energy to reach (and maintain) a certain speed, then lift is created. VTOL on the other hand is a major energy suck. In electric vehicles energy < weight and that fact becomes a major problem if you intend to stay airborne.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    And also has a questionable safety record:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accidents_and_incidents_involving_the_V-22_Osprey

  • avatar
    Fred

    the think about the Jetson’s flying cars is all it did was move the traffic from the ground to the air. SOS

  • avatar
    Corollaman

    Science fiction at its worst.

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    There is actually a civilian tilt rotor in development, the AW609. It’s being made by well known helicopter manufacturer Agusta-Westland (Bell was originally also involved in the project but pulled out). It’s had a long arduous run to certification, unfortunately including a fatal crash of a prototype. The most recent article I read said they are aiming for 2018 certification. It is going to be certified under both fixed wing and rotary wing regulations. It is not electrically powered, though. It uses the well known P&W PT6 turbine engine.

    I think uber is drinking a bit too much of the silicon valley kool aid. Electrically driven aircraft are hard enough since weight is a huge liability in an aircraft, far more than in cars, and thats something that batteries supply in spades. Going rotary wing is even harder since the power demands are much higher. Also, turbine engines have potential to run on more environmentally friendly fuels, so there seems little reason to pursue electrification. Finally, if Silicon Valley things NHTSA’s is a horrible bureaucracy and their regulations are a PITA, they’re going to sh*t themselves when they realize what’s involved in dealing with the FAA. Agusta is well acquainted with the nightmare that is FAA certification and the AW609 is looking like it could take 20 years from project launch to certification. Also, the FAA has already put the kibash on an “uber for airplanes” style startup by I think ruling it to be a charter operation and therefore requiring the pilot to have a commercial pilots licence, a part 135 charter certificatte, and maitnain the airplane to part 135 standards.

    • 0 avatar
      Henry Leung

      The whitepaper lists four examples of electric VTOL concepts Zee.Auto, Joby S2, Airbus Vahana and eVolo Volocopter. None of these are even close to the prototype stage from what I can see.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Q: “After 60 years as a cartoon, are The Jetsons becoming a reality?”

    A: No.

  • avatar
    jhefner

    Pan Am tried exactly what they pictured above, offering helicopter service from JFK airport to Pan Am headquarters in New York. That is, until one had a landing gear collapse on the helipad, killing five on the roof and one down below. Service was ended immediately, and I don’t know of anyone else offering just basic helicopter service around major cities, much less what Uber is proposing.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MetLife_Building

  • avatar

    “The sky is the bloody limit”…

  • avatar
    Testacles Megalos

    Flying cars have been around for decades. I’ve flown several times in a car. First time was in the 70s when I hit a rural rail crossing at speed. Flying was fine, but landing took both mufflers off my dad’s ‘vette. That cost me my summer’s wages…

    We need to work on the landings.

  • avatar
    mmdpg

    The Flying Car

    For futurists, this one’s an oldie but a goodie. By 1909, forecasters believed that soon, someone would combine, like peanut butter and jelly, the newfangled airplane to the equally cutting-edge automobile. For a century the flying car has been one of those perennially just-around-the-corner innovations, and while work continues on a viable prototype, don’t expect to see your Honda become airborne anytime soon.

  • avatar
    LambourneNL

    I’ve worked in aviation for 20 years. Electric VTOL doesn’t really solve the noise problem because most of the noise a helicopter makes comes from the rotor blades and not the engine. You need to push enough air down quickly enough to lift the entire vehicle, there’s really no way of doing this quietly.

    A lifting gas vehicle (balloon/zeppelin) can be quiet, but have all sorts of other disadvantages (size and weather resistance for one).

    I could see drone based package delivery being a thing at some point in the next 10-20 years, but personal transport, no way.

  • avatar
    George B

    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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stack_interchange

  • avatar
    415s30

    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.

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