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

Henry Leung
by Henry Leung

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.

Henry Leung
Henry Leung

When he's not writing about cars, Henry is driving his GTI to construction sites and transporting his kids to preschool. Henry is a professional engineer, road biker, marathon runner, and lives in Vancouver, Canada.

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  • 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.

  • 3SpeedAutomatic Once e-mail was adopted by my former employer, we were coached about malice software as early as the 90's. We called it "worms" back then.They were separating the computers that ran the power plants from the rest of the system in the early 00's. One plant supervisor loaded vacation pictures from a thumb drive on his work PC. His PC was immediately isolated and the supervisor in question was made an example of via a disciplinary notice. Word spread quickly!!Last I heard, they still had their own data center!! Cloud Computing, what's that?!?! 🚗🚗🚗
  • 3SpeedAutomatic At this time, GM had a "Me Too" attitude towards engine development:[list][*]the Euro luxury brands have diesels, so can we via an Olds V8[/*][*]variable value timing, welcome to the brave new world of Cadillac V8-6-4[/*][*]an aluminum block V8 engine via the HT4100, the go-go 80's[/*][*]double overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder, no sweat, just like the Asian brands via NorthStar. [/*][/list]When you mindset is iron block and cast iron heads, life if easy. However, each time, GM failed to understand the nuances; intricate differences; and technical difficulty in each new engine program. Each time, GM came away with egg on its face and its reputation in ruin.If you look today, the engines in most Cadillacs are the same as in many Chevrolets. 🚗🚗🚗
  • 3-On-The-Tree I don’t think Toyotas going down.
  • ToolGuy Random thoughts (bulleted list because it should work on this page):• Carlos Tavares is a very smart individual.• I get the sense that the western hemisphere portion of Stellantis was even more messed up than he originally believed (I have no data), which is why the plan (old plan, original plan) has taken longer than expected (longer than I expected).• All the OEMs who have taken a serious look at what is happening with EVs in China have had to take a step back and reassess (oversimplification: they were thinking mostly business-as-usual with some tweaks here and there, and now realize they have bigger issues, much bigger, really big).• You (dear TTAC reader) aren't ready to hear this yet, but the EV thing is a tsunami (the thing has already done the thing, just hasn't reached you yet). I hesitate to even tell you, but it is the truth.
  • ToolGuy ¶ I have kicked around doing an engine rebuild at some point (I never have on an automobile); right now my interest level in that is pretty low, say 2/5.¶ It could be interesting to do an engine swap at some point (also haven't done that), call that 2/5 as well.¶ Building a kit car would be interesting but a big commitment, let's say 1/5 realistically.¶ Frame-up restoration, very little interest, 1/5.¶ I have repainted a vehicle (down to bare metal) and that was interesting/engaging (didn't have the right facilities, but made it work, sort of lol).¶ Taking a vehicle which I like where the ICE has given out and converting it to EV sounds engaging and appealing. Would not do it anytime soon, maybe 3 to 5 years out. Current interest level 4/5.¶ Building my own car (from scratch) would have some significant hurdles. Unless I started my own car company, which might involve other hurdles. 😉