Completely focused and scandal-free ride-hailing giant Uber said it struck an agreement with NASA today to develop a new traffic control system for the company’s “flying cars,” which are more accurately Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles. By 2020, Uber plans to start testing the vehicles—which currently don’t exist—in Los Angeles; by 2028, it’ll perform “tens of thousands” of flights per day across the city.
When it comes to the future of travel, there’s plenty of pie-in-the-sky ideas. I’m keen to cover what’s happening with Hyperloop, as crazy and costly as it would be, because—at the very least—it’s actually being tested. But flying cars have been Peak Bullshit for decades now.
As The Verge notes neither VTOL cars, nor the vast infrastructure that would be need to support them, exist just yet. It’s nothing more than a concept—the same as the endless flying car projects before it.
So, we’ve regularly laughed off the notion of VTOLs because they’re always just two years away. But with LA officials on board, as well as NASA, it’s hard to avoid at least considering what’s being pitched here.
Here’s a description, per Forbes:
Uber’s plan is to string together a network of electrical vertical take-off and landing vehicles, commonly called eVTOL, and make them available on-demand. Similar to helicopters, the eVTOL aircraft would take off and land on the tops of buildings and be able to cover distances more quickly and directly compared to cars stuck in traffic on Los Angeles congested roads.
According to Uber’s own analysis, a 200-mph all electric ride across Los Angeles would be “price competitive” to an UberX ride of the same distance. It will also be much faster than a car ride on the ground, Uber claims.
In one example, Uber’s research predicts that an UberAir ride from Los Angeles International Airport to the Staples Center would take less than 30 minutes using UberAir. An UberX ride between the same distances generally lasts closer to an hour and a half.
Uber’s head of product Jeff Holden told Verge he thinks the concept needs to be taken serious, because, even without a product to test just yet, there’s been a “great deal of progress.”
“We feel really good,” he told the news outlet. “It’s been a really interesting process getting our vehicle manufacturing partners aligned on performance specif ications, so that they’re building vehicles that align with what we need to make Elevate successful. So lots of good progress there.”
The company has a litany of notable partners on board, including real estate developers and aircraft companies to develop the vehicles and take-off and landing hubs. Which, cool. But this all seems so hamfisted. For instance, consider this quote from Uber’s white paper on the idea (emphasis ours):
We view helping to solve this problem as core to our mission and our commitment to our rider base. 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.
Who doesn’t like the idea of that? Sitting in traffic sucks. So, why, exactly, in this futuristic concept of what life with working VTOLs is like, did Uber shoot this scene?
Why is she staring at congestion! Why, in your idyllic future of the world where a working mother can take a flying car to get home to her kids, a world free of congestion because tens of thousands of flying car rides are being conducted every day, is this person staring down at congestion. What kind of marketing ploy is this? An inadvertent nod to the ineffectiveness of VTOLs? A tacit admission that it’ll only be available for the well-off?
Like autonomous cars, I think its safe to say a futuristic transportation mode like this is going to be something utilized mostly by wealthy people—at least early on. Which, fine. And Holden’s adamant its a scalable plan, which, fine.
I really don’t want to slight the idea, either. The cost of owning a car can be incredibly burdensome depending on your circumstances, so it’s good that we’re thinking of ideas on how to make it easier for people to get around, and at a reasonable cost.
But Uber’s still trying to figure out a business model that works for its taxi sector. The company relies on private capital it has to subsidize rides and compete with a growing, crowded ride-hailing field. It’s got a ton of messes to deal with internally and it’s a public relations nightmare. And the regulatory and certification process for VTOL cars is going to be hyper-intense, probably even more so than autonomous cars.
Maybe it’ll happen anyway. We can check back in two years.