Who is leading the race to the skies?
Uber are well known for being particularly ambitious, but their latest move shows that even the sky isn’t the limit. As of this month, Uber has hired ex-NASA engineer and aerial transportation enthusiast Mark Moore. Moore had worked for NASA for 30 years before joining the firm as part of new venture Uber Elevate. Uber isn’t about to send passengers into space just yet, but it is exploring the possibility of something just as exciting – flying cars. Having published an influential paper discussing that very subject, Moore is a key resource. The company hasn’t revealed any development plans, but the transportation giants are setting themselves up to become the leader of aerial vehicles. As far-fetched as it sounds, Moore has predicted that the first prototypes – and not necessarily Uber ones – will be released within the next few years. But are flying cars really plausible, and if so, how will they disrupt transportation as an industry?
Flying cars. . . attainable or impossible?
In 2010, Moore published a white paper which explained the possibility of using VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing). That same year, Moore began work on a Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) called the Puffin. By combining electric motors with vertical take-off, the Puffin tips into forward flight during the journey like a helicopter, rather than taking off like a plane.
The development of flying cars is still in the concept stage, but they could eventually answer some of the killer problems in the transportation industry. For starters, there’s far more space in the sky than on solid ground, which could help to ease traffic congestion. It would be easier to dismiss Uber’s new venture if they were the only company interested in flying cars, but they’re not. Google has already set up two Silicon Valley startups called Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk, both of which are working on airborne vehicles. Transportation is already experiencing mass disruption in the form of electric and autonomous vehicles. How will flying cars impact such a rapidly changing industry?
How will flying cars disrupt transportation?
Flying cars are a sci-fi staple, but if they become a reality then the transportation industry will face even bigger changes. Flying cars could ease traffic, reduce delays, improve pollution levels and transform dreary commutes. These days, it almost goes without saying that these personal aircrafts will be autonomous – now, even driverless trains are in the pipeline.
These super-fast, autonomous trains may challenge Uber Elevate (and other flying car initiatives) by attracting commuters who want to get to their destinations as quickly as possible and for a potentially lower cost. However, cars and trains have co-existed for years, and this won’t necessarily change. By taking cars off the roads, there will be fewer pedestrian-related accidents because there simply won’t be any pedestrians. There will, however, be other aircraft, which is where the real challenge lies. Developers may be able to use V2V communication to avoid aerial crashes, but if two flying cars were to collide, it would affect all of the vehicles behind it and everything directly below it. If Uber’s other ventures are anything to go by, their air taxis will initially operate within cities, where demand is higher. However, the vehicles have a suggested range of 50 – 100 miles, and so they have the capacity to reach more remote areas. Other industry innovators (think Tesla, for instance) may dismiss the plans as far too ambitious, but they should know better. Uber have shown time and time again that they have the resources to carry out their expansionist visions. Even so, Uber Elevate will be slightly harder to establish than Uber Eats.
It’s clear that automakers and transportation companies will face huge challenges in creating flying cars. When the Puffin was first devised, battery power was insufficient to make it a reality. Seven years on, there will still be numerous technical barriers – as well as the task of lobbying regulatory bodies and air traffic control. Uber clearly has some competition from Google, and other automakers are bound to take an interest in air-borne vehicles. Whilst these companies may challenge Uber, the more interest that is generated around flying cars will help to encourage development. Although Moore has predicted that flying cars will exist within the next few years, it’s worth remembering that it took Amazon a similar amount of time just to get permission to operate delivery drones. It looks like regulations, not development itself, will cause the most issues. However, if flying cars can address some of the major flaws in transportation, perhaps Moore’s prediction will ring true.
Will flying cars be a reality within the next few years, as Moore suggests? Is Uber the best-placed company to lead the development of PAVs? Could personal airborne vehicles kick-start a new era of car ownership? Share your thoughts and opinions.