Intelligent Machines

Uber’s New Goal: Flying Cars in Less Than a Decade

The ride-hailing company is certainly not short on blue-sky thinking.

Oct 27, 2016

Never let it be said that Uber is unambitious. Not content with upending the taxi industry, developing self-driving cars, and making deliveries using robotic 18-wheelers, it now has its aims set even higher. Much, much higher: it wants to build an on-demand urban aviation system.

That’s grown-up speak for flying cars—chosen, no doubt, to make the idea seem a little less preposterous. But Uber, it seems, is completely serious. In fact, it’s gone as far as publishing a white paper that details its ambitions for what it’s calling Uber Elevate.

“Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently,” it enthuses, “urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.” Uber appears to be dreaming of what life will be like in the post-autonomous car future, when simply being able to work at the wheel isn’t good enough (but teleporters, sadly, haven’t yet been invented).

Uber of the future?

The company envisions journeys being made by a “network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically.” But just as Uber doesn’t build the cars that its drivers currently use, it also has no intention of building these vehicles either. Instead it points to the likes of Zee.Aero, Joby AviationeHang, and Terrafugia, amongst others, which are all creating concept vehicles that could in theory be up to the job.

In fact, Uber reckons that the technology for these kinds of vehicles will mature within five years. Google cofounder Larry Page seems to agree: earlier this year he invested in two flying-car companies. But there are still some significant wrinkles that need to be ironed out before that happens, which make the five-year time frame seem overly optimistic.

To be fair, Uber realizes there are hurdles. In its white paper, Uber lists a number of issues it’s worried about (deep breath): battery technology, vehicle efficiency, vehicle performance and reliability, cost and affordability, safety, aircraft noise, emissions, takeoff and landing infrastructure, pilot training, air traffic control, and the certification process.

Assuming that laundry list of obstacles is surmountable—a big assumption, to say the least—that still leaves regulatory issues. For one thing, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft have rarely been used outside military operations. They are, Uber admits, “new from a certification standpoint, and progress with certification of new aircraft concepts has historically been very slow.”

And as the drone industry is realizing, air traffic control is a whole different matter. The FAA anticipates getting rules for small, parcel-carrying drones sorted out by around 2020. Flying cars aren’t even on the radar.

All in, Uber believes that Elevate could be rolled out within the next five to 10 years. That is hugely ambitious, verging on the unbelievable. But as Uber well knows, it’s also incredibly alluring.

(Read more: Uber Elevate, “Flying Cars Now Seem a Bit Less Ridiculous, but Not Much,” “Delivery Option: Drone. Arrival Estimate: 2020,” “Work in Transition,” “What to Know Before You Get in a Self-Driving Car,” “Otto’s Self-Driving 18-Wheeler Has Made Its First Delivery”)