Uber has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA for the development of ‘unmanned traffic management,” involving flying taxis. Uber is targeting 2020 as the year of launch.
Traffic! Thanks to autonomous cars it may get worse, with cars, minus any human beings in them at all, prowling the streets waiting for a lift. And if we see the rise in the sharing of autonomous cars, some argue that this form of transport will be so cost effective that more people will take to a car than ever before, clogging up streets. Elon Musk’s idea is to bore down, creating a system of tunnels, but the last 12 months has seen a spat of companies reveal plans for flying cars.
Uber had already made a string of announcements concerning a concept for a flying taxi, but the agreement with NASA and the 2020 targeted release date gives everything an edge, suddenly it is beginning to feel real.
Here are some key takeaways:
According to Uber: “Last year, the average San Francisco resident spent 230 hours commuting between work and home—that’s half a million hours of productivity lost every single day. In Los Angeles and Sydney, residents spend seven whole working weeks each year commuting, two of which are wasted unproductively stuck in gridlock.”
If poor growth in productivity is one of the main economic challenges across the global economy today, then flying cars may provide a partial fix.
But of course, the infrastructure to build what Uber calls VTOL - that’s vertical take-off and landing - will be a fraction of the cost of building roads. In fact, it will be a fraction of a fraction, roads can be virtual, defined by machine and navigated by machine - it’s just a software cost and the infrastructure for landing and take-off points. But since the flying cars will use vertical take-off and landing, the space required will be tiny compared to that allocated to roads. Uber says: “It has been proposed that the repurposed tops of parking garages, existing helipads, and even unused land surrounding highway interchanges could form the basis of an extensive, distributed network of ‘vertiports.’”
The flying vehicles will be electric, meaning less - a lot less - carbon emissions, will be much quieter than a helicopter, and are not expected to add to the noise generated by traffic, but most important of all, Uber says the cost of one of travelling in its flying taxis will not be significantly more than the cost of current Uber lifts.
The technology is not 100 per cent ready, and maybe 2020 is a somewhat ambitious target for, as it were, take-off.
But as any observer of electric cars will tell you, technology is advancing incredibly quickly, and if a Tesla can do zero to sixty in less than three seconds, why can’t we have electricity powered flying cars?
Uber says its flying vehicles will be safer than helicopters as they won’t rely on a single part to stay air born, and as they will be autonomous, driver/pilot error will be eliminated.
Incidentally, some of the designs for flying cars involve wings that can be lowered, such that the vehicle is only marginally larger than a traditional car and can travel along the road too.
The biggest draw back in all this relates to safety. Even with AI systems piloting the cars, following virtual roads in the air, there is a risk of air currents pushing the vehicles into another objects’ air space. The sky could get crowded too, what with Amazon drones delivering orders, pizza delivery by drone, and drone surveillance. There are also these things called birds, which tend to take-up air space.
But these problems may well have solutions.
What we can say is that the Uber/NASA plan could be truly transformative, but it is only possible thanks to convergence.
If it was not for advances seen in recent years in other industries - drone technology, AI and lithium ion batteries, initially used for mobile computing and telecommunications, the dream of flying cars would have forever been just that, a dream.
It’s the point technology cynics overlook. They come up with a myriad of reasons why flying cars are not possible, but can not see beyond the traditional aerospace technologies - helicopters and aeroplanes. The technology that is making flying cars possible has got more in common with the latest ideas in mobile computing than aerospace.