Two weeks ago, Uber hosted a three-day conference in Dallas surrounding its electronic vertical take-off and landing operations (eVTOL) —a.k.a. “flying cars.”
The mission is part of Uber’s new air taxi division called Uber Elevate, which announced partnerships with emerging eVTOL players like Aurora Flight Sciences, Embraer, Bell Helicopter and more during the conference. The partners will provide various elements of technological requirements for Uber to run its so-called Elevate Network, an on-demand airborne service that aims to cut travel time in urban areas from as much as 30 minutes down to five.
Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer and conference host, said that the company will be testing its flying cars in Dallas and Dubai by 2020 — that’s less than three years away.
While the concept is one that America has been dreaming about for nearly a century, there’s controversy over whether or not the hype is warranted.
“Uber’s air taxi plan sounds like something from ‘The Jetsons’ only less realistic,” Dan Reed, a veteran aviation reporter at Forbes said.
The greatest barrier will be achieving certification from the Federal Aviation Administration regarding allotted air space, landing restrictions, etc.
“eVTOLs are like drones that the FAA is treating with a heavy hand,” Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor and expert in public policy, transportation and urban planning said. “They’re reluctant to give a foothold to a technology that has so many unknowns.”
Currently, there are no FAA regulations regarding human-carrying drones and it’s not clear when there will be.
“Uber’s philosophy in the past has been to just start operating and hope that the rules will get changed to their advantage, but that hasn’t always worked out,” Jeff Wise, a writer for Popular Mechanics.
It’s unclear whether or not Uber intends its flying cars to be human-piloted or autonomous.
“There’s already a pilot shortage in the airline industry,” Wise said. “If (…) Uber wants to autonomously fly cars, then there are huge technological hurdles to overcome.”
According to Wise, even the most advanced batteries have an energy density one percent that of gasoline. Because those batteries are weight — which takes energy to haul — the more you add the more you need. Without new battery technology, electric powered aircrafts of any sort are going to have very short legs.
Hovering is another inefficiency. In order to stay aloft, an aircraft must push air down, Wise says. Helicopter rotors do this by pushing a little bit of air down really fast, while airplane wings push a lot of air down a little bit. The latter is much more efficient, which is why planes are cheaper to operate. Flying cars are predicated on the idea of a small footprint and would inherently be fuel hogs. A battery-powered fuel hog is an interesting concept.
Uber certainly isn’t the first to attempt to create flying vehicles. Glenn Curtis, one of the great pioneers of aircraft manufacturing and long-time partner of the Wright Brothers, first promoted a flying car in 1917. The Curtis Autoplane got off the ground a few dozen times but never really flew. To date, few have achieved actual flight, and none have achieved success in the marketplace.
Schwieterman sees VTOLs transporting packages before they transport people. “The whole internet buying revolution is hampered by the problem of ground delivery. With all the innovations coming online, we’re still stuck with primitive methods of dropping off packages.” Using drones with the same VTOL technology, aerial package delivery would break through the long jam that the road traffic system has become.
“I think everybody senses that aerial pick-up and delivery is inevitable, but nobody is sure how we’re gonna get there,” says Schwieterman.
“I don’t think I’ll live to see flying cars,” Marty Nix, a junior at DePaul University said. “I just don’t see this concept taking off any time soon, pun intended.”
While it’s nice in theory, a fleet of flying cars carrying people around the city anytime soon seems wishful, to say the least.