NASA involvement in latest Uber project adds credibility
By 2020, Silicon Valley hotshot Uber plans to test a totally new kind of taxi in Los Angeles. The company’s next move is to set up ‘eVTOL’, a network of electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles. The on demand, aerial fleet is expected to travel at speeds of 200mph, getting passengers from A to B using the most direct routes possible. It may sound ambitious, but Uber has the support of a powerful friend – namely NASA. As autonomous and electric vehicle technology changes up a gear, a range of innovations are coming together at an important time. But what does this mean for the industry, and how will flying cars disrupt travel as we know it?
Flying cars are just around the corner. . .
Uber’s 2020 benchmark might seem optimistic, but according to intrepreneur, business advisor and D/SRUPTION guest writer, Jonathan Carrier, it’s a realistic goal.
“Flying cars are a hugely exciting prospect in terms of transforming society and how people move around. We’re a lot closer than you’d think,” he says. “Many people are talking about 2022 and 2025, but 2030 will bring the pivotal transition towards mainstream adoption.”
Jonathan worked for British automaker McLaren for over five years before becoming a mentor to various startups including Aeromobil, a pioneer in the flying car sector. The Slovakian company has developed an airborne vehicle that functions as both a car and a plane, transitioning between drive and flight mode. It isn’t the only one. Chinese car manufacturer Geely recently acquired Terrafugia, a Boston based MIT spin-out that has developed a folding plane-car. German startup Lilium raised $90 million in funding earlier this year, and Volocopter received $30 million from a group of investors including auto giant Daimler. Once operational, these flying cars are expected to cut travel times, increase mobility and solve some of travel’s oldest problems. By stacking virtual motorways on top of each other in the sky, traffic jams could easily be avoided. There’s also a considerably lower chance of a car hitting a pedestrian if it’s 50 metres off the ground. . .
Before flying cars are given the green light, though, there’s a lot of work to be done. Jonathan believes that the most pressing challenge will come from – surprise, surprise – regulations.
“The only way that flying cars will take off in any form of mass adoption is through a concerted standardisation of autonomous systems, as well as regulating how and where they travel. There will be lobbying of governments in the right way to make this take place.”
Despite a concerted effort to improve batteries, inadequate battery power could also put the brakes on development. As well as offering increased capacity to keep cars in flight, rapid charging solutions will be required to meet passenger demand. Another obstacle is public opinion. Companies like Amazon have already faced backlash over the flight of lightweight drones. How will people react to aerial traffic jams? Still, many feel the pros outweigh the cons.
How will flying cars disrupt travel?
From a business perspective, flying cars present a serious opportunity. Today, automakers dominate the supply chain of land travel. However, as Jonathan explains, companies like Uber don’t want to be constrained by powerful manufacturers. Instead, they want to become them. “I’m convinced that Uber will transform into an in-the-sky business model because they see that as a long term opportunity to have ownership and space without being threatened by the incumbent car manufacturers of today,” he says.
Whether Uber is successful or not, the advent of the flying car will transform transportation by reducing friction points and increasing efficiency. Aerial travel enthusiasts envision cleaner, faster, simpler and safer journeys between different locations. In turn, this could fuel the development of certain technologies, namely batteries and autonomous capabilities.
When on the ground, self driving vehicles are bombarded by data which they must then compute. These systems need to stick to road infrastructure, and watch out for a plethora of unpredictable obstacles. Once in the sky, the software would only have to recognise other moving vehicles until it was time to land. Creating virtual motorways is also cost effective because they don’t require physical construction, maintenance or repairs. But perhaps the most important consequence of flying car development will be the convergence of aerospace and automotive, which is exactly what has facilitated Uber and NASA’s partnership. Bringing together two giant sectors to work in tandem will contribute to physical connectivity across the globe, completely redefining transport.
If there is a launch of a flying car it looks certain to disrupt the transport industry, and it’s not surprising that Uber is pushing forward to dominate the emerging market. As innovative technologies combine, traffic jams and road accidents could become a thing of the past. Of course, everyday consumers won’t be able to reap the benefits straight away. Initially, flying cars will be reserved for those who can afford them. Nowhere is this more evident than in Uber’s introductory video for eVTOL, in which a smartly dressed woman looks down over congested traffic on her way home to her quintessentially affluent family. However, if Jonathan is right, the sky will be teeming with aerial vehicles within the next couple of decades – and you might just be sat in one.
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Laura is a researcher and writer who began working with D/SRUPTION as an intern in 2015. She has written for a number of publications including technology blog Mind the Horizon, and was News Editor of student magazine The Yorker. She studied BA History at the University of York.