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26 April 2017

The truth behind the Uber “flying cars“ headlines

Will you really be able to get an airborne taxi in ten years' time?

By New Statesman

Uber has announced plans to create and test a network of flying cars in Dallas and Dubai by 2020. Its proposed service, Uber Air, will be developed with aviation companies and allow passengers to order flying taxis in the same way users of the app order car rides today. What’s more, the company claims the service will be initially as cheap – and later cheaper – than ordering a traditional non-flying Uber car.

Remember that bit in Grease where, after one hour and fifty minutes of theatrical-but-none-the-less-reality-based high school hijinks, Sandy and Danny use the fading beats of “We Go Together” to take to the skies in an auto-matic, system-matic, and hydroooooo-matic Greased Lightning? Yeah, that. That is Uber’s announcement.  

First and foremost, the ensuing headlines obscure the fact that the technology doesn’t yet exist in the way that Uber wants it to. The first maiden voyage of Lilium’s electric “flying car” was five days ago, but the flight lasted just a few minutes, had no passengers, and was controlled by a pilot on the ground. Years of development – and then testing – will be required before Uber can have the electric, zero-emissions, autonomous, and near-silent vehicles it envisions.

But that’s why Uber are partnering with plane manufacturers, cities, and electric charging companies. The company have announced a wide host of partnerships with aviation companies, including Pipistrel, Aurora Flight Services, and Bell Helicopter. But these partnerships expose the biggest fallacy about “flying cars” – which is that despite the eye-catching headlines (which are admittedly not Uber’s fault) “flying cars” are just, you know, not.

What Uber are actually talking about are the much-less-catchy-and-futuristic-sounding eVTOL aircrafts. eVTOL stands for electric “vertical take-off and landing”, which means – you guessed it – that the aircraft can take off and land vertically, without the need for a runway. Like a helicopter.

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But Uber’s eVTOLs will be unlike helicopters in that they will be smaller, quitter, and autonomous, thus able to fly around cities and land without much trouble. At least, this is why Uber are pairing with real estate companies to create landing pads called “vertipods”, and working with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure air traffic is properly regulated. The company hope to first showcase the new rides at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai, with the first passengers being transported within a decade.

These partnerships and plans – including working with Nasa – mean that Uber’s dreams are far from impossible, but the timescale certainly seems unlikely.

There will be hundreds of planned and unplanned obstacles in Uber’s way (won’t someone please think of the birds?). Consider, for example, driverless cars. People have been experimenting with the technology since the 1920s, and only within the last few years has autonomous cars been tested on public roads. Last month, a self-driving Uber car was involved in an accident, forcing the company to pull them off the road. Uber might be able to test its “flying cars” by 2020, sure, but its statement that its planned on-demand urban air transportation is “achievable in the coming decade” seems at best, bold.

And the company truly could benefit from slowing down a little. Recent press has been bad for the ride-sharing app, which was recently accused of tracking users even after they deleted the app from their phones. The company has also come under near-constant fire for its business practices, which include allegations of failing to properly do background checks on their drivers and attempting to deny its drivers minimum wage, sick pay and paid holiday. Many might prefer it if Uber sorted out its existing problems on the ground before taking to the air.