Taking a page from tech industrialist Elon Musk, well known for promoting audacious futuristic concepts including a Mars colonization plan and a vacuum tube-based Hyperloop system to transport people and cargo at near supersonic speed, ridehailing giant Uber has laid out a vision for the future that includes small, helicopter-like vehicles to help commuters literally overcome congested roadways.
The company sketched out the concept in a post on Medium.com today by Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer. It also posted a 97-page white paper detailing the benefits and challenges of creating such a service.
Forget about terrible freeway traffic. If Uber’s idea is realized, some day commuters will summon flying-car-type VTOLs, or Vertical Take-off and Landing vehicles, to ferry them to their destination, avoiding ground-based headaches. The company hasn’t itself perfected the technology, but envisions electric, fixed-wing vehicles with multiple overhead propellers. Ideally, they would take off and land at spaces including existing office building helipads, from atop modified parking garages or even unused available land near highway interchanges to create a network of “vertiports,” according to the company.
“On-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes,” Holden said in the post. “A network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities.”
Unlike helicopters, these vehicles would need to be much quieter and “will ultimately use autonomy technology to significantly reduce operator error,” he said.
In contrast to Musk’s Hyperloop proposal, the technology for an airborne ride-hailing system may not be as challenging as the legal and regulatory issues. In particular, showing that this type of low-flying vehicle can operate safely in urban environments will be tricky, said Katie Thomson, a former general counsel for the U.S. Transportation Department who now chairs the transportation group for Morrison & Foerster LLP.
“The technological aspects of a driverless passenger plane are much easier to tackle than the operational/integration aspects,” Thomson said. “As a general matter, the public is willing to accept less risk when it comes to flying than they tend to be when they are using surface transportation.”
She sees three significant hurdles ahead if Uber moves forward with its on-demand air transportation plan. These include creating a workable air traffic control system and airworthiness standards for such vehicles; managing noise issues; and the need for Uber to meet a federal “economic fitness review” to be authorized to operate as a new air carrier.
Holden acknowledges these and other obstacles ahead, and also notes that Uber has no plan to produce such vehicles itself. Companies including Joby Aviation, Airbus and Zee.Aero, reportedly working with Google co-founder Larry Page on his own flying-car project, are already working on the technology, Uber said.
“Rather than manufacture VTOL hardware ourselves, we instead look to collaborate with vehicle developers, regulators, city and national governments, and other community stakeholders, while bringing to the table a very fertile market of excited consumers and a clear vehicle and operations use case,” he said.
Without question creating such a service, if challenges can be overcome, opens up remarkable possibilities.
“On-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes,” Holden said. “Uber is close to the commute pain that citizens in cities around the world feel. We view helping to solve this problem as core to our mission and our commitment to our rider base.”
This article was written by Alan Ohnsman from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.