Flying cars have, until now, been confined to tales of sci-fi and fantasy: from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Back to the Future. However, childhood promises of flying cars could soon become a reality following Uber's recent announcement at their Elevate summit in April.
In the wake of a White Paper published in October last year, Uber have laid out bold plans to test launch 'flying cars' in Dubai and Texas by 2020. These flying taxis could eventually become an option on their ride-hailing app.
However, before you get too excited, Uber's flying car is a far cry from Marty and Doc's DeLorean. The White Paper describes an on-demand aircraft – "the VTOL" – vertically taking off and landing from "Vertiports" on top of car parks or on unused land surrounding motorways. The closest equivalent technology is the helicopter. Although, unlike the helicopter, the VTOL will be powered by electric propulsion and operate with zero emissions without being prohibitively expensive. It is envisaged that initial test cases will be limited to daily long distance commutes for individuals unconcerned with cost.
Uber dominates the ride-hailing space with 40 million monthly users, and is confident that their ride-sharing model (uberPOOL), will kick start the technology. UberPOOL will lower the price of a journey, boost usage and therefore demand for vehicle production, which should ultimately drive manufacturing costs down. The end-goal is on-demand aviation as a flexible alternative form of daily transport for the masses at a fraction of the cost of a car.
Uber are not alone in their sky-high ambition. In the last year, Airbus launched Project Vahana, a self-piloted vehicle concept, and Google's co-founder Larry Page, has launched the Kitty Hawk, a rota-blade powered, jet ski style aircraft available to purchase by the end of 2017.
Are Uber's plans a flight of fancy?
Beyond affordability, Uber sets out a number of obstacles, including creating the infrastructure in cities ('vertiports' for the VTOL to land) and reducing aircraft noise to an acceptable level. A significant operational barrier is the fact that technology capable of propelling the vehicle into the air does not exist. Rather than developing the technology itself, Uber's business plan is to catalyse development of prototypes by third party manufacturers off the back of its dominant market share of the ride-sharing economy. Uber has the customer base if the right partners can produce the product. In this vein, Uber has already partnered with a host of organisations, including aviation company Bell Helicopter.
Who will actually drive the vehicles is another problem. Uber envisages qualified pilots as drivers, but training is very time intensive and there is likely to be a shortage of pilots to meet demand. The alternative is permitting drivers without a licence, as intended by Larry Page's Kitty Hawk. But if the aircraft become available to the general public, questionable drivers consumed in moments of road-rage-cum-air-rage could cause significant problems. In addition, it could be impossible to police the condition of such vehicles if privately-owned. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Tesla's Elon Musk put it bluntly: "if somebody doesn't maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you".
With no clear solutions in sight, it remains to be seen if and when Uber's plans will take flight.