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Future of Transportation-What’s behind Uber’s Flying Cars

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Uber was a revolution in the transport business when they started offering rides in cars that they didn’t own. Now they want to revolutionize the aeronautical industry by offering flights in the flying cars that we don’t have yet.   

Aircraft resizing or drone evolution?

In their last White Paper published on October 27th, Uber proposed a near-future scenario in which traveling from San Francisco Marina district to San Jose (a 1h 40min drive) would take only 15 minutes thanks to their on-demand flying cars.

uber's aerial car
© Uber

We saw it coming years ago, but very few have had the resources or the initiative to step up with this kind of project. From a logical perspective, personal aerial transportation was the natural evolution of general aviation and short-haul flights. Nevertheless, aircraft design has barely changed in the last 50 years due to the slow process of testing and certification.

On the other side, the rapidly growing industry of commercial drones has created the perfect time for testing new systems and the urge to approach low level flight operations. Uber already stated that in the first stages these aircrafts will fly with a pilot only for situational awareness, making them autonomous in the future. Given that they will possibly share part of the airspace with commercial UAVs, this means that all flight systems, communications, operations and the needed infrastructure will very likely be similar for both cases.

Flying Cars -The challenges to overcome:

As feasible as it may sound, this is not an easy road and there are many challenges ahead:

  • Certification Process: Any vehicle and operation will still need to comply (thankfully) to US FAA and European EASA regulations. This can easily add several years to the project timeline.
  • Battery Technology: Even with Tesla and the smartphone industry pushing it forward, the performance (capacity, charge rate, life cycles) is still far from what would be considered ideal. 
  • Vehicle efficiency: VTOL capabilities, Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP) and 50 mile flights at speeds of 150-200mph. Some companies studying such concepts: Zee.aero, Airbus, Joby S2, Ehang 184, Lilium aviation.
  • Air Traffic Control: The design of operational systems and protocols will be key to achieve success. The airspace will become more congested and complex.
  • Cost & Affordability: In order to make the whole service competitive the production rate for such vehicles must be higher than in current comparable aircrafts.
  • Safety: This is the what matters to most to potential users. Statistically speaking, flying on an Uber aircraft should be twice as safe as driving a car.
  • Noise: Propellers are not silent at all. Even without a combustion engine the buzzing of the flying cars is quite noticeable. Special effort has to be put into this issue in order to avoid denial of operation in some areas.
  • Emissions: Environmental footprint have to be considered especially for a large-scale business. Battery packs could be, for instance, recharged using solar panels or other clean energy sources.
  • Infrastructure: “Vertiport” or “vertistop” as they call it. Cities are not designed for such operations yet, so landing and takeoff platforms would have to be located on the top floors of buildings or last-mile strategic locations from city centers.ehang 184 flying cars
    © Ehang 184

The road to no roads

Uber has effectively presented a concept that promises to add a third dimension to the daily commutes. Although it may seem an exciting futuristic scenario, there are people already working on those ideas. See the case of Kairos, a company with a similar approach to on-demand aerial transportation and specific focus on Air Traffic Management.

According to E. Uriarte, its CEO, flying cars will need to be completely autonomous and surveilled by trained pilots on the ground with full authority to control them remotely if required. Routes from A to B will need to be pre-defined based on previous safety analysis.

The main question in the future will not be whether unmanned vehicles are safe or not for the rest of the traffic, but if the manned vehicles are safe enough for unmanned operations.

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