For decades, when asked to imagine the technology of the future, the stock answer has been flying cars. In reality, the passage of time has brought us innovations of a sort we never foresaw: the ability to send information instantaneously to the other side of the world, to look up any known fact with the click of a button, and to swap faces with a cat. Meanwhile, cars have remained earthbound and transportation technology—planes, trains and automobiles—has retained its familiar form.
Until now, perhaps. Last week Uber, a ride-hailing app, released a 97-page white paper. Its title was “Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation”, and it proposed a programme called Elevate. But the two words that everyone took away from the report were the same ones that have always come to mind when the future is mentioned: flying cars.
Within the next decade, Uber aims to launch a network of flying cars that will turn a two-hour road trip into a 15-minute flight. And it claims that flying over the traffic will cost substantially less than a traditional Uber ride does now.
A promise to bring such a revolution to the way we travel might have been met with scepticism had it not come from a company that has been at the forefront of other big changes. Uber has already transformed urban and even intercity travel with its ride-hailing app. It is also taking the lead in the push for self-driving cars, introducing autonomous vehicles in one American city and aiming to make them the norm before long.
The flying cars wouldn’t exactly be cars. Uber refers to them, clunkily, as VTOLs, for vertical takeoff and landing (pictured). They work like helicopters, disembarking from the equivalent of helipads, which Uber calls “vertiports” (with several landing pads and charging stations, since they will be electrically powered) and “vertistops” (with a single pad and little to no infrastructure). Uber claims that there are already plenty of helipads, parking lots and vacant plots of land that can be used for these purposes.
The bigger challenges will be navigational and regulatory. Before these things take to the air, there needs to be a system for making sure they don’t crash into each other, or into buildings or planes. And any such system will need the government's consent. These hurdles are not small, and they make Uber’s timeframe of a decade look rather ambitious.
What is more, Uber doesn’t plan on developing the VTOLs and the accompanying technology itself. Instead, it hopes to work with private-sector and government partners who will do the heavy technological lifting, while Uber will create and run the platform to connect pilots and passengers. That, again, means a multitude of factors outside the firm's control.
But if, or when, Elevate does get off the ground, there is no doubt that it would be transformational, particularly if it works as efficiently as the company claims. Traffic is no object when you can rise above it and zoom past at 150 miles per hour. Uber predicts that the trip between its hometown of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley hub of San Jose—57 miles and an hour and 40 minutes by car now—would take just 15 minutes. Moreover, whereas an UberX currently costs about $111, the company says an Elevate trip would initially be $129, but that would drop to $43 in the “near term” and $20 in the “long term”.
Gulliver will believe that when he sees it. But he will also gladly pay an extra $18, or far more, if it shaves an hour and a half off the trip.
The impacts of this technology are hard to overstate. For business travellers, an Elevate-like programme would make it possible to schedule meetings in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC in a single day; or to hit San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose and then take the afternoon off. The effect on cities could also be transformative. At first, flying cars (and yes, Gulliver does feel a little odd writing that seriously) would help alleviate urban traffic and make navigating cities far more efficient and pleasant. But in the long run, they could also prompt a migration to the suburbs of the sort effected by the adoption of the automobile in the 1950s, as the well-off opt for extra space and quiet without having to endure brutal commutes.
Then again, it is probably too soon to be contemplating all this. Uber’s proposed timeframe notwithstanding, we are still talking about flying cars—the same innovation we’ve dreamed of idly for more than half a century. Let’s see if and how they actually develop before assessing whether the future of business travel and the allure of cities will be fundamentally altered.