Thus far, it was thought that Uber saw the future of transport in self-driving vehicles. The company has an aggressive autonomous driving project, and is even carrying out live trials in several cities. But Uber’s ambitions might be grander — a whole lot grander.
Uber’s announced that it will launch a network of flying cars in Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai by 2020. Uber envisions a future where you’d hail a cab just like usual, and a regular Uber will show up where you are. However instead of ferrying you to your destination, it will instead take you to one of Uber’s airpods, from where you’ll be able to board a flying car to take you to where you want to go. Uber sees the flying car as more of a long-distance commute solution, but claims that it’ll cost about as much as a regular taxi.
This plan is ambitious, but Uber seems to believe it has it all worked out. The technology for the flying car — the most vital component in this grand scheme — doesn’t exist yet, but Uber is already in talks with partner companies. Unlike the self-driving car project for which Uber builds technology in-house, Uber will play the role of a facilitator for the flying cars, bringing together the companies to make its vision a reality.
The company has identified real estate companies in Texas and the UAE to identify locations for “vertiports” and get them built. It’s also tied up with Chargepoint, which operates 34,000 electric vehicle charging spots in North America and Australia, to design, develop, and deploy the infrastructure needed to keep the aircraft going. And most importantly, Uber has signed deals with five companies that are developing electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
While most flying car projects are being run in secret, the technology is slowly becoming increasingly sophisticated. Google cofounder Larry Page backed startup Kitty Hawk unveiled its first flying car prototype yesterday, and other startups are working towards their own VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) machines. Given how the technology is progressing, it’s conceivable that flying cars might become commonplace before self-driving cars. Flying cars have the advantage of not having to deal with elements such a traffic and pedestrians, and could ultimately be easier to deploy in real world situations.
Challenges, though, will abound. Uber has had several run-ins with enforcement agencies, and getting permission and clearance to operate these flying taxis will stretch its lobbying capabilities. The technology too isn’t available yet, and fine-tuning it to make it available to the general public could take a while. But if flying cars are to happen, Uber’s probably the best company to bring them to fruition. It has a network of cars across 75 countries to take people from their homes to the airpods, it has the technical expertise to build something this complex, and it has the hustle and the connections with governments that’ll prove essential. And most importantly, it’s thrown the gauntlet by announcing a launch in under three years. Exciting times for human mobility might be closer than we think.