Uber won't build flying cars

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Uber’s eyes are on a new prize: flying cars.

Outlined in a white paper published this week, the company’s chief product officer, Jeff Holden, describes a network of small, electric aircraft that can take-off and land vertically (VTOL, or vertical take-off and landing, aircraft) to enable speedy and reliable commuting that it claims will ease congestion in cities.

Uber doesn’t plan to build any of these "flying cars", but has produced a plan called Elevate to set out what needs to be done for the dozens of companies that are building them, including Terrafugia, AeroMobil, Moller International and Pal-V.

It’s a little like how Elon Musk bequeathed to the world his idea for the Hyperloop transport system, which two independent companies are battling to implement.

"On-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes," says the paper, which points out that an average San Francisco resident spends 230 hours commuting between work and home each year. "That’s half a million hours of productivity lost every single day."

In cities such as Los Angeles and Sydney the problem is even more acute, with residents spending seven weeks each year commuting – two of which are in gridlock – while in Mumbai the average commute takes 90 minutes.

"For all of us, that’s less time with family, less time at work growing our economies, more money spent on fuel – and a marked increase in our stress levels," says Uber’s report.

Uber argues that it will be cheaper to build infrastructure for a network of flying cars than it would be to build roads, railways and bridges, as mini airports – called vertiports – could be built on top of buildings. Moreover, the aircraft wouldn’t have to follow fixed routes, which should eliminate bottlenecks caused on the ground by single accidents or roadworks.

It’s not entirely altruistic. Once enough of these vehicles exist, Uber could then use its network to connect those vehicles with paying passengers and use software to plan the optimal route from A to B – for a fee.

Not everyone is convinced by Uber’s grand plan.

"The paper is good, it goes over all the details, but they have underestimated the certification process and air traffic control," said Colin Snow, CEO of Skylogic Research, which specializes in unmanned aerial systems.

He points out that aeronautical engineer Molton Taylor had the same vision in the 1940s, proposing something called the Aerocar. "This is the Silicon Valley version of that," he said.

"Aviation is highly regulated and gets more complex as time goes on. The assumption that technology will somehow fix the problem is hubris," he said, pointing out that it took 10 years of negotiations with the Federal Aviation Authority to create regulation for small drones.

Snow isn’t the only one to detect the hubris. Bhaskar Chakravorti, an economics scholar from Tufts University, added: "We see this hubris over and over again, like when Uber went to China – and look what happened. It’s all about how big and mighty they are and what their strategic intent is, but ultimately they are feeding their egos."

Uber’s posturing could help build excitement and momentum for the brand to encourage more people to use the company’s "vanilla car-sharing".

"Look at Google. It goes into all kinds of experiments that don’t make any money largely because there’s a brand halo that keeps people attached to Google’s search engine and Gmail for the ad revenue," said Chakravorti.

However, in the past few years there has been a renewed interest in personal aviation from those who made their millions from social networks and search engines. Google’s Larry Page, for example, has invested in two flying car startups, Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk.

In some ways, the flying car is a metaphor for a future where all our needs are taken care of by technology.

"We grew up watching the Jetsons so flying cars are part of a vision of the future where our lives are made so much easier through a combination of seamless transportation and automation," said Chakravorti.

That utopian vision has been combined with a very personal pain point for entrepreneurs like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick: no matter how successful you are, you still have to spend time sitting in traffic.

The result? A lot of clever people and money are gravitating towards solutions to that problem, whether through developing cars that drive themselves or take to the air.

"It comes from trying to solve a personal problem and then externalizing it," Chakravorti said. "This obsession with flying cars takes the intellectual and financial capital away from the real problems that need to be solved."

2016.11.01 / 11:15
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