Uber has been in the news a lot lately — and not all of the press has been good, especially after one of its self-driving cars killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona during a test drive. That, and some of the other bad Uber press, makes us extremely skeptical about the announcement that Uber is planning on building not just a self-driving car — but one that flies. Is Uber’s plan to make a flying car actually safe or should we be on the lookout for falling cars in the not too distant future?
Flying New York
Uber announced in April of last year that it had a plan to bring flying cars to New York sometime in the next five years. The goal is to help reduce traffic congestion and make commutes a little less stressful by allowing people to commute through the air instead of traveling along the ground. These flying cars would be capable of vertical takeoff and landing — similar to helicopters or Harrier jets.
Blade Helicopter Service claimed they are working with Uber to bring flying cars to New York, though Uber has said that they aren’t planning to bring VTOL vehicles to New York anytime soon.
In theory, these VTOL’s could be as affordable as taking a taxi for short commutes. The average taxi in New York City charges $3 initially, then $2 a mile or $0.40 a mile while stopped or in traffic. Uber’s VTOL’s could, in theory, cost as little as $1.32 a mile and may be able to get you from point A to point B much faster — no traffic and top speeds of up to 200 miles per hour ensure that.
That is, after the initial set up period. Theoretically, the trip from the San Francisco Marina to downtown San Jose could cost around $20 once the program is established. However, initially the 15-minute flight will probably cost you upwards of $125. It might save you some time — the trip by car takes almost two hours where a VTOL flight will only take you about 15 minutes — but it will take a big chunk out of your wallet if you want to be one of the first Elevate passengers.
While it sounds ideal if you need to get somewhere in New York or other major cities, how safe are they really?
Navigating the FAA
The FAA is in charge of anything that flies, especially if it carries passengers. In order to get these birds in the air, Uber will have to work with the FAA to regulate how and where these flying cars will be allowed to fly within the city limits, and the FAA currently doesn’t seem keen on the idea.
There are also safety concerns – including how long one the VTOL’s battery will last before needing to be recharged, and how many people they can carry safely.
There is also the concern of the manufacturing of these flying cars. Many of the same technology that is used in self-driving cars will probably carry over into flying vehicles as well. Liquid silicone rubber parts, which assists in many of the safety equipment and comfort in self-driving cars, could be used to help with passenger and driver safety during flights.
One thing that is working in Uber’s favor is that they’ve teamed up with NASA to develop an entirely new type of air traffic control for low-flying aircrafts. The same programs that help airliners navigate at 30,000 feet wouldn’t work for small passenger craft trying to navigate the cityscape.
One technological issue VTOL’s are facing is being battery powered. Currently, electric cars rely on very heavy batteries to power them, weighing in anywhere from 230 to 600 kilograms (507-1322 pounds).
They also take quite a while to charge — even the Tesla Supercharger takes more than an hour to reach full charge. These batteries would not work for long-range commutes in a VTOL, and may even be insufficient, due to their weight, for short term commutes.
This will require Uber to develop an entirely new type of lightweight battery or power system for their flying cars. Liquid silicone rubber, which is used in many automotive parts, is insulating and can create lightweight products, which is also ideal for fuel efficiency. Other designs are in progress that work to align the stator field and the rotor field that could increase efficiency while decreasing weight.
Regardless of the design, VTOLs will need a more lightweight battery or they may not be able to even get off the ground.
One of the biggest obstacles the company will be facing isn’t in the development of these flying cars – it’s in the need to develop an infrastructure in the cities that they’re planning to launch in to enable the VTOLs to take off and land safely without interfering with current traffic structures. Heliports are one option but there aren’t enough to work as the primary launch and landing sites, especially if they might interfere with existing helicopter traffic.
The first two launch cities, Los Angeles and Dallas, likely have enough heliports to support the VTOL program initially but other cities may not, and building the infrastructure to make VTOLs as common as taxis would be costly for cities. Residents may also not want to see these massive ‘vertiports’ dotting the landscape.
There are two types of emissions that will need to be addressed before you can hail a flying Uber for your morning commute — pollution and noise.
Ideally, both of these concerns will be addressed in the design of the Uber VTOLs. The plan right now, as outlined in Uber’s white paper on the subject, is to create electric flying cars that create no CO2 and use electric motors that will generate little to no ambient noise. In theory, you wouldn’t even be able to hear one of these cars in flight if you’re on the ground below — it would be quieter than the ambient traffic noise that is perpetually present in most cities, which is one thing the VTOL has going for it.
Right now, the Uber Elevate white paper is the best source of information on this project, but most of it is still speculation and planning.
So, when it comes down to it, are these flying Uber’s safe? That remains to be seen. Right now, they don’t even have a prototype for us to observe or safety test. Once they have a working prototype, we’ll have a better idea of how much work it will be more air spaces and cities to accommodate VTOLs and how safe these flying cars actually would be. If everything goes well, you might be able to hail a flying cab to get you to and from work in the next 5 years or so, if prices do not stay at a considerably higher rate than regular Ubers.
There’s no guarantee that this will be a good thing. Uber claims to be making these flying cars safer than ground-bound passenger cars, but you may not want to climb into one until we’re sure that it won’t fall out of the sky the first time something goes wrong.
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