San Francisco: Uber Technologies Inc., still in the midst of trying to remake transportation on the ground, is exploring the viability of an aircraft that can take off and land vertically for city use. The ride-hailing giant published a 98-page whitepaper outlining its research titled “Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation.”
While Uber isn’t planning to build its concept for a helicopter-like vehicle, the San Francisco start-up said it would organize a conference to discuss the development of what it calls VTOL, or an aircraft for vertical takeoff and landing. It refers to the nascent flying-car program as Uber Elevate.
“We also believe that in the long-term, VTOLs will be an affordable form of daily transportation for the masses, even less expensive than owning a car,” Uber wrote in its whitepaper (PDF). “Rather than manufacture VTOL hardware ourselves, we instead look to collaborate with vehicle developers, regulators, city and national governments, and other community stakeholders, while bringing to the table a very fertile market of excited consumers and a clear vehicle and operations use case.”
Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive officer and co-founder, has launched a sort of futurist’s arms race with Alphabet Inc. CEO Larry Page. Google, which is 18 years old, has mastered the art of futurology, with augmented reality, self-driving vehicles and human-life extension. Page has personally invested in start-ups building flying cars. Bloomberg Businessweek reported in June that Page has spent more than $100 million on Zee.Aero, one such flying-vehicle maker.
Some of Google’s more outlandish “moonshots,” as it calls them, haven’t come to fruition. Google Glass, a prototype computerized monocle, was an embarrassing bust. Its long-running autonomous car project hasn’t reached commercial viability, but it has motivated the auto industry to prioritize the technology.
Uber, founded in 2009, is investing in self-driving vehicles of its own, hiring researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and purchasing the autonomous trucking company Otto. Uber recently started picking up passengers in Pittsburgh in self-driving Volvo cars.
As Uber draws attention to its vision for flying cars, the company acknowledges that it will take many years to develop. The paper reads, “The vision portrayed above is ambitious, but we believe it is achievable in the coming decade.” The barriers to success that it sees are lengthy, including regulations, limitations in battery technology, aircraft noise and safety.