Congestion is the bane of all city dwellers. Getting from Long Island or Rahway into New York City every day consumes many millions of hours for commuters every year. Driving down the San Francisco peninsula from the Castro district to Cupertino is something every Bay Area driver dreads. Congestion is what inspired Elon Musk to propose the Hyperloop and the idea of boring tunnels underground. Uber has its own idea about how to conquer congestion and it involves an autonomous flying car that will whisk urbanites quickly and economically from place to place.
The autonomous flying car was first proposed back in 2010 by Mark Moore, chief technologist for on-demand mobility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Moore has been the leading proponent for VTOL vehicles — devices that are capable of taking off and landing vertically. He has just agreed to join Uber as the director of engineering at Uber Elevate. That’s what the ride-hailing company calls its division dedicated to the exploration of airborne on-demand services. The vision is for a fleet of small vehicles powered by electric motors that can fly 50 to 100 miles on a single battery charge.
Eventually, they will fly autonomously, summoned whenever needed by a smartphone app in much the same way people summon a ride from an Uber driver today. Until that day arrives, human drivers/pilots will need to be part of the mix. Moore says the key to his decision to join Uber is that the company is able to articulate a practical business case for a flying commuter transit service. “I can’t think of another company in a stronger position to be the leader for this new ecosystem and make the urban electric VTOL market real,” he says.
Nikhil Goel, Uber’s head of product for advanced programs, says the company wants to spur development of flying cars. “Uber continues to see its role as an accelerant-catalyst to the entire ecosystem, and we are excited to have Mark joining us to work with manufacturers and stakeholders as we continue to explore the use case described in our whitepaper,” Goel writes in an email to Bloomberg.
This is a bold move for Moore. He is one year away from being eligible for retirement from NASA. He says Uber is “in the right place at the right time to make this market real.” Part of his motivation appears to be a certain disillusionment with the environment at NASA, saying the agency is leaving promising new aviation markets to the private industry. “It’s the federal government who is best positioned to overcome extremely high levels of risks,” he says.
Moore’s ideas have inspired others to consider similar ventures. Google’s Larry Page is funding Kitty Hawk, a startup focusing on VTOL aircraft for personal transportation. Airbus is also pursuing a similar idea with its Vahana project. The technical hurdles are enormous but the practical challenges of permitting and finding space in crowded urban areas for hundreds of personal aircraft to land and take off are daunting as well.
It may be that future cities will witness fleets of self-flying cars ferrying folks about, but they could just as easily feature clouds of VTOLs hovering in the air, awaiting permission to land. Uber and Page and Airbus all see money to be made doing this. “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.