Uber has already rolled out driverless cars, but now they want their ride-hailing service to take to the skies.
During Uber Elevate, a three-day summit held in Dallas last month, Uber said there could be a prototype for a flying car in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Dubai by 2020.
In fact, their hope is to conduct passenger flights at the World Expo in Dubai in 2020.
It sounds like something from 'The Jetsons,' but it's what Uber's Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden says will happen sooner rather than later.
The bold statement caught our attention, and had us wondering: Could we see flying cars by 2020?
According to Missy Cummings, a professor at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, there are three main barriers that stand in the way of making Uber's on-demand flight system a reality: regulation, safety and testing.
Cummings, who is also the Director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab, has studied public policy implications for unmanned vehicles. She told ABC10 that the type of aircraft Uber is envisioning as their fleet of air taxis have never been tested for passenger safety, or been certified as safe for flight and for passengers.
Uber first outlined their plans for a fleet of electric planes in a 98-page white paper.
Published in Oct. 2016, it laid out Uber's vision for air transit, including vehicles that would hit the skies, and clock between 100 and 150 miles per hour. It would make a trip from San Jose to San Francisco, which could take nearly two hours during rush hour, take 15 minutes by air.
A rider would open the Uber app, and choose "UberAir." That rider would be taken to a "skyport," where they would board an aircraft that is shared with other passengers, The Mercury News reported.
Uber is not creating their own flying machines, but working with other companies on aircraft development. They also are not the only ones trying to create flying cars. Last month, a Silicon Valley startup backed by Google co-founder Larry Page released a prototype for a flying car: a one-seat aircraft that hovers over water.
What are VTOLs?
The planes Uber wants to roll out look more like drones and are called electric vertical take off and landing aircraft, or VTOLs. The idea is that they would fly straight up like a helicopter, then fly forward like a plane.
But like drones, or any other unmanned aircraft system, there needs to be a set of rules for operating them.
According to Cummings, the VTOLs would need to be tracked using a new air traffic control system because it is tough for radar to pick up flying aircraft at low altitudes.
NASA is working on a traffic management system for drones, and have even done test runs in Crows Landing near Modesto, but the system is still in the beginning stages, Cummings said.
Before the VTOLs can be cleared for takeoff, they must get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, who is in charge of all aspects of civil aviation.
In a long statement to ABC10, the FAA said they are working with several companies on autonomous passenger aircraft.
"We are taking a flexible, open-minded, and risk-based approach to integrating new technologies into the world's busiest, most complex – and safest – aviation system. We have discussed certification projects with several manufacturers of aircraft that will be flown with a pilot in the beginning, then will be converted to an autonomous passenger aircraft in the future. We also have been working with NASA’s On Demand Mobility project addressing advanced air transportation concepts, which include similar vehicles. Several areas still need further research and development, particularly the operational aspects of making sure the automation that will 'fly' the autonomous aircraft is safe, and how the automation will interact with the air traffic control system. We believe automation technology already being prototyped in low-risk unmanned aircraft missions, when fully mature, could have a positive effect on general aviation safety."
The FAA declined to speculate on any timeline for implementing rules and regulations on autonomous passenger aircraft because they could vary with every new model or product.
So will we have flying cars by 2020? It depends on what Uber means by flying cars. According to Cummings, if it is a pilot controlling an aircraft from the ground, then no. A more realistic year for flying cars becoming a reality is 2030, she said.
Cummings pointed out that it took years to set rules for commercial drone operations, and even then, there's a 55-pound weight limit. Going from drones to something that carries people is a big jump.
As for Uber's claim about having sky taxis by 2020, we're labeling this not verified.
- Missy Cummings, Duke University Professor, Pratt School of Engineering
- Federal Aviation Administration
- Uber, "Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation," Oct. 27, 2015
- NASA, "First Steps Toward Drone Traffic Management," Nov. 19, 2015