It is safe to say that anyone ever stuck in a traffic jam has definitely thought of flying cars. Basically, little planes flying in the sky a la George Jetson, from the hit TV cartoon show, The Jetsons. Flying cars might not be a flight of fancy much longer. If the efforts of some companies bear fruit, we could be flying short distances or within cities over the next few years, without having to go through the trouble of going to the airport, safety checks, boarding, web-check in, and baggage claim. U.S. ride-hailing service Uber Technologies, which had changed the face of urban transportation in many cities across the world, has now launched a ‘flying car’ project called Uber Elevate, which it hopes will be ready for takeoff in the U.S. in 2020 .
How does Uber plan to change the future of transporation? Simple, it is betting on the use of battery-powered vehicles with the capability of vertical takeoffs and landings. In a white paper published in 2016, Uber had said it would create a network of on-demand, fully electric aircraft that take off and land vertically. Basically, you could be hailing a flying taxi with the Uber app, instead of a regular cab. “Essentially what we want to create (through Uber Elevate) is not only an Uber on the ground but also an Uber in the sky,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told a press event in New Delhi last month .
Khosrowshahi says these vehicles will be available on a pilot basis in about five years. “They will be safe, they will be quieter, we are talking to manufacturers right now, and we are talking to cities about how you have to build this technology to be safe, what kind of air route can you create, from city centres to airports etc. Ultimately it is very much in the interest of a number of cities to solve congestion problems and create high-speed quarters for travel within their cities,” he says.
Uber is working with partners, including NASA, to take the idea of flying electric cars from the realm of science fiction to reality. “Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft will make the use of electric propulsion so they have zero operational emissions and will likely be quiet enough to operate in cities without disturbing the neighbours,” says the Uber white paper. “At flying altitude, noise from advanced electric vehicles will be barely audible. Even during take-off and landing, the noise will be comparable to existing background noise.”
But flying taxis won’t have a smooth ride. Let’s say Uber manages to create the product and gets approvals, it will still be quite difficult to actually run it with the current infrastructure. And to convince people to actually fly in it is another matter. These cars will need a place to land. And if Uber Elevate has to work like the regular Uber cab service, it will need landing pads across a city. Also, the navigation systems will have to be a lot more sophisticated .
Uber is not alone in the race. There are many players working on the technology, and trying to be the first one out there in the market. German company Lilium actually successfully tested a VTOL jet last year. More competition comes from aerospace giants like Boeing and Airbus. Chinese drone manufacturer Ehang actually flew one of its drones with 40 journalists in it over the Chinese city of Guangzhou.
A 2018 report by Deloitte says that with the increasing popularity of small unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, and regulations increasingly supporting their commercial use, passenger drones and flying cars appear to be moving closer to reality. “In terms of technology, the industry is at an advanced development phase, and if safety and regulatory hurdles are cleared, passenger drones are expected to get wings by 2018–2020, and traditional flying cars by 2020–2022, while revolutionary vehicles could be a reality only by 2025,” the report says.
The talk around alternative means of transport has become quite intense in the past few years. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is working on something called the Hyperloop, or people-carrying pods that travel through a vacuumised tube. Washington recently issued a permit to Musk’s The Boring Company for preparatory and excavation work to examine the feasibility of a Hyperloop network under the city.
But Musk is not on board with the flyingtaxi idea. While replying to a journalist on Twitter, the Tesla, SpaceX founder said, “If you love drones above your house, you’ll really love vast numbers of ‘cars’ flying over your head that are 1000 times bigger and noisier and blow away anything that isn’t nailed down when they land.” Khosrowshahi tweeted back, “Challenge accepted. Improved battery tech (thx 2 @elonmusk) and multiple smaller rotors will be much more efficient and avoid noise + environmental pollution.”
Battery technology is evolving fast thanks to electric cars, but it hasn’t quite been used to fly planes so far. Uber has hired a senior manager for battery pack development at Tesla, Celina Mikolajczak, to Elevate this year. “With the battery technology radically improving, in terms of the size of batteries, the power of batteries and the storage capacity of batteries, we believe that we are in now in a position for manufacturers to build vehicles that have multiple rotors, that create a safe environment for vertical take-off, and because you got multiple rotors, the noise pollution for these vehicles is much lower than the noise pollution that you see for helicopters,” Khosrowshahi says.
But before we in India truly enter the world of flying cars that a young Michael J. Fox saw in the 1980s Hollywood movie based on time travel, Back to the Future, there are more than a few regulatory hurdles to clear. In a recent interview with Fortune India, Jayant Sinha, the minister of state for civil aviation, pointed to the reasons why regulations are required. “Air traffic has to be managed as we start getting different flying equipment operating in India whether it is the helicopters, the seaplanes, the drones, the jets etc. All of these will be in the skies and so how do we manage so many different flying objects? The plan is to ensure safe and seamless traffic management,” said Sinha.
The good news is India, like many others in the world, is recognising the future early. Sinha said that the government is working on regulations and a legal framework that will help drones to operate. “We have to ensure that the drone regulations are out in a way that it encourages alternative types of transportations,” he added. The question is: Will everybody soon be chanting Wingardium Leviosa?
( The article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of the magazine. )