If driverless tech was the key to making flying cars safe, drone tech is the key to making them affordable and ready for mass-production.
Beyond looking silly, strapping plane wings to a car was a flawed idea in many ways. Wings mean the vehicle has to take off horizontally, which is dangerous, cumbersome and requires a lot of space. By switching to vertical thrusters, the vehicle can achieve a high altitude much faster, which saves a lot of energy. With such a design, you can strip the vehicle of it’s most dangerous, movables parts, such as the wings, the tail, and elevators. The resulting design is simpler, safer and easier to mass produce.
Another key part of the design is the electric motor. Beyond this being great for the environment, electricity is the most logical option for VTOLs. Because they don’t require as many moving parts, electric motors are much easier to produce than combustion engines. They are also way more energy efficient, easier to maintain, less likely to break down mid-flight and can’t explode in case of impact. Electric motors also facilitate having multiple asyncronised thrusters. If one thruster fail, the others can instantly adjust to compensate and land safely. Finally, electricity has the huge benefit of being silent. This is a big distinguishing factor between VTOLs and helicopters. In their paper, Uber estimates that, during take-off, the VTOL’s noise will be comparable to the city’s background noise. During flight, it will be barely audible.
…traffic wastes about $124 billion annually. One of the biggest causes of traffic is the lack of infrastructure. Our highways were never designed to sustain today’s amount of commuters. With VTOLs, that won’t be a problem anymore. Their mainstream adoption would massively reduce the need for roads, rails, bridges and tunnels. In addition to being great news for the environment, this would mean hundreds of billions of dollars in potential infrastructure savings.
Furthermore, not being bound to infrastructure also means saving a lot of time. Trains, buses, and cars can only go from A to B in limited and sometimes inefficient ways. Roads are constantly exposed to interruptions, such as car crashes or construction work. Flying, on the other hand, means being able to travel in a straight line, which is the shortest distance between you and your destination. In addition, being able to take off and land vertically is a huge advantage over current aircrafts because you aren’t dependent on airports and runways anymore. Just take off from home, and land straight at your destination. Again, less infrastructure required, more time saved.
In their paper, Uber estimates long-distance commute as the best initial use-case for VTOLS. Ultimately, with mass production, they believe VTOLs could be cheaper than owning a car. For example, a 2h12 drive from San Francisco to San Jose could eventually be a 15-minutes, $20 ride in VTOL. Pretty good.
The Road Ahead
Flying cars still have a long way to go. In their white paper, Uber underlines the major challenges needed to make them a reality. For starters, even if they don’t require any pilots, new flying vehicles need to comply with FAA regulations, which will likely take a long time. Furthermore, there are still concerns about costs, safety, and the battery technology isn’t quite there yet. In their white paper, Uber present how they plan to address those concerns and achieve public adoption of VTOLs within 10 years.
In Zero to One, Peter Thiel present the controversial idea that we don’t live in an innovative world anymore. He argues that, while the industrial revolution saw massive innovations such as electricity, home appliances, skyscrapers, cars, airplanes, etc, today’s innovation is mostly confined to IT and communication. As Thiel puts it, our smartphones distract us from the fact that our lifestyle has remained strangely unchanged since the 1950s.
I would propose that it is not the case anymore. At least, not in transportations. Recent projects such as the self-driving car, the Hyperloop, and reusable rockets prove that innovation is alive and well. And now, on-demand shared flying cars promise to democratize air travel the same way the car once democratized ground transportation. Ultimately, this means better, faster, cheaper, safer and environmentally friendlier mobility for all.
Flying cars might still have a long road ahead of them, but it doesn’t matter. Because Marty, where we’re going, we don’t need roads.