Do you want to fly to work?
In an onstage interview with me today at the Nantucket Conference, Uber products head Jeff Holden said the fast-growing ride sharing company was seriously looking at a new form of transportation to offer its customers: Short-haul flying in cities.
Called VTOL — which stands for vertical takeoff and landing — Holden said that he has been researching the area, “so we can someday offer our customers as many options as possible to move around.” He added that “doing it in a three-dimensional way is an obvious thing to look at.”
Holden said in the interview that such technology could be in use within a decade, which is an aggressive prediction given issues of the complexity of movement in the air above densely populated areas. (Also, you know, the possibility of these VTOL vehicles crashing into each other.)
Holden, who previously worked at Amazon and Groupon, has been deeply involved in Uber’s recent rollout of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, noted that the company accelerated the development of that technology after it was first mentioned by CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick only a few years ago.
VTOL is certainly a step further in ambition, but it’s a pretty slick concept to imagine and the actual development of such vehicles is far along. Simply put, VTOL is an aircraft that can hover, take off and land vertically, which would also describe a helicopter. But, unlike the typical helicopter, these planes would have multiple rotors, could have fixed wings and perhaps eventually would use batteries and be more silent. In time, like cars, such aircraft could be autonomous.
While Uber’s plans are in their infancy, the idea of airports everywhere — Holden talked about landing on top of buildings in cities, reducing commuting time and congestion dramatically — is compelling. Holden imagined many people would use it together, like a way cooler UberPool. Uber has offered helicopter services before, but it was largely a marketing effort, he said.
VTOL is another thing altogether and, thus far, most of the development of vertical takeoff and landing has been done by the military. Below, for example, is a video that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is imagining as part of its VTOL Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane) program that “aims to overcome these challenges through innovative cross-pollination between fixed-wing and rotary-wing technologies and by developing and integrating novel subsystems to enable radical improvements in vertical and cruising flight capabilities.
There are a lot of startups in the space and also big companies are aggressively experimenting with VTOL. Aeronautics giant Airbus recently unveiled research on air taxis for cities for both passengers and cargo. As noted in Aviation Week last month: “The single-passenger vehicle is being developed by A3, Airbus’s Silicon Valley outpost, under Project Vahana, launched in February. A team of internal and external developers have agreed on a vehicle design, and the prototype is scheduled to fly at the end of 2017.”
Of course, there are a multitude of regulatory and safety issues to overcome — simple drones are freaking people out, so imagine this thing landing in your neighborhood on a regular basis.
But Holden, who described himself as a geek many times onstage in the “Future of Cities” panel that I moderated, seemed giddy at the idea. “It could change cities and how we work and live,” he said, also underscoring the goal of Uber was to eliminate private car ownership in time.
“VTOL is another way to do that,” said Holden, describing a whole new way to commute quickly and efficiently and decrying increasing congestion such as that between San Francisco and near Oakland (it is awful) that makes it impossible to move around urban areas.
And, just to be clear, none of this is a new idea. In 1493, Leonardo da Vinci conceived of an “aerial screw” (see below) that was much in the range of such vehicles.