Uber sort of enters the “flying car” game with a 99-page white paper


It’s Uber’s Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden, and by extension Travis Kalanick’s, Hyperloop blueprint moment à la Elon Musk. Except people are already doing it.

In 2040, the roads will be occupied by self-driving cars. People will be shot through a series of tubes at 700 mph from city to city and, if Silicon Valley has its way, people will be hailing “flying cars” to avoid rush-hour traffic.

That’s the dream Uber’s Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden laid out in a 99-page white paper today: A future where Uber riders can hail a Jetsons-like vertical take-off and landing aircraft (VTOL) from their phones (or whatever device we may be using at that point).

What is a VTOL aircraft? It’s a plane that uses propulsion to take off and land vertically (like a rocket).

Is Uber building them? No.

So what is this paper about? The ride-hail giant lays out what needs to be done for companies who want to build these VTOL planes.

Why? A couple of reasons: 1) So they can commercialize these planes for money; 2) So they can provide an alternative to car ownership that would ostensibly take cars off the road and funnel more users to their core business of car-hailing.

The company has been seriously researching the technology for quite some time, and it could be in use within a decade, Holden told Kara Swisher at the Nantucket Conference in September. The paper, which is very detailed, lays out the benefits of VTOL travel (less congestion, fewer emissions, may eventually be cheaper) and the many, many regulatory and logistical hurdles any company attempting to build and commercialize these aircrafts will come across.

It’s Uber’s, and by extension its CEO Travis Kalanick’s, attempt at catalyzing companies with the ambition to create “air-taxis” to start building. In exchange, Uber plans to deliver a clear market and demand for the vehicles when they’ve figured it out. It’s a paper in some ways akin to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop blueprint that stemmed the creation of two private companies, Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Technologies, that are both working vigorously to make it a reality.

Except, and yes there is an except, there are a number of companies already doing it, as Holden admitted. In other words, this is not exactly revolutionary in the same way Hyperloop was. Airbus’ Silicon Valley subsidiary A³ recently unveiled its VTOL concept called Vahana and said it plans to have a working prototype by the end of 2017. Alphabet’s Larry Page has a “flying car” company called Zee.Aero that as of June had 150 employees.

So while Holden’s paper may not be creating an entirely new market for an unforeseen mode of transportation, it does have the potential to mobilize companies that have not yet begun its foray into flying cars but have the resources, engineering skills and ambitions to do it.

Uber is basically saying: if you build it, we will come (and we will help you commercialize your flying car).


Uber

But Holden, a former Groupon and Amazon executive, doesn’t leave these companies hanging. The paper dives deeply into everything from barriers to market, certification, regulatory hurdles, pilot training and noise issues (since the aircraft will be flying so low).

It’s not exactly scientific. Instead, the paper reads as a plea or a pitch to the chief business officers of Silicon Valley and beyond.

Here are some of the top line points:

Who’s driving it: Pilots will initially man the aircraft, but like all things that are born in Silicon Valley, eventually it will be automated. A huge barrier to getting people to agree to take Uber Elevate — the name of the service — over taking Uber X or UberPool is convincing them that it’s safer. In order to ensure these vehicles are safer, Holden argues, they will eventually have to take the human error aspect out of it so while they’ll be training pilots initially the idea is the “flying taxis” will be semi and then fully automated eventually.

“Over time it’s highly likely that VTOLs will become autonomous, though we expect that initial operations will require pilots. Utilizing pilots in the initial period permits a strategy of building up statistical proof for FAA certification while slowly increasing the level of automation.”

Autonomous technology in the air isn’t exactly new, either. Autopilot technology has been used for decades particularly because there are so few obstacles to navigate around in the air. But as it is for planes, weather will be a bigger factor than it is for cars.

“Compared to ground vehicles, the environment in which VTOL aircraft operate is far more open and uncluttered, except during takeoff and landing when operating in close proximity to the ground, buildings, and people.”

This is developing

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