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Flying cars: A not-so-distant future?

For generations, flying cars have been a fixture of science fiction and thus a benchmark of the future. And they’ve remained largely just that: science fiction. But if we broaden what we mean by flying cars, then they technically exist, and have for some time.

Take the Terrafugia Transition, which, though a hybrid concept, is basically a private plane whose wings can fold up for driving on the road. Likewise, the Flight Design CT series, with its characteristic tricycle undercarriage, has been around since the ’90s. Most recently, the ultralight Kitty Hawk Flyer V1 has demonstrated its vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities over bodies of water — a harbinger, perhaps, for more to come.

But these aren’t the enclosed-cabin vehicles that hurdle along three-dimensional highways and seamlessly land in heavily populated areas, as foretold by The Jetsons. Enter Uber Elevate and its endeavors to accomplish all of these feats, more or less.

Bringing the space age to this age

In April, the company unveiled plans to test flying cars in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and Dubai by 2020, as part of its new project, Uber Elevate.

Its skyward initiative hopes to shuttle riders through the air using VTOL technology, and cover about 50 miles in 15 minutes. Unlike the proposed aircraft’s closest proxy, the helicopter, these machines will operate without the associated noisiness and emissions, and far more of them will be in the sky.

It goes without saying, Uber has its work cut out for it. Especially given the fact that the technology necessary to support its efforts doesn’t currently exist. On top of that, the company is faced with other myriad obstacles, including infrastructure, operational costs, required licensing, use of airspace and general safety.

But rather than going it alone, Uber intends to prod at manufacturers and regulatory bodies alike — in effect, catalyzing innovations so that on-demand aviation becomes a reality sooner rather than later. While the deployment of such a system may seem a tad too ambitious to some, Uber is uber-confident in its success.

Will these actually be flying cars?

The Elevate initiative, however, doesn’t actually use the term “flying car” anywhere in its white papers. What it proposes are VTOL aircrafts akin to drones, which employ distributed electric propulsion (DEP) technology, to overcome issues like noisiness and vehicle performance, plus autonomous systems to eliminate driver error and enable safe air-taxi operations in dense urban areas.

As of late, VTOL and DEP technologies have become all the rage among developers, many of whom are already flying early prototypes. Such an emerging ecosystem of electrical VTOL tech — which includes the likes of Lilium, Air A3 from Vahana and the Joby S2 — may inspire a degree of optimism in the face of naysayers.

But isn’t it expensive?

In short, yes. Uber is working with its partners to find ways to use VTOL aircrafts that are safe, efficient and, of course, affordable. In addition, it has joined forces with the Dubai Road and Transport Authority, conducting studies on how to best optimize traffic flow and establish pricing models.

The company admits that it’ll be costly to get the ball rolling (or, in this case, soaring), but reason that its proven rideshare model for ground vehicles will similarly assuage initially high expenses for air taxis. It surmises that once the ride-sharing service begins, the resulting “positive feedback loop” should help reduce operational costs and thereby air-taxi fares for customers.

The Elevate project also boasts the potential cost-effectiveness of VTOL networks as compared to traditional roadway infrastructure. Such a system, the company argues, wouldn’t require roads, bridges, rails, parking garages or sound buffers.

Instead, it raises the idea of simply repurposing, say, the tops of parking garages, helipads or other similarly unused real estate or land, as vertiports. Roads, tracks and all else wouldn’t be necessary to get from point A to point B.

Won’t they be loud?

Noisiness has always been a big concern for aviation. Both airplanes and helicopters are inherently loud, and property values in neighborhoods that are in close proximity to airports are typically lower due to incessant sonic disturbance. The prospect of aircrafts assaulting the skies a hundredfold may feel rather daunting.

Fortunately, DEP also exhibits promise as a noise buffer. The biggest issue with helicopters — as yet the closest existing equivalent to Uber’s intended aircraft — is the rotor designs, which together produce loud noise. DEPs enable alternative design considerations, which still bolster vehicle efficiency while drastically reducing noisiness.

One objective is to set a minimum cruising altitude of 500 feet, at which sounds should be “about one-fourth as loud as the smallest four-seat helicopter currently on the market.” But given the sheer number of aircraft in the sky, it may not suffice in reducing noisiness.

Luckily, there are existing methods for measuring sound “annoyance,” established by the FAA, which could be leveraged to analyze and tailor aircraft and vertiports around “acceptable operational noise levels.”

Further, Uber is teaming up with Siemens to conduct noisiness tests between electric and combustion engines. Siemens recently unleashed an electric plane that’s not only significantly quieter than a standard combustion engine, but also broke the world speed record for battery-powered aircrafts at over 200 mph.

Is it safe?

In order for any of this to work, regulations regarding vehicle design standards, maintenance, pilot licensing and inter-jurisdictional travel will need to be established. Not to mention, en masse driving from yon high necessarily requires reducing driver error to near-zero percent. And, of course, the only way to eliminate driver error is to, in fact, eliminate drivers.

As mentioned earlier, a key ingredient of the Elevate initiative is autonomous technology. Similar to how Tesla’s developing self-driving tech in phases, so too would VTOL autonomy be integrated over time. Compared to cars on the ground, however, urban airspace is largely open and unobstructed, which could make the process faster.

When it comes to urban airspace, Uber maintains that existing air traffic control (ATC) systems would be able to accommodate hundreds of aircraft. Still, to operate at a much higher frequency, as it intends to do, ATC systems would need to scale up significantly plus implement new systems.

Not only is airspace density a hurdle, there are also other things like bad weather, which could erratically disrupt takeoff times for large fleets. Given that Uber’s value prop is “saving time,” that’s an area that needs heavy consideration.

Will this really happen?

Uber plans on having air taxis in operation by as early as 2023, provided all critical elements successfully come together.

And if massive VTOL networks — or more colloquially, “flying cars” — do become part of our daily lives, the results could be staggering. After all, Elevate’s main goal is to alleviate congestion on the ground, which, in turn, may alleviate pollution, environmental strain, highway accidents, blood pressure and even auto insurance premiums. These, in addition to a slew of other unforeseen effects — positive or otherwise.

Unlike the 1950s, the Golden Age of Futurism — whose optimism was both hopeful and fanciful, Uber has laid down a serious blueprint for how to make flying cars a real thing.

Next steps are to get key players on board, from regulators and cities, to designers and network operators. To be sure, it’s a project rife with excitement and possibility, exhibiting promise as a major game-changer alongside the self-driving car. For now, though, it all remains to be seen.

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