Uber is looking to North Texas as a testing ground for its initiative to make intra-urban flying vehicle rides a reality. The company announced Tuesday that Dallas and Fort Worth are its first U.S. partner cities for what its dubbing the “Uber Elevate Network.”
The company hopes to have the first demonstration of how such a network of flying, hailed vehicles would work in three years.
Uber is also working with Dallas’ Hillwood Properties to plan vertiports, sites where the aircraft would pick up and drop off passengers. Fort Worth’s Bell Helicopter is among companies partnering with Uber to help develop the actual vehicles, called VTOLs because they would vertically take off and land.
The announcement was made at a three-day Uber Elevate Summit being held in Dallas.
“This is an opportunity for our city to show leaders from around the world and across industries why Dallas should be a part of building a better future for urban mobility,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said in a prepared statement.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Bell is developing propulsion technology to build electric airborne vehicles “that are quieter than the usual helicopter.”
“It’s not going to happen right away, tomorrow, but the technology is definitely there,” Bell chief executive Mitch Snyder told the newspaper. “We definitely believe the hybrid electric is something we could go make and fly right now. But I think full electric, to give it the range and everything you want out of it, is not quite there.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a prepared statement that she is “thrilled” her city is part of the Elevate initiative.
“Being in the North Texas region, which encourages innovation and responsible businesses to thrive, we trust that this will be a beneficial choice for the development of the Elevate project,” she said.
Fast Company reported that Uber is portraying Elevate as “a cheap alternative to building new roads and expanding public transit” but noted that Rawlings maintains Dallas has to provide as many transportation options as possible.
“Anytime there’s innovation in the marketplace, I don’t think anybody truly knows the results of these things, or the costs,” Rawlings told Fast Company. “We’ve got to be multimodal — there’s no question — in this city.”
Well, that’s one way to avoid traffic, I suppose. Someone should call up Avery Brooks and tell him his question may soon be getting an answer. Uber has a former NASA engineer working on this idea, for which they released a white paper last October, and they say they hope to have it off the ground (as it were) by 2020. How likely is that? Wired asked the same question.
If that sounds ambitious, you possess a basic understanding of the challenges involved here. The kind of aircraft Uber envisions shuttling customers through the air—electric, with vertical takeoff and landing capability, and capable of flying 100 miles in just 40 minutes—don’t exist yet. Nor does the infrastructure to support them. The FAA, an agency not known for speed, must ensure these aircraft meet all federal safety regulations and figure out where and how they fit into a complex air traffic control system.
Instead of cracking those problems on its own, Uber plans to punt. It hopes to play the role of a catalyst, spurring manufacturers to build the aircraft, the FAA to figure out the regulations, and cities to wave them in. Company CEO Travis Kalanick apparently wants to play the role of Elon Musk, who came up with the idea for hyperloop and is letting everyone else figure out how to make it work. The reward for playing Kalanick’s game? Accessing Uber’s 55 million monthly active riders in nearly 600 cities worldwide.
And here’s the crazy part: Uber could make it happen. “I think 2020 is realistic for a vehicle that is not replacing an airplane but replacing a car,” says Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A purely electric aircraft might remain elusive, but a serial hybrid setup—where the aircraft carries a fuel-burning turbine to keep the juice flowing, much like the Chevrolet Volt—could work.
Which is not to say there aren’t other obstacles.
“If there are flying cars, then well obviously you have added this additional dimension where a car could potentially fall on your head and would be susceptible to weather,” [Tesla CEO] Musk said. “And of course you’d have to have a flying car [that operates by] autopilot because otherwise, forget it.”
Think weaving through traffic on a busy day is frustrating? Try adding an entirely new dimension to the mix. “Essentially with a flying car you’re talking about going 3-D,” Musk says. “There’s a fundamental flaw with cities where you’ve got dense office buildings and apartment buildings and duplexes, and they’re operating on three dimensions, but then you go to the street, and suddenly they’re two-dimensional.”
Getting your 3-D driving license from the DMV isn’t the only challenge a future of flying cars would have to overcome, Musk added. While Tesla has announced an update that promises to ease drivers’ “range anxiety,” seeing a flashing empty light while your car is in midair might cause more of a range heart attack. And just imagine being one of the poor street-bound souls if two-ton automobiles start falling out of the sky.
“Even in autopilot, and even if you’ve got redundant motors and blades, you’ve still gone from near-zero chance of something falling on your head to something greater than that,” Musk said.
So good luck with that, Dallas. I guess we may soon find out what a few billion dollars in venture capital and an utter disregard for the rule of law or the norms of society can do. The Verge and the Dallas Observer have more.