Four things Uber gets right about the flying car — and a few other considerations

Uber’s concept art for “vertiports” where future’s flying cars will take off and land. Source: Uber.

In the automobile industry and in Silicon Valley, most companies are spending their time, resources, and attention on self-driving cars meant for terrestrial travel, rather than flying cars. But as a drone industry CEO and a lifelong pilot, I’m far more interested in opportunities in the sky — and I’m excited to see that Uber is, too.

When I talk about the drone industry, I often say that if you can deliver a package, you can deliver a person. While that’s a bit simplistic, I do believe that flying cars could be part of our everyday lives before self-driving cars, and I was excited to see that Uber is looking to low-altitude airspace, not our roadways, for the future of travel.

All ninety-eight pages of Uber’s recent white paper on the future of the flying car are worth a read, but if you’re pressed for time, here are four big things Uber gets right about the flying car — and a few insights from the drone industry they might consider.

Flying cars aren’t science fiction — they’re the future

Too often, flying cars are dismissed as a distant possibility — or even an impossibility. Undoubtedly, some commentators will dismiss Uber’s white paper as a marketing stunt.

But Uber gets it right by treating this technology as reasonable, feasible, and within our reach.

In fact, many of the building blocks that will enable a flying car exist today. Zee.Aero, Joby Aviation, and Airbus have all devised concepts for vertical take-off and landing, or VTOL, vehicles. Quirks of our building laws have equipped urban areas with unused heliports that could be converted for flying cars. And the burgeoning drone industry is experimenting with technology and regulatory solutions that will lay the groundwork for air taxis and other airborne vehicles. With many of the elements we’ll need already in place, the flying car could be right around the corner.

We’ll prove the technology by taking a flying car to work

Another thing Uber gets right: the primary use case of the flying car will be your daily commute.

Uber’s proposed Bay Area commute — only $20 and 15 minutes by flying car. Source: Uber

Today, the ride to work is one of the modern world’s greatest inefficiencies. Here in Southern California, Angelenos spend 81 hours a year stuck in traffic.

The cross-town commute presents the perfect opportunity to replace driving with airborne travel. It’s predictable, with a high volume of trips and passengers. We’ll be able to capture early efficiencies, lowering costs and opening up other avenues to make flying cars part of our lives.

Imagine… after enjoying your morning coffee, you head to the roof, where a flying Uber is waiting. When you take off, your trip isn’t constrained by lanes of the freeway — you are ferried directly to your destination. The flying car seamlessly navigates between buildings, over powerlines, and around other obstacles in nearby airspace. A comprehensive universe of data about the flying environment (from microscale weather to locations of other aircraft) and an optimized route is delivered directly to the car’s “brain.” Inputs from the cloud and from onboard sensors dynamically adjust the route as the vehicle flies. When you arrive at your workplace, a trip that would have taken more than an hour by car is over in less than ten minutes.

We’re already facilitating data exchange and communication like this for drones in low-altitude airspace; what we learn will give the future’s flying cars a huge head start.

Public perspectives are part of the process

It’s easy for tech companies to come out of the gates with lofty ideas, and worry about adoption — and regulation — later.

But when it comes to the flying car, citizens and policymakers have very real concerns about safety, privacy, noise, emissions, and more. Uber is smart to acknowledge these concerns and recognize that public engagement will be a critical part of the industry’s “sustainable and inclusive” growth. Today’s drone and tomorrow’s flying car will need to win community support in order to thrive — a task more easily accomplished when the public is part of the process from the beginning.

The flying car will be built by collaboration

The flying car can learn another lesson from the drone industry: open platforms create open opportunities. Uber’s white paper ends with a commendable call to action for more dialogue and cross-pollination among regulators, private industry, car companies, communities and others who can benefit from or be affected by flying cars.

If realized, collaboration among all of the involved stakeholders could help clear the way for flying cars, just as it is enabling the growing drone ecosystem we have today.

But: The first flying cars may not make their maiden voyages in the U.S. or Europe

It’s true that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) function as regulators for 80% of the world’s aviation activity, and as Uber notes, will be critical stakeholders in the future of flying cars. But Uber and others might want to remember another insight from the drone industry: the U.S. and Europe aren’t always the first to the table.

When drones got a slow start in the U.S., many in the drone industry decided to prove out technologies in more accessible markets. Google tested its first drones in Australia’s outback and Zipline launched the world’s first delivery service in Rwanda — spurring the US and Europe to accelerate their own rule-making and open the skies for more innovation close to home. Uber, and other flying car hopefuls, should look worldwide for opportunities to innovate and experiment. A little competition has proved to be a powerful motivator for U.S. and European regulators.

Drones will pave the way for low-altitude air traffic control

According to Uber, slow development of air traffic management infrastructure could hold back the flying car. But flying cars aren’t the only technologies taking flight — drones without human pilots are close at hand. As the drone ecosystem develops and drones are put to work delivering packages, inspecting buildings and infrastructure, and conducting other critical tasks, companies like AirMap, together with government and other industry partners, are building a framework for airspace management that can handle high volumes of traffic.

While it’s true that UTM will occur below 500 feet, manned and unmanned traffic won’t ever be completely separated. A passenger jet landing at LAX and a medevac helicopter conducting a rescue will soon navigate low-altitude airspace alongside drones. As millions of drones take flight, we’ll develop ways to deconflict flight paths so manned and unmanned aircraft can fly safely — strategies we’ll use in the future to integrate flying cars. The UTM infrastructure we build in the coming years can be designed for both current uses and future opportunities, accelerating the adoption of the future’s flying car.

Uber needn’t worry about a shortage of human pilots

Uber’s concern that a shortage of human pilots could hold back the flying car misses the mark. I’d argue that airspace is the perfect place to move towards computer-piloted vehicles, possibly eliminating the need for human pilots altogether.

Today’s passenger aircraft spend most of their flight on autopilot. Even in emergencies like engine failure or cabin depressurization, sophisticated autopilots can often perform more effectively than human pilots. Unlike terrestrial self-driving vehicles, which will need to share the road will human operators, flying cars will be able to make decisions based on the conditions of the environment, not the behavior of humans sharing the airspace. With the pace of innovation today, I expect that by the time we have efficient, cost-effective “flying cars,” we’ll also have automated flight capabilities that make human pilots obsolete. (Bittersweet for me, as I love stick and rudder flying!)

All told, the Uber white paper is an excellent articulation of what we’ll need to make the flying car a reality. Take a look for yourself, and let me know what you think in the comments.