Uber’s Unrealistic Plan for Flying Cars

You might soon be able to escape traffic congestion… for a price

Uber’s concept heli-plane (Source: Uber/YouTube)

Uber’s image has never been that great, but the revelations of corporate sexism and the abuses of power that eventually led former CEO Travis Kalanick to be ousted are forcing his replacement, Dara Khosrowshahi, to accelerate plans to improve the company’s financial situation and change how the public sees it.

Whether he’s successfully changing Uber’s culture remains to be seen and the company’s finances seem to still be headed in the wrong direction, but one area where he is making progress is in pushing forward with Uber’s ambition to expand beyond its ride-hailing roots to dominate more transportation services. Khosrowshahi admitted his desire to see Uber run buses in February, and more recently announced the addition of bike share, vehicle rental, and transit ticketing to the Uber app in certain markets.

However, those moves aren’t nearly as surprising as the company’s plans to revive a mode of transportation that people living a century ago thought would be abundant by now — the flying car — and even though Uber’s vision sounds intriguing, the implementation would likely repeat a social division seen in dystopian sci-fi where the poor are stuck on congested streets while the wealthy take to the skies to skip the traffic that Uber itself is creating.

Could It Happen?

Uber’s flying cars are more a mix between a helicopter and a small plane than the hovercraft of twentieth-century fantasies, but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily come to fruition anytime soon — and certainly not by the deadlines the company has set of 2020 for testing and 2023 for commercial rollout. They’re the type of timelines we might expect from Elon Musk (meaning there’s not a chance in hell they’re going to be met).

The big problem for Uber is batteries. It wants its heli-planes to rely on batteries instead of fossil fuels, which is certainly one of the better aspects of its plan, but the batteries that would be necessary don’t currently exist and it doesn’t look like they’ll reach a mature state of development in the coming years. And that’s before mentioning how Uber eventually wants them to be driven by computer systems, which doesn’t sound so attractive in the aftermath of one of Uber’s self-driving test vehicles killing a pedestrian.

I don’t debate that Uber could really offer such a service if it reduced its technological expectations; helicopter rentals exist in many cities around the world and Airbus subsidiary Voom is already offering an app-based service in São Paulo, Brazil. The bigger issue is how Uber is contributing to the traffic congestion that would make such a service attractive, and how it will inevitably further the urban divide between rich and poor that has been accelerating for several decades.

Looking down at the plebs from your Uber Elevate. (Source: Uber/YouTube)

What it Might Look Like

A number of studies have been released over the past year trying to measure the impact of Uber on urban transportation, and the results haven’t been nearly as positive as the company tries to claim in its press releases.

A trend that emerged across the studies countered Uber’s claim that it takes vehicles off the road; instead it’s creating new trips and shifting people from more efficient forms of transportation (such as public transit, biking, and walking) to its ride-hailing service. Those trips then take up more road space and increase the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by automobile in the city, which is an important indicator of traffic congestion. In San Francisco alone, this amounted to an extra 5,700 vehicles on the road during peak hours — 6,500 on Fridays — adding 170,000 vehicles trips and 570,000 VMT on a typical workday.

Given that Uber is part of the problem of worsening traffic congestion in cities around the world, it’s a bit rich that it’s now presenting heli-planes as part of the solution. Its actions have made commute times longer and the mobility experience worse for potentially millions of people so some young, upper-middle class techies could get a VC-subsidized taxi; now it wants to offer those very people the option to pay a premium to fly above the mess of a transportation system that’s far too dependent on personal automobiles — a system which, it must be said, is only being reinforced by tech companies that see self-driving vehicles as an important part of the future of urban mobility.

In an interview with TechCrunch about the heli-plane concept, Uber’s Head of Policy of Autonomous Vehicles and Urban Aviation Justin Erlich said that new transportation technologies can have “wide systemic effects where we don’t totally realize them going in.” This was in an effort to show how the company is trying to ensure the new service is equitable, but it actually illustrates that they realize their innovations can have wider impacts than they claim, yet in the case of their ride-hailing service, they refuse to acknowledge the many negative effects that have been generated from the addition of thousands of vehicles to urban streets that were already quite congested.

Even though Uber is presenting its flying cars as equitable transportation, they will be nothing of the sort; rather, the service will be one for people who don’t mind spending a couple hundred dollars to get the airport — a pretty small percentage of the population. It will allow the class of people who have benefited from neoliberal capitalism to more easily escape congestion, while everyone else will be left with an even longer trip thanks, in part, to Uber.