Uber Elevate kickstarts flight of fancy for aerial urban mobility. Will it take off?

Tyagarajan S April 25, 2017

“Do you have your parachute strapped on?”

This could be a safety sign floating in the air as you zip on a flying taxi over an endlessly repeating grid pattern of a million solar-panelled rooftops.

Uber wants a big piece of this future. It’s quest, packaged under the Uber Elevate service (a three-day Uber Elevate conference kicks off April 25 in Dallas, Texas in the US), involves becoming an on-demand service for flying.

But Uber isn’t alone. The quest for democratising flying is getting a big boost from all quarters. New personal flying vehicles are emerging, breaking through the sheer membrane that seems to separate reality from science fiction these days.

Yet, how close are flying cars to becoming a reality? And will they ever see the kind of mass adoption like land transport?

Meet the flying cars

Flying cars, straight out of Jetsons, or the Mahabharata (as your bent may be), are coming out of the woodwork. A few companies have taken them to a fairly literal extreme.

Aeromobil flying car. Credit: Aeromobil website

Meet Aeromobil. With a range of about 100km and a top speed of 160kmph, it really is a light-framed plane with a hybrid engine and real propeller. Its wings fold back like an insect, letting you drive it back home.

Juraj Vaculik, CEO of Aeromobil, wants to start a transportation revolution, freeing us from the prisons of traffic, airports and bad infrastructure. This jailbreak, however, costs anywhere between $1.3 million to $1.5 million (available in 2020). Some pricey niche revolution, that!

On the other hand, if you have about $10,000 to spare, you can put it on a refundable deposit on a Terrafugia Transition  —  a light-sport aircraft with folding wings that can driven on the roads  

On the other hand, if you have about $10,000 to spare, you can put it on a refundable deposit on a Terrafugia Transition  —  a light-sport aircraft with folding wings that can driven on the roads.

In both cases, if you want to fly, you’ll have to find yourself a runway, although Aeromobil claims that it is robust enough to take off grass strips.

For the runway-averse, there’s Pal-V, a vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. When on Pal-V liberty, you’ll be FlyDriving what looks like a cross between a helicopter and an auto rickshaw.

Pal-V Liberty. Credit: Pal-V website

It’s safe to say that these will be only niche indulgences. First off, no one in their right minds is going to drive these weird looking contraptions on road. To fly them, you need a private pilot’s license, which is hard to get. In this sense, they are just fancier, crazier versions of existing light aircraft targeted at millionaires.

Elevating urban mobility

Let not the flying car craziness distract you from the serious quest for aerial urban mobility.

Taking a leaf out of Elon Musk, Uber released a 99-page white paper last year on its vision to create a network of on-demand, electric VTOL aircraft. VTOL aircraft do not place a huge demand on space for take off and landing and are better suited for urban settings.

It’s safe to say that these will be only niche indulgences. First off, no one in their right minds is going to drive these weird looking contraptions on road. To fly them, you need a private pilot’s license  

Uber expects VTOL crafts in the market in the next five years that can fly more than 150 kilometres in one shot at 250kmph. They’ll also carry multiple passengers and a pilot, and potentially form the backbone of an on-demand, pooling ecosystem of flying taxis.

Uber’s optimism is in line with the flurry of activity happening in this space.

There’s Larry Page’s investments, Zee.Aero and its subsidiary Kitty Hawk, looking to reinvent personal aircraft transportation. Some crude early prototypes that have been spotted, flying over water, looking like something straight out of Star Wars.

, the silicon valley outpost of Airbus, is working on Vahana  —  a project to build a single passenger, autonomous VTOL aircraft. A full-size prototype is expected to fly in 2017 and a complete demonstrator product is expected by 2020.

Lilium aviation plans to launch a five-seater VTOL aircraft for taxi services and other forms of paid transportation and recently conducted its first successful test demonstration. With 36 engines, these are built for ultra-redundancy (multiple engine failures won’t result in loss of thrust). The company claims that they can travel upto 300km at 300kmph when launched.

Toyota has filed for patents on “shape morphine fuselage for an aerocar” and “stackable wing for an aerocar”, indicating that it is looking to take its engines to the sky at some point.

This sudden excitement is the result of a bunch of advances including lighter, stronger materials, drone technology, improving electric vehicle and battery technology and autonomy.

Drone technology itself inspiring a set of designs and products. The most radical looking of the lot is the Volocopter VC200 from the German company e-volo, which made it first manned flight last year and when launched is expected to have a flight duration of 20–30 minutes and carry two passengers.

Volocopter VC200; Credit: e-Volo website

On the other hand, the little egg-like, Chinese-made EHang 184 has narrower aspirations. The fully-autonomous single passenger drone, which can be controlled through a 4G network, can cruise around at 60kmph for up to 30 minutes. The cockpit has no controls with nothing more than a stand to keep your smartphone and a cup holder.

All of this is good news for Uber as it looks for ways to circumvent the increasingly congested road infrastructure. Flight based transportation releases it from the constraint of having to depend on government to build new road networks (expensive and slow process).

All of this is good news for Uber as it looks for ways to circumvent the increasingly congested road infrastructure. Flight based transportation releases it from the constraint of having to depend on government to build new road networks  

Meanwhile, progressive governments are already looking to dip their feet into the future of mobility. Singapore plans to have airborne cabs taking flight regularly by 2030. Dubai is looking to use passenger drones as a key urban mobility solution is expected to roll out the EHang 184 passenger drone this summer.

All of this puts Uber, one of the few global providers of transportation as a service, at an incredible advantage.

When hubcaps fall from sky

We’ve had bouts of frenzy around the imminent arrival of flying cars before.

An ad for flying cars from 1954

Today, we seem to have embarked on another such frenzy. It’s doubtful if any of these FlyDrive models will ever reach mass adoption. It would neither be a good car nor be a great aircraft.

Aerial urban mobility, therefore, depends on VTOL aircraft becoming cheaper and better. The economics of manufacturing VTOLs will be closer to automobiles than aircraft as the scale improves, claims the Uber Elevate paper. This, however, depends on several industries moving forward to make major improvements including battery technology  —  today electric craft suffer the constraints of charging speed and capacities.

Read: Electric cars are ready to take over the world — and India

But, there are other, bigger challenges that cannot be solved by VTOL technology improvements.

A large network of aerial transport would need a significant number of landing and take off pads. These simply don’t exist today nor is there sufficient space to build these in an urban setting. In the future, rooftops, of commercial and personal residences, could support these pads, but it would still require a seamless connecting infrastructure to solve for the “last mile” movement of passengers to and from these places.

A large network of aerial transport would need a significant number of landing and take off pads. These simply don’t exist today nor is there sufficient space to build these in an urban setting  

But the biggest challenge is to create a new way of certifying, regulating and controlling the air traffic movement. These have been historically notoriously difficult as air transport authorities move at glacial speeds (pre climate-change era). Drone regulation is a case in point.

Read: Drones will take us to new heights. But they are leaving regulations down in the dust

There are some fundamental safety issues too, like the risk of a vehicle parts raining down on people. “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you,” says Elon Musk, whose business plans for urban transportation involve burrowing below the ground.

“If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you” — Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla  

And that’s what flying crafts are competing against  —  fully autonomous, electric cars on the ground for local urban movement and efficient, high-speed transit systems like the Hyperloop for long distance commute. It would be way easier to regulate and control static infrastructure like tunnels than thousands of flying cars in the sky.

But none of these challenges seems to be stopping the companies that are pouring in large sums into the game. One wonders if this is partly inspired by the Tesla school of ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-buy-it’ philosophy. Or is it just the pursuit of our lust for flying?

We want our ‘vimanas’

From Icarus to magic carpets to the many hundreds of variants of flying vehicles in our science fictions stories, humanity has been obsessed about soaring the skies. But nothing is as fascinating as looking back at the ‘vimanas’ from our ancient Indian texts.

The types of ‘vimanas’ as described in vivid detail

For Indians growing up on ancient mythology, flying vehicle or ‘vimana’ has been an integral part of the lore. Aerial chariots with wings and circular domed crafts with portholes made regular appearances in hundreds of ancient texts including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Without opening the can of worms on whether there’s a possibility that these are works of science (there is zero physical evidence to suggest that it is today), it’s safe to say that even as a work of fiction, these are inspired creations, especially when you consider that even great science fiction needs some level of context (a civilisation that’s already built electricity can imagine much more than those in bronze age, for instance).

The fascinating aspect about ‘vimanas’ in ancient texts was that they aren’t treated as exaggerated mystical activities but rather minutely articulated physical flying objects, although sometimes powered by magical capabilities  

The fascinating aspect about ‘vimanas’ in ancient texts was that they aren’t treated as exaggerated mystical activities but rather minutely articulated physical flying objects, although sometimes powered by magical capabilities. Often they were weapons of war, raining serious fire and sometime with traces of what looks like autonomy.

Both the elaborate and consistent depiction of flying machines in ancient texts (and the resolute lengths to which some conspiracy theorists would go to claim that it indeed existed in reality) shows that if nothing, flying machines have held a magnetic allure for us.

If you want something bad enough, you might just make it happen.

“In 2030, you bet your money that aerial transport will also be a means of urban mobility,” believes Pang Kin Keong, the top official at Singapore’s Transport Ministry.

It’s possible that by 2030, some form of aerial transportation to occupy a decent share of urban locomotion. By then, we may have a deeper, more pervasive penetration of autonomy and self-regulating control system, which may be critical to managing the traffic in the airspace at scale. We will also likely to have gravitated away from ownership of vehicles to predominantly purchasing transport as a service. In any case, it’s not coming anytime soon.

In the meantime, if you happen to find yourself in a flying car, just remember to strap on a parachute!

Read on: More from the FactorFuture series

Lead visual: Nikhil Raj


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