Uber's Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft, an aerial taxi of the future

Uber works on flying car to tackle congestion

Image credit: Uber

Cab-hailing company Uber is developing a concept of an electrical flying car that would help reduce commute duration and tackle congestion.

The VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) concept has been introduced in a paper released yesterday.

Combining elements of a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft, the electrical flying taxis would produce no direct emissions, Uber says, and would be quiet enough to be operated in densely populated cities without causing disruption.

“Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground,” Uber said in the paper.

“A network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities.”

Uber admits there are substantial challenges but says the technology could be up and running within a decade and cost-effective enough to provide a viable alternative to owning a car.

“The development of infrastructure to support an urban VTOL network will likely have significant cost advantages over heavy-infrastructure approaches such as roads, rail, bridges and tunnels,” Uber said.

“It has been proposed that the repurposed tops of parking garages, existing helipads, and even unused land surrounding highway interchanges could form the basis of an extensive, distributed network of 'vertiports' (VTOL hubs with multiple take-off and landing pads, as well as charging infrastructure).”

The VTOLs, Uber envisions, would provide the flexibility of a helicopter but offer much better reliability and safety thanks to advanced autonomous features limiting the risks of a human error. A VTOL would also be quieter, more energy-efficient and environmentally friendlier.

The aircraft would use distributed electric propulsion technology. Multiple electricity-powered rotors would be positioned across the aircraft’s lift-providing wings and tail. However, Uber admits that such technology has not yet been demonstrated in real applications. Battery technology as well would need to be advanced in order to provide a sufficient flying range and short enough charging time at reasonable cost.

Uber, which already offers helicopter rides in Brazil, plans to convene a global summit early next year to engage possible partners and regulators.

The company says that in addition to cutting congestion in busy cities, the flying cars would save people hours every day that could be used for more fulfilling activities.

“Imagine traveling from San Francisco’s Marina to work in downtown San Jose — a drive that would normally occupy the better part of two hours — in only 15 minutes,” said Uber.

Uber is already exploring self-driving technology, hoping to slash costs by eliminating the need for drivers in its core business of on-demand rides. In August this year, the firm acquired Otto, a start-up developing driverless trucks. The technology reached a major milestone last week when an autonomous Otto truck successfully delivered its first commercial shipment of Budweiser beer.

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