San Francisco-based rideshare company Uber has its eye on a new transit horizon: the literal horizon, as Bloomberg reports, the company confirms that it has hired a former NASA engineer to work on a potential flying car program.
The company announced Uber Elevate last year, envisioning electric flying cars that can ferry riders between San Francisco and San Jose in an estimated 15 minutes:
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. [...]
VTOLs do not need to follow fixed routes. Trains, buses, and cars all funnel people from A to B along a limited number of dedicated routes, exposing travelers to serious delays in the event of a single interruption. VTOLs, by contrast, can travel toward their destination independently of any specific path.
The company imagines small helipad-style landing and takeoff zones on top of parking garages and along the sides of highways to ferry passengers hither and thither between critical points.
Long the fare of science fiction, flying cars have actually existed in various forms for decades. Even Henry Ford tried to make a two-seater personal aircraft that blurred the line between car and plane 90 years ago.
But most flying car designs just aren’t every good. Popular Mechanics explained in 2013:
We'd essentially be building small planes that look like cars, which are expensive, awkward to fly, and create a host of new legal issues to deal with. [...] Costs would be beyond astronomical, and, while they're not in the cold fusion realm of near-impossibility, high-temperature superconductors don't seem likely to emerge anytime soon.
But Moore, a Stanford graduate who designed aircraft for NASA for 30 years, reawakened the dream of the flying car in Silicon Valley with a 2010 paper about efficient electric lift and landing mechanisms that he dubbed “game changers.”
“Electric propulsion is considered a ‘frontier’ technology that offers [...] capabilities previously not possible,” wrote Moore.
An Uber spokesperson tells Curbed SF that the company is not actually building flying cars yet, nor necessarily committing to such a project in the future. Last year’s proposal is still just that: a proposal.
Still, bringing Moore on shows that they’re serious about ironing out the technical challenges. “Uber continues to see its role as a catalyst to the growing developing VTOL ecosystem,” the company’s head of product for advanced programs said through the spokesperson.
Meanwhile, Google co-founder Larry Page has been funneling money into flying car startups for years.
The skies are clear for now, “But give it a few more years and the writing’s on the wall that you will be able to make a very practical aircraft” as one researcher told Vox in 2016.
- Uber Hires NASA Vet [Bloomberg]
- Mark Moore [NASA]
- Uber Elevate [Uber]
- Why Don’t We Have Flying Cars? [Popular Mechanics]
- NASA Puffi Concept [AIAA]
- Flying Car Futures Explained [Vox]
- Uber [Recode]