Flying car reality check

Flying car reality check

I started this morning early, talking to James Max on TalkRadio about Uber’s latest announcements on self-flying drone taxis. At its second Elevate summit, the company announced partnerships with NASA and five aerospace companies to design, build, and test such vehicles, as well as some design mockups of what they could look like.

A few things were clear from the announcement, if they weren’t already.

Firstly, this is not a tomorrow technology, it’s at least a decade out. Partly the tech just isn’t ready: we need better batteries, lighter materials, quieter rotors, new safety systems, more reliable object detection and more. Partly, we’re not ready: the regulations surrounding this are many and complex, we don’t yet have confidence in robot pilots, and we haven’t even started thinking practically about what these devices might mean for our lives and work.

Secondly, this is not an ‘everywhere’ technology. The flying taxi isn’t a straight replacement for its wheeled alternative. Door-to-door flying is impractical in built-up areas. More likely these vehicles would have to land on a nearby pad. Yes, there may be many more of these than there are airports — eventually — but you’re still going to need last mile transit from the pad.

Where is it for then? I can see a business case for these devices doing short suburban or intercity hops. Uber is aiming for a range of 60 miles with a five minute recharge time. In the UK that might be a quick trip from Manchester to Liverpool or Leeds, around larger cities like London, or from London to Brighton. The speed of this travel might make it an attractive alternative to rail or road, particularly for business travel, and when a self-driving car can complete the trip.

In places like the US, with giant sprawling conurbations like LA or the Tri-State area, this form of transport really comes into its own. Rapid connections between business districts might be enormously valuable there.

This of course assumes that physical travel remains a realistic proposition in the face of rapidly-improving virtual communication. I’m confident that this is the case: the bandwidth of personal interaction face to face remains exponentially greater than that which can be achieved in any current virtual space. Replicating it will take time, and even then, I think our cultural attachment to physical interactions will mean it retains added value.

For now then, watch this space. Self-flying taxis are absolutely practical in a defined set of scenarios. But they won’t be replacing your commute any time soon.

This post forms part of my Future of Cities series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Cities page.

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Tom Cheesewright