This week we’re talking about . . . flying cars

Uber is back in the news – but this time, it’s not for Trump-related reasons

Time to get rid of your car in favour of a flying vehicle?  Photograph: iStock

Time to get rid of your car in favour of a flying vehicle? Photograph: iStock

 

Have you ever been stuck in a traffic jam and thought: “I’d really love a helicopter right now”? Apparently you’re not the only one. Transport firm Uber has been pondering the same thing, but it is hoping that flying cars will become the next frontier.

Hang on, I’m just checking the date

No, it’s not April 1st.

Are you sure?

Positive.

Okay, so what’s all this about flying cars?

Late last year, Uber started talking about something called Uber Elevate. The idea is that electric-powered vehicles will be able to take off and land vertically, offering you a way to cut out the traffic on the commute while still being as affordable as a regular Uber ride.

They won’t be cars in the sense that we would know them today; in other words, you won’t have a car that can drive both on road and in the sky. Think of it more like the personal drone transport we saw at CES in Las Vegas last year. These cars are made for the air, not for the motorway.

Uber won’t be building the cars itself either; a White Paper the company published last year made it clear that it is hoping to help the industry to get there – not to take it over. But maybe it is exploring the options further, given the latest news.

So what is this news?

A few days ago, it was reported that Uber had hired a Nasa engineer who specialises in flying cars to work on Uber Elevate. Mark Moore has 30 years of experience in Nasa.

It sounds like a great solution to traffic jams

It does – as least for as long as you’re one of a handful of car owners who can take advantage of it. Think about it: if the technology became popular, you’d just have the same problems you encounter on the ground, replicated in the sky. It’s unlikely that cities would allow a free-for-all in the skies above them; too risky in terms of collisions. So you would be restricted in where you could travel, much as you are now, on the roads.

How long before we see these flying cars in action?

In everyday use? Who knows. Uber said it plans to get the project off the ground (no pun intended) by 2026. This could be a little ambitious though.

It’s not because the idea of these vehicles is so out there. In fact, there are plenty of companies already working on the development of smaller capacity fully electric vertical takeoff or landing vehicles – Joby Aviation, eVolo to name but two.

It will more than likely be the regulations governing it that hold everything up. Uber is currently fighting its own battle over self-driving cars in the US, from putting a fleet of self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh to trialling them without official permission in San Francisco. They’ve backed down on the last one, though, after California officials withdrew registrations for 16 Uber vehicles.

Google has also been trialling self-driving cars. But think how long it has taken to turn those trials into something tangible, and how far away we still are from having cars that will do all the driving while you lounge in the back seat.

Now think of all the requirements that flying cars would have to satisfy, and you have a vague idea of the sort of timeline we’re talking about.

The safety implications of having vehicles flying over cities – and potentially into flight paths – are vast.

Then again, Uber could surprise us all and come up with not only a proposition that works but one that will satisfy all the legal and regulatory concerns too.

So what you’re saying is: don’t get rid of the car any time soon?

Probably wise.

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