The ride-sharing company Uber set ambitious goals Tuesday to create a network of flying taxis in Dubai and the Dallas area by the year 2020.
At a summit in Dallas Tuesday, company executives outlined plans to develop their own electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft, or VTOLs, that would use small landing pads called “vertiports.”
“It’s possible because we’re radically changing the type of aircraft,” Jeff Holden, chief product officer at Uber Technologies, said at the summit. “This is why we’re so bullish. … We just want to usher it in as fast as possible because we all want to live in this world.”
A futuristic fantasy for many, that world may now be closer to reality. (To wit, a remarkable series of paintings that depicted what people around the year 1900 thought France would look like in the year 2000.)
Still, flying cars face a number of logistical, technical and regulatory obstacles: Much as in the development of electric planes, battery limitations place boundaries on the duration of a flight in an all-electric flying car. But those hurdles have not stopped Uber and other Silicon Valley tech companies from launching aggressive initiatives to develop flying vehicles.
Uber, the ride-sharing company that in recent months has faced its share of lawsuits and scandals, published a white paper about “on-demand aviation” last fall, and earlier this year, the company hired longtime NASA aircraft engineer Mark Moore to help it develop flying cars.
Eventually, the company, which is also developing self-driving cars, thinks it can get the cost for a trip in an Uber flying taxi down to an ambitious $1.32 per passenger mile, with the overall goal of making it “economically irrational” to drive a car on the ground, Holden said Tuesday.
Uber’s announcement Tuesday came on the heels of another flying car earning its wings this week.
“Maybe you could bring the boat over,” one woman tells another casually in the video, as she extends a last-minute dinner invitation.
“I have something better in mind,” the friend says with a small laugh, promising to arrive in two minutes.
How? “It’s a surprise,” she says. “You’ll have to wait and see!”
The surprise, as it turns out, is a prototype of the Kitty Hawk Flyer — a contraption that, alas, looks far less like anything from “The Jetsons” and more like the amalgam of a Jet Ski, a motorcycle arcade game and a giant drone. For about 30 seconds the woman is shown zipping across the lake on the single-seater vehicle, hovering close to the surface of the water. She touches down on the lake next to her friends’ boat, to cheers and hugs.
There’s good reason for that scenario: So far, the Kitty Hawk Flyer is only meant to be flown for recreational purposes in “uncongested areas” in the United States, specifically over fresh water, according to the company’s website. So unless you happen to live in a lakeside property where you need to cross the water rapidly for impromptu dinner gatherings, the utility of the Flyer seems rather limited for now.
That didn’t stop the company’s leaders, including Kitty Hawk chief executive Sebastian Thrun, from promising this was a revolution in “personal transportation.”
“This is clearly just the beginning of what will one day be possible with personal flight,” Thrun said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Safety is, and always will be, our first priority. I dream of a day when anyone — not just highly trained pilots — can safely operate a flying vehicle and experience the excitement that we’re aiming for with Kitty Hawk.”
Flying car prototypes that other companies have been rolled out so far, however, have been underwhelming or untenable for the majority of the population.
Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration granted an exemption to the Terrafugia Transition to be classified as a “light sport aircraft,” marking the first step toward legalizing commercial flying cars. The Post’s Jacob Bogage was more hesitant about the Terrafugia Transition itself, describing the “two-seated flying thingumajig” as “a goofy mosquito, its fat cockpit shoving through the wind while aloft, its wings folded up like a dragonfly while grounded.”
Just last week, Slovakian company AeroMobil revealed its own car-plane hybrid, a sleeker blend of sport car and that will require a pilot’s license to operate. It also comes with a hefty price tag: somewhere between $1.3 million to $1.6 million. Those two factors alone place it out of reach for the average user.
“I think it’s going to be a very niche product,” University of Warwick engineering professor Philip Mawby told the Associated Press.
As for the Kitty Hawk Flyer, a pilot’s license won’t be required to fly it; the FAA has designated the Flyer as an ultralight aircraft. There are no prices yet, only a three-year membership for $100 that promises “priority placement on the Kitty Hawk Flyer customer wait list” and $2,000 off whatever the Flyer’s retail price ends up being. According to its website, the Flyer will be on sale by the end of the year.
And even that product will likely not look like what was debuted in the video this week. The Kitty Hawk website only indicates that “the go-to-market Flyer will have a different design than the prototype Flyer that appears in our April 2017 photos and videos.”
Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovations section.