Dallas will be the first U.S. city to partner with Uber to help develop flying cars, or VTOL (vertical take off and landing) aircrafts.
The San Francisco-based ride-sharing company announced Tuesday that Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai will be the first two cities for the Elevate project. Uber’s chief product officer Jeff Holden made the announcement at a three-day conference held in downtown Dallas.
In a 98-page research paper, Uber envisions a future when people could turn hours-long, stop-and-go commutes between city centers and suburbs into a minutes-long flight. It imagines a fleet of small, electric aircraft that can take off and land vertically in suburbs at so-called vertiports.
“Dallas is the perfect place because it has this rich history of aviation,” Holden said. Hillwood, the development company of Ross Perot Jr. plans to build vertiports for the flying vehicles in downtown Dallas and Fort Worth.
He said it will focus on hubs of activity, such as Arlington’s entertainment and sports district and American Airlines Center in downtown Dallas. He said Dallas is a great fit for Uber’s Elevate project because of its rapid population growth and high number of pilots.
Testing in Dallas will begin in 2020 with about five different vertiports, said Mark Moore, a longtime NASA engineer hired by Uber. Holden said Uber aims to show off the flying vehicles at an expo in Dubai in 2020.
Although the feat sounds great, there are hurdles to be faced. Among the barriers: approval by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA); the lack of electric batteries that can power long commutes and recharge rapidly; air traffic control to handle higher density of aircraft; and the high cost of operations.
Uber isn’t the only Silicon Valley giant aiming for the skies. It’s one of about a dozen companies, both large and small, that are working on prototypes, including kitty hawk and Google.
The approaches by the different companies vary and the realization of their competing visions seems far in the future, but they have one thing in common: a belief that one day regular people should be able to fly their own vehicles around town.
For these personal air vehicles to become a reality in the United States, the country would need a new air traffic control system.
Two years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began development of an air traffic control system meant for managing all sorts of flying vehicles, including drones. One NASA developer described it as an air traffic control system, “for a sky dark with drones.” Researchers hope testing can begin by 2019.
Batteries are also an issue. While electric propeller-driven motors seem promising, today’s battery technology cannot support flights of a reasonable distance, say a 30- or 50-mile commute.
“How is this going to work? I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but we can’t even take our cellphones on airplanes today because of fears about battery fires,” said Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, who is researching personal air transport for NASA.
And don’t forget that flying cars will not be able to pull to the side of the road in an emergency, said John Leonard, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
“Silicon Valley is full of very smart people, but they don’t always get the laws of physics,” he said. “Gravity is a formidable adversary.”