Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Uber moved a step closer to making its ambitious flying car plans a reality, as it announced a deal with NASA. At the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal, the company revealed that it has signed a Space Act Agreement with the organization to work on an unmanned traffic management system.
The aim of the project is to manage low-flying and possibly autonomous aircraft. Uber said NASA's expertise will help it develop both aerial and unmanned traffic control systems for the taxis, meaning they will be able to fly at low altitudes over urban environments. Uber's flying car initiative, a concept that it calls Uber Elevate, comes at a time when the company has faced several controversies, including dozens of civil suits, the ousting of founder Travis Kalanick as CEO and criminal investigations from the US Justice Department.
The ride-hailing company is hoping to accelerate development of a new industry of electric, on-demand, urban air taxis, which customers could order through a smartphone app. In many ways, this is similar to the ground-based taxi alternatives it has popularized, while expanding into more than 600 cities since 2011.
This is Uber's first partnership with a US federal government agency. By signing the Space Act Agreement, the company joins a consortium of industry players working to ensure "safe and efficient operations" of its taxis and other small unmanned aerial systems flying at low altitudes.
Uber plans to trial the project in Los Angeles in 2020 as well as in Dallas and Dubai. It's teaming up with Embraer, Mooney, Bell Helicopter, and Pipistrel Aircraft to build new aircraft that will take off and land vertically. At least 19 companies are developing flying car programmes, including established manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus, and small start-ups like Kitty Hawk, owned by Google founder Larry Page. Uber has made significant strides in collaborating with a handful of aircraft manufacturers, real estate firms and regulators to better its chances of setting up a fully functional, on-demand flying taxi service.
However, if the social and regulatory problems associated with self-driving cars are challenging, then flying taxis will take this to a whole new level. There's no regulatory regime of any kind in place for flying vehicles, and no indication of whether they could sensibly share existing infrastructure with other aircraft. It may be a good time to start the process, but no one should be under any illusions about this happening quickly.