When we first started hearing about self-driving cars, I figured it would be very difficult to teach a computer to follow a road system that was designed for human-friendly navigation.
It would be easier and more fun to reach for the sky. It’s difficult for humans to navigate the airways, but it’s a (relative) piece of cake for a sensor/gyroscope/GPS-equipped machine.
The Slovakian Aeromobil
Well, Uber is working on it. They’ve hired former NASA engineer Mark Moore to direct their flying car program, “Elevate”.
According to Uber’s recent White Paper, their airborne focus is on vertical take-off and landing on-demand (VTOL) aviation. They’re working towards a network of small, electric aircraft that will “use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.”
According to this BBC report:
Mr Moore explored a similar concept in a paper published while he was at NASA. He said that electric propulsion was a “potential game changing technology” for aircraft, adding that the only thing holding it back was current battery storage.
But other obstacles stand in the way.
[E]ach flying car company would need to independently negotiate with suppliers to get prices down, and lobby regulators to certify aircrafts and relax air-traffic restrictions. But he says Uber, with its 55 million active riders, can uniquely demonstrate that there could be a massive, profitable and safe market. “If you don’t have a business case that makes economic sense, than all of this is just a wild tech game and not really a wise investment,” Moore says.
Here’s how it could work – people would take conventional Ubers from their homes to nearby “vertiports”. Then they would zoom up into the air and across town to the vertiport closest to their offices. (“We don’t need stinking bridges!” says Moore.)
These flying cars would have a range of 50 to 100 miles, and they could be partially recharged while passengers are getting on and off. Human pilots would manage the onboard computers and deal with emergencies. They would probably be on board for the foreseeable future.
Moore proves that he’s a risk-taker by leaving NASA one year before he’s eligible for retirement, walking away from a significant percentage of his pension and free health care for life. He says he’s doing it “to be in the right place at the right time to make this market real.”
Airbus’ “Vahana” (taken from the Hindu reference to vehicle of a god)