A few years ago, when you planned to have a few too many, you would call a number and, what seemed like a lifetime later, a car would appear out of the shadows. You would have to negotiate with the driver to take you home for the amount of cash you had been able to keep from the bartender or he would take you to an ATM to draw more. Or you would just drive home drunk.
Those were the days before Uber came along - now you have no excuse to take your car anywhere when a glass of something nice is involved. The taxi app changed the way we navigate the world and now it wants to do it all over again.
Uber wants to take to the skies – no, not like with UberChopper, which you can apparently take to the Durban July this weekend, but something a lot more ambitious. At the Uber Elevate summit in May, the global brand announced it was going to begin testing its UberAir fleet in 2020 in the US cities of Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth, as well as Dubai. This is more than just a little ambitious, especially considering they don’t yet have a single “car” to show for their efforts.
This is unlike Airbus and Audi, who unveiled their “Pop.Up Next”, a drone-like flying taxi/electric city-car combo, at the Geneva Motor Show in March.
What’s more, last week the German government signed a letter of intent with the executives from both companies giving them permission to begin testing the flying taxi-pod around Audi’s home town, the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt.
“Flying taxis aren’t a vision any longer; they can take us off into a new dimension of mobility,” said German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer. “They’re a huge opportunity for companies and young start-ups that already develop this technology very concretely and successfully.”
Regardless of who beats who to have the first taxi rank in the sky, there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out before you will be able to click open an app and rock up at the club in even more elaborate style.
There are the issues of having to work with governments to come up with systems to manage the skies to begin with. Also, this kind of aircraft, manned or automated, needs vertical – or nearly vertical – take-off and landing to operate in cites but, at the moment, there are no systems in place for this type of aviation.
Uber has announced they have partnered with Nasa to make use of their drone traffic-control system, the uncrewed traffic management project. But managing drones is one thing, humans inside drone-like bubble cars is another.
Although having fully electrical and autonomous flying cars is where the industry wants to go, it seems it will be beyond 2020 before safety-certified, passenger-carrying versions, operated by minimally trained pilots, are flying in commercial airspace.
WATCH | UberAir concept:
Although current batteries can store enough power for a 16 to 30km trip, how is the next person going to recharge the taxi when you get dropped off in Dainfern? And that is only if the passengers fit the weight requirements, which feels like an American discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen.
There are many other general safety and environmental issues to work out. There’s a reason airports are so far away from cities - the sound pollution is horrendous and not even the din of everyday inner-city life would drown out that made by a fleet of giant drone blades.
Then there is the concern about them crashing. Because not every algorithm is perfect, there are bound to be inflight fender benders, not to mention the danger posed by falling debris for those on the ground. Or the fact that parachutes don’t tend to be the most reliable below 762m.
Uber says they plan on making their rides affordable for “normal people”. Whether they would be able to manufacture air taxis on a large scale to be cheap enough to rival the Uber X’s good old reliable Toyota Corolla is questionable. They’d better or they could face a noisy backlash. Aerospace engineer Brian German told Wired Magazine Uber should be concerned about something called “psychoacoustics”- the tendency for people to find a sound disagreeable, not because it’s actually all that bad, but because it represents “something yucky - in this case, wealthy elites flying over regular folk”.
Three to five years doesn’t seem like enough time to conquer these kinds of setbacks - some might say it’s impossible to do it at all. But stranger things have happened, like Uber’s overwhelming success in the first place, and I would never place a bet against progress.