At a recent summit in Dallas, 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.”
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 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 year, and earlier this year, the company hired long-time 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 (R17) per passenger mile (1.6km), with the overall goal of making it “economically irrational” to drive a car on the ground, Holden said this week.
Uber’s announcement came on the heels of another flying car earning its wings this week. Kitty Hawk - a company backed by Larry Page, the Google co-founder - debuted its long-secret “Kitty Hawk Flyer” in a demonstration video on Monday.
“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.
“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 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 friend’s 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 US, 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.