RAC Cars News


Plans for self-driving car - that flies

By raccars Published


Uber plans a flying self-driving car within a decade, although there are challenges to overcome.

Uber believes that people could be hailing a taxi in the sky within a decade and says that these flying cars could offer safer and cheaper travel compared with an earthbound car.

The service in the sky would reduce emissions, alleviate congestion and slash commute times, Uber claims. Jeff Holden, the company’s chief product officer, took to the firm’s website to post a white paper about the plans for a flying car. The car-sharing company calls the flying vehicle a VTOL aircraft, which stands for Vertical Take-off and Landing.

Uber says that the plans would offer a means of ‘rapid reliable transport’, which could be used to transport people between cities and suburbs and, ultimately, take passengers on shorter journeys within cities. The first people to make use of such a service are likely to be those who face long-distance daily commutes in urban areas where heavy congestion is an issue and the existing infrastructure does not meet their needs.

The Uber white paper says that over a dozen firms are currently working on the VTOL aircraft project and a variety of ‘different design approaches’ are being considered.

Double the safety of car travel in flying self-driving car

The electric aircraft would be far less polluting, cheaper and quieter than its nearest transport equivalent, the helicopter. And Uber claims that it would eventually make use of autonomous technology which would also make it safer. Uber says that self-driving car technology boosts safety by ‘significantly’ reducing ‘operator error’.

Uber envisages that the airborne self-driving car could be driven by a combination of DEP (distributed electric propulsion) and autonomy. DEP would allow for the use of fixed-wing VTOL aircraft, removing the need for the large rotors used by helicopters and facilitating more efficient lift.

Uber has admitted, however, that there is a ‘real risk’ to this idea as no vehicle manufacture has thus far managed to come up with an aircraft that uses DEP and is commercially viable. Uber has also identified a range of challenges which need to be overcome in order to make VTOL aircraft viable. These include new aircraft concept certification, air traffic control issues and battery technology. There is also a major barrier in that there is a significant lack of viable landing locations.

Cheaper than car travel

Uber is still making the bold claim that in the future these flying self-driving cars will be cheaper to run than a standard car. This is being made despite the company's acknowledgment that today's aircraft and helicopters typically cost around 20 times as much as a car. Uber argues that this is because of low-volume manufacturing and that if VTOL aircraft can provide a viable service offering on-demand urban transport which is safe, efficient, clean, fast and quiet then higher volumes would be manufactured.

In fact, Uber believes that thousands of specific model types could be built every year, dramatically lowering the unit cost. This would mean that the economics involved with the manufacture of VTOL aircraft would become more similar to those associated with vehicles rather than aircraft.

The company adds, however, that the first VTOL ‘cars’ will have a very high price tag, although this will be mitigated by the fact that a ride sharing model will be used. This is why the firm claims that the high cost is unlikely to impede the start of the project.

Going forward, Uber claims that positive feedback from users of the ride sharing scheme will lead to greater demand and a resultant reduction in costs for passengers.

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