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The Future of Flying Cars


Uber Elevate is helping to make flying cars a reality

Ahh, the sci fi of having a flying car. Can you imagine flying to work in a DeLorean from “Back to the Future”? Wow, that would be cool. A sci fi dream since the car was invented, the first official flying car was created in 1917 by Glenn Curtiss. The “Curtiss Autoplane” was essentially a small plane whose wings can be quickly disassembled and stowed, and whose motor drove both the wheels and the propellor. Though not practical, it set the scene for the revolution of engineering and inventing that is happening now - 100 years after the first autoplane! Through this post, I will outline the overall ideas of flying cars and explore some of the hallmarks of this field.


Why Flying Cars?

  • Short answer: they are cool!

  • Longer answer: they can help solve car congestion in cities and get us to places faster

Overall:

  • GOAL: alleviate car congestion (but also, it's cool, faster, environmentally friendly, and makes $$$)

  • Urban mobility - close point to point for passengers and cargo

  • Similar to helicopters, but electric and connected

  • All about the systems that make vehicles shareable and effective, replacing taxis

  • Challenges in engineering: noise, battery level, policy/infrastructure, lift capacity, carbon/size footprint

  • Does not replace long distance planes

Engineering Advancements in the Field

  • Distributed electric propulsion: The idea is that the use of many small propellers is more efficient and reliable than the use of several large ones. Moore believes the approach can reduce the operating cost and noise profile of aircraft, a necessity for bringing this technology to cities.

“Distributed electric propulsion is at the core of the colliding technology frontiers that enable this new capability,” says Mark Moore, director of vehicle systems at Uber Elevate.
  • Autonomous: no need for pilot's license

  • Convenient for people and businesses

  • Safer: no road infrastructure to maintain, but need consistent system and FAA approval

  • Security and legal certifications have not been considered yet

  • Battery tech: The biggest hurdles lie here, especially if sustained flight is the goal.

  • Needs to come a long way for sustained flight

  • What is first going to be profitable is turboprop (hybrid) propulsion like Terrafugia has

Obstacles

  • Improving upon the technology above

  • Getting permission from the FAA

  • Noise: Imagine thousands of mini airplanes scooting around the skies above your home! Fortunately, NASA and others have devised clever experiments to test noise-reduction technologies.


The Terrafugia Transition

Companies/Projects in the Field

Terrafugia

Moller International

Kitty Hawk

Audi + Airbus + Italdesign

Uber Air

  • Vehicles bought from other companies

  • Supports the engineering side of the business

  • Uber acts as a connector (yet who knows what will happen in 10 years as the build their own)

  • Book through Uber app

  • Their Uber Elevate system is starting in LA and Dallas in 2020

  • Check out their whitepaper here: https://www.uber.com/elevate.pdf/

Bell

  • Helicopter company going into the field

  • Theirs is a luxurious air taxi. Bell has the resources, infrastructure, and connections to make all this possible.

My Thoughts:

  • All vehicles are more or less similar; "cousin" to helicopters

  • With electric advances and interconnectivity and autonomous control, allows for cheaper prices and easy transportation

  • Big companies with $ and influence will get best locations and most people using the app, and will build the necessary infrastructure faster

  • Uber will be leader with Elevate, then Airbus with it’s system

  • However, maybe a race such as with electric scooters will start up in cities

  • Cargo will go to more niche competitors, but what for? Most is done by truck, so I don’t see a clear way they will be more efficient. Maybe delivering not a lot of things to consumers (like a couch, for example) or to places that are hard to reach in dense urban environment

  • Personal flying vehicles will not be that big, because there is no need. Maybe in the countryside or for the rich, but with short flight times can’t do much and helicopter is the preferred method. Maybe good for specific applications like firefighting, search/rescue, agriculture, though that can be done in full autonomous.

  • Autonomous flying is easier than autonomous driving because you don’t need to integrate into existing systems - this will be entirely new and the concept of air highways or dedicated flying zones will be designed now. Also way less avoidance detection needed - maybe for tall buildings or a bird.

  • With the need for FAA approval, will be very much in trial stages or for early pilot hobbyists. Only go mainstream in ~10 years.

Cool Links for the Curious Reader

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