Cynics ridicule Uber’s plan for flying cars

No overtaking: Like Uber, the film The Fifth Element predicted flying cars will soon be here.

The human race has been trying to produce flying cars for a century. Now Uber says it will engineer them within three years. But will the future really be that different from the present?

In 1917, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss unveiled a machine with three wings, spanning 12m (40ft). At its rear stood a four-blade propeller. He called it the Autoplane.

He had tried to make a flying car, just 14 years after the first powered flight. But though his machine made some short hops off the ground, it was never able to fly.

A century later, his dream may be nearing reality. This week Uber hired former NASA engineer Mark Moore to join its Uber Elevate division. He made a bold prediction: there will be several well-engineered flying cars within one to three years.

The cars would take off and land vertically, like helicopters, but fly horizontally, like aeroplanes. Uber says they could revolutionise travel in cities, by making it faster and cheaper.

Flying cars have long captured the popular imagination, and have featured in films such as Back to the Future and Harry Potter. But could they work? They would create concerns over congestion and safety — a new form of air traffic control may be needed to manage them.

And major technology firms have made similar statements before. In 2008 the company Terrafugia expected to sell a ‘roadable aircraft’ by the end of 2009. In 2013 it said it would begin production in 2015. In 2015 the makers of a flying car called AeroMobil said it would be on sale by 2017.

It has been possible to combine aeroplanes and cars for decades, but nobody has yet created practical and affordable flying cars en masse. And the technology Uber plans to use has a chequered past.

Matt Novak of Gizmodo was unconvinced by Uber’s claims. ‘Flying cars have been the perennial dream of futurists for well over a century now,’ he wrote. ‘But they always seem to be just two years away.’ Novak has also promised to ‘eat the sun’ if the AeroMobil is released this year, as planned.

The repeated letdowns have drawn comparisons with space tourism, which companies such as Virgin Galactic have repeatedly pledged — and failed — to deliver. So will these outlandish ideas always remain futuristic?

Flying solo

Yes, say pessimists. Human beings will retain the same fundamental needs and limitations. It is easy to make grandiose announcements for a bit of publicity; it is much harder to produce a revolutionary product. Most change is only incremental. And the shock of the new quickly wears off once people realise how similar things really are.

What defeatism, optimists respond. It is easy to scoff, but the companies which dream big will change the world. Attempts to create flying cars or send ordinary people into space are very complex, so of course they will face setbacks. But with enough determination and ingenuity, they will come to fruition eventually.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to travel in a flying car?
  2. Will flying cars ever be mass produced?

Activities

  1. Draw a picture showing how you think a flying car of the future might look. Compare with a partner — how different are your ideas and why?
  2. Fast forward to the year 2067. Do people commonly travel by flying car? Write a letter, addressed to the you of 2017, explaining why you think so — or not.

Some People Say...

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Flying cars will be expensive and take ages to create. Should I care about them?
If you use Uber, this is how they spend the money you give the company. And if the first cars are built successfully, they might become more common — meaning you may be able to travel in one, or they may change the place you live. You may relish the extra convenience they will bring and celebrate the extra time they will give people who travel faster. But you may worry they will make life more hectic and cause noise and pollution.
But I don’t use Uber, and nor do my friends.
A successful technology company has still decided these cars are worth investing in. That effort is telling. It may encourage other companies to invest in them — or similarly futuristic ideas which you may want to use one day.

Word Watch

NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Agency is the US space agency.
Helicopters
A car which took off like a helicopter would not need a runway; a car which took off like an aeroplane would. But helicopters are too expensive, loud and heavily polluting to operate in large numbers in cities.
Cities
The cars would have a range of 50–100 miles. They would be powered electronically, so they would need to recharge.
Technology
Uber is investing heavily in technology known as VTOL — vertical take-off and landing.
Chequered
The American military used VTOL in its Osprey vehicles. These took far longer to become operational, and cost much more to make, than expected. When an Osprey vehicle was produced for the presidential fleet in 2013, President Obama was not allowed on it for safety reasons.
Virgin Galactic
This division of the congolmerate Virgin says it aims to ‘democratise’ space travel. In 1999 Richard Branson, Virgin’s owner, said he hoped to see a ‘reusable rocket’ developed in five years to take 10 people at a time to a space hotel. There have been several similar claims since.

Subjects

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