Uber is the preeminent company in the era of the disrupter. While its ethics have been hotly contested – enough to force one of the biggest cities in the western world to all but formally shut its doors to the company – it is nevertheless the defacto company of the new tech age. And its attempts to reconfigure the tech landscape, and bend the world at large to its will, has resulted in Elon Muskian levels of theoretical innovation. In perhaps the most daring and bizarre of the bunch, Uber announced this week that it would begin working on the ambitious task of launching flying taxis.
This might sound like something straight out of The Jetsons—partly because it literally is—but the project, a result of a contract with NASA, is driving into the fast lane, with an anticipated test date of 2020 in Los Angeles (putting us just one year behind the projected future in Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner).
Board the flying taxi
Autonomous flying taxis have long been the totems of an arrived future, though are still deemed to be, pardon the pun, flights of fancy. Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, spoke about the upcoming project at Lisbon’s Web Summit, titling the four-passenger 200mph service as UberAir.
The planned service would transform an 80-minute rush hour car ride into a projected four-minute journey, making Los Angeles the ideal test ground for any type of traffic disruption. Additionally, Uber has stated that it intends push for tests to be completed in the lead-up to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics in order to provide some form of operation air service during the games. Yet experts remain cautious at best, skeptical at worst.
Private Sector Regulation
When NASA developed the Space Act agreement in the late 1950s in an effort to better regulate contracted rocket developments, it’s doubtful that they imagined they would be working with the private sector on flying taxi cabs. But the company has gone so far as to hire two former NASA veterans: Mark Moore and Tom Prevot. The two have been tapped to run the UberAir vehicle design team and air traffic management software, and will work alongside five manufacturers that are working on new types of aircrafts—Uber has said it does not plan on making the drones itself.
“Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace management technologies,” Holden said. “Combining Uber’s software engineering expertise with NASA’s decades of airspace experience to tackle [UberAir] is a crucial step forward.”
Whether UberAir takes off or not, the announcement marks a fascinating merging of the private sphere and the federally funded. NASA has been a bedrock of American innovation for the better part of nearly six decades (next July marks the 60th anniversary of the agency’s establishment). Still, disruptions by tech giants, who wield bigger and bigger influence over politics, means that the merging of the two worlds is both an inevitability and signaling of something much larger.
NASA’s funding has been significantly cut in the intervening years, leaving a space open for a number of privately-led companies as they attempt to bridge the innovation gap and accelerate the next stage of the space race. Tesla founder Elon Musk has put his efforts behind SpaceX, while a number of silicon valley startups have focused their energy and resources on space technology, including Spire Global and Planet Labs.
Still, Uber’s partnering with NASA hints that the next giant leap for mankind might be in our own stratosphere. US Federal Aviation Administration might prove to be a hurdle that no flying car can completely cruise over, but in the meantime, Uber’s seems to be forging ahead and putting its plans into the fast lane.