The Skirball Cultural Center sits just off the 405 Freeway, on the northern edge of Los Angeles. Built atop the thin spine of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Center offers spectacular views in nearly every direction, except for the freeway below—which is bumper-to-bumper for miles on end.
Of course it is.
In 2018, for the sixth straight year, Los Angeles earned the dubious honor of being the most gridlocked metropolis in the world, where the average driver spends two-and-a-half working weeks a year trapped in traffic. Yet help may be on its way. In May 2018, the Skirball Center was ground zero for Uber Elevate, the ridesharing company’s radical plan for solving this traffic: their second annual flying car conference. Inside the Skirball, giant screens displayed a night sky dotted with stars that slowly faded into a blue sky dotted with clouds. Beneath the clouds, it was standing room only. The event had attracted a motley crew of the power elite: CEOs, entrepreneurs, architects, designers, technologists, venture capitalists, government officials, and real estate magnates. Nearly a thousand in total, dressed in everything from Wall Street slick to eternally casual Friday, all gathered to witness the birth of a new industry.
To kick off the conference, Jeff Holden, Uber’s (now former) chief product officer, took the stage. With curly brown hair and a gray Uber Air polo shirt, Holden had a boyish demeanor that belied his actual role in the affair. This event, in fact, the entire concept of getting Uber off the ground, was Holden’s vision.
It was quite a vision.
“We’ve come to accept extreme congestion as part of our lives,” said Holden. “In the U.S., we have the honor of being home to ten of the world’s twenty-five most congested cities, costing us approximately $300 billion in lost income and productivity. Uber’s mission is to solve urban mobility… Our goal is to introduce an entirely new form of transportation to the world, namely urban aviation, or what I prefer to call ‘aerial ridesharing.’”
Aerial ridesharing might sound like sci-fi cliché, but Holden had a solid track record of disruptive innovation. In the late 1990s, he followed Jeff Bezos from New York to Seattle to become one of the earliest employees at Amazon. There, he was put in charge of implementing the then zany idea of free two-day shipping for a flat annual membership fee. It was an innovation that many thought would bankrupt the company. Instead, Amazon Prime was born, and today, 100 million Prime members later, that zany idea accounts for a significant portion of the company’s bottom line.
Next, Holden went to another startup, Groupon—which is hard to remember as a disruptive enterprise today, but was then part of the first wave of “power to the people” internet companies. From there, he went to Uber, where, despite the turmoil the company experienced, Holden strung together a series of unlikely wins: UberPool, Uber Eats, and, most recently, Uber’s self-driving car program. So when he proposed an even zanier product line—that Uber take to the skies—it wasn’t all that surprising that the company’s leadership took him seriously.
And for good reason. The theme of the second annual Uber Elevate wasn’t actually flying cars. The cars have already arrived. Instead, the theme of the second Uber Elevate was the path to scale. And the more critical point: That path is a lot shorter than many suspect.
By mid-2019, over $1 billion had been invested in at least twenty-five different flying car companies. A dozen vehicles are currently being test-flown, while another dozen are at stages ranging from Power- Point to prototype. They come in all shapes and sizes, from motor- cycles stacked atop oversized fans, to quadcopter drones scaled up to human size, to miniature space-pod airplanes. Larry Page, cofounder and CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, was among the first to recognize their potential, personally funding three companies, Zee Aero, Opener and Kitty Hawk. Established players like Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, and Bell Helicopter (now just called Bell, a reference to the future disappearance of the helicopter itself) are also in the game. Thus, for the first time in history, we’re past the point of talking about the possibility of flying cars.
The cars are here.
“Uber’s goal,” explained Holden from the stage, “is to demonstrate flying car capability in 2020 and have aerial ridesharing fully operational in Dallas and LA by 2023.” But then Holden went even further: “Ultimately, we want to make it economically irrational to own and use a car.”
How irrational? Let’s look at the numbers.
Today, the marginal cost of car ownership—that is, not the purchase price, but everything else that goes with a car (gas, repairs, insurance, parking, etc.)—is 59 cents per passenger mile. For comparison, a helicopter, which has many more problems than just cost, covers a mile for about $8.93. For its 2020 launch, according to Holden, Uber Air wants to reduce that per mile price to $5.73, then rapidly drive it down to $1.84. But Uber’s long-term target is the game-changer—44 cents per mile—or cheaper than the cost of driving.
And you get a lot per mile. Uber’s main interest is in “electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles”—or eVTOLs for short. eVTOLs are being developed by a plethora of companies, but Uber has very particular needs. For an eVTOL to qualify for their aerial ridesharing program, it must be able to carry one pilot and four passengers at a speed of over 150 mph for three continuous hours of operation. While Uber envisions twenty-five miles as its shortest flight (think Malibu to downtown Los Angeles), these requirements allow you to leap from northern San Diego to southern San Francisco in a single bound. Uber already has five partners who have committed to delivering eVTOLs that meet these specs, with another five or ten still to come.
But the vehicles alone won’t make car ownership irrational. Uber has also partnered with NASA and the FAA to develop an air traffic management system to coordinate their flying fleet. They’ve also teamed up with architects, designers, and real estate developers to design a string of “mega-skyports” needed for passengers to load and unload and for vehicles to take off and land. Just like with the flying cars, Uber doesn’t want to own these skyports, they want to lease them. Once again, they have very specific needs. To qualify as Uber-ready, a mega-skyport must be able to recharge vehicles in seven to fifteen minutes, handle one thousand takeoffs and landings per hour (four thousand passengers), and occupy no more than three acres of land— which is small enough to sit atop old parking garages or on the roofs of skyscrapers.
Put all this together, and by 2027 or so, you’ll be able to order up an aerial rideshare as easily as you do an Uber today. And by 2030, urban aviation could be a major mode of getting from A to B.
But all of this raises a fundamental question: Why now? Why, in the late spring of 2018, are flying cars suddenly ready for prime time? What is it about this particular moment in history that has turned one of our oldest science fiction fantasies into our latest reality?
After all, we’ve been dreaming of Blade Runner hover cars and Back to the Future DeLorean DMC-12s for millennia. Vehicles capable of flight date back to the “flying chariots” in the Ramayana, an eleventh-century Hindu text. Even the more modern incarnations—that is, ones built around the internal combustion engine—have been around for a while. The 1917 Curtiss Autoplane, the 1937 Arrowbile, the 1946 Airphibian, the list goes on. There are over a hundred different patents on file in the US for “roadable aircraft.” A handful have flown. Most have not. None have delivered on the promise of The Jetsons.
In fact, our ire at this lack of delivery has become a meme unto itself. At the turn of the last century, in a now famous IBM commercial, comedian Avery Brooks asked: “It’s the year 2000, but where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars. I don’t see any flying cars. Why? Why? Why?” In 2011, in his “What Happened to the Future?” manifesto, investor Peter Thiel echoed this concern, writing: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
Yet, as should be clear by now, the wait is over. The Flying Cars Are Here. And the infrastructure’s coming fast. While we were sipping our lattes and checking our Instagram, science fiction became science fact.
Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.