RideSharing is the economic powerhouse driving autonomous vehicles to take flight.
In the past, flying cars were expensive dreams. It would be prohibitively expensive to have flying cars until a new economic model arose, RideSharing. The RideSharing model meant that one vehicle could have many trips, operating at near maximum efficiency. This means that the cost of the vehicle can be distributed across thousands of rides. RideSharing enabled mobility for people in India that could never afford a car. This same RideSharing model means that flying cars have just found a way to become affordable for the masses.
In fact, Flying cars appear so lucrative, RideSharing companies like Uber and Lyft have been partnering publicly (and through the grapevine) on deploying Vertical Take Off and Landing vehicles (or VTOL, as the industry prefers).
Uber released a white-paper in 2016 with astounding numbers. A VTOL trip from San Francisco to San Jose will soon become competitive with a cab ride.
Even more interestingly, because much of the cost associated with operations are human, (maintenance, etc.) VTOL RideSharing will be economically feasible even in places like India:
I have personally ridden in an Ola Cab from Gurgaon to Connaught Place in Delhi (after too much to drink in Cyber City). Rs 1000 (~$15 USD) for a flying car would become extremely popular.
Uber is planning tests in Dubai and Dallas, where they held their secretive, Invite only Elevate Conference.
On the other side of the Earth in China, companies like Ehang are racing ahead on their own. At CES 2017 in Las Vegas, a representative told me that Ehang and Uber were “In Conversation”. In my opinion there is no reason to partner.
Whomever owns the autonomous VTOL infrastructure will benefit from its revenues. Handing that off to another company like Uber doesn’t make sense. This idea is validated by the fact that OEMs like Tesla, and Volkswagen have publicly stated their self driving cars will not be allowed on Uber. The RideSharing industry is slowly fragmenting as automakers build their own RideSharing Networks.
On the other hand, RideSharing companies like Uber, Lyft, Gett, and Waymo are actively developing their own Autonomous Technologies. Whomever owns the infrastructure, owns the revenues from an autonomous network. Uber and Lyft, by developing their own hardware, are actively preparing themselves for a future of flight.
As technologies surrounding autonomous systems, battery technology, and robotic flight are converging, dozens of companies are building flying cars. The technology exist right now in prototype and in the air. DARPA funded Aurora and German Lilium jet have become top contenders using electric ducted fan motors.
Joby, Kitty hawk, and Zee.Aero are all coming out of Silicon Valley, building working prototypes (the latter two are funded directly by Google’s Larry Page.) Governments and Venture capitalists are pouring money into VTOL. While most VTOL startups are still in“stealth”, according to Crunchbase, Lilium alone has raised over $101.4 Million USD. Massive funding in autonomous vehicle hardware and software is further lowering the cost of deploying VTOL infrastructure.
Computer vision software, and robotic hardware are converging so quickly that even the big, slow moving aerospace companies are getting involved. AirBus has spun off two projects, Pop.up and Vahana.
Vahana, in ancient Sanskrit means “one that carries” appearing in the Bhagavad Gita thousands of years ago. The ancients believed in flying cars, now investors do too.
Money, technology, and demand exists right now to make flying cars economically feasible. What we are waiting for is legislation. Existing Ride Sharing companies already have a foot in rapidly developing countries’ legal systems (RideSharing is still illegal in most places, but governments turn a blind eye.) Uber has even been accused of bribery. (Wall Street Journal Via Engadget)
As more “developed” countries await legislation around licensing autonomous flight, places like Dubai and China are pushing forward with live tests. It is not difficult to imagine that in the next 3 years, VTOL RideSharing will be very real in many places.
The consequences of autonomous flight will also be very real. Many claim that autonomous cars alone may drastically reduce property value in cities (Curbed has done a great article on this). Curbed explains that developers like AvalonBay in Los Angeles are already designing for an autonomous future. As self driving cars reduce the need for parking garages, AvalonBay is designing their garages to be converted into housing.
While autonomous cars may help developers maximize urban space, VTOL could accelerate de-urbanization for those who can afford it. If VTOL can expand in cost and access faster than city populations can grow, property may begin to devalue as the ultra-rich move away from city center. Autonomous systems are going to fundamentally change the way our cities are designed.
Why would anyone live in the city, if they could bypass the chaos of traffic and live somewhere more affordable? Lilium estimated their VTOL jet will put much of Marin County (North of San Francisco) Into range of downtown.
It is not difficult to imagine climbing to the roof of your Marin County home, awaiting a VTOL to San Francisco. Your Apple watch pings, and a shining electric VTOL settles onto your solar landing pad. The electric Vahana or Lilium jet takes off and lands in SoMa ten minutes later.
If Uber’s Elevate white paper is accurate, it may not only be more affordable, but faster to commute from somewhere like Marin, than to take a cab through Silicon Valley. VTOL could drastically enhance the value of land around our cities, and make center city “uncool” to live.
In the 1920’s, when airplane ranges were still small, futurists imagined giant floating islands built at sea, facilitating “hops” across the Atlantic. As the range of VTOL increases, we can begin to imagine flying VTOL instead of a commercial airline. A trip between Los Angeles and Las Vegas could be cut in half by VTOL “oasis” hidden amongst the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
We can begin to imagine these new cities arising in the middle of nowhere, strategically positioned between points of interest. The drive for humans to escape cities, and the affordability of VTOL just might replace the Jet age.
As new RideSharing models quickly prove feasibility, investors and startups are racing for what lies beyond self driving cars. If legislation can keep pace with technology, our skies, and cities will quickly transform into something new. As technology continues to accelerate at the exponential pace in which we are experiencing, VTOL may quickly evolve into affordable access to outer space.
Garrett Kinsman Writes for Autonomous Tomorrow based out of Bangalore, India, and San Francisco.