Uber is showing off its latest “flying car” concept at its second annual Elevate conference in Los Angeles. And, as you can see, it looks more like a drone than a helicopter.
The aircraft, which the company hopes to use to launch as an aerial taxi service by 2023, is a mashup of a plane and a helicopter. Instead of a tiltrotor, this design has four stacked rotors along the spine to give lift, which then stow away during landing. There is also a fifth rotor on the tail to allow forward propulsion. If one rotor fails, the others will continue to operate for a safe landing.
“Stacked co-rotating rotors or propellers have two rotor systems placed on top of each other rotating in the same direction,” Uber says. “Initial experimentation of this concept has revealed the potential for significantly quieter performance than traditional paired rotors and improved overall performance.”
These aircraft will be electrically powered, and Uber says they’ll fly at an elevation of 1,000 to 2,000 feet. The company envisions thousands of its flying taxis shuttling passengers between rooftop “skyports” and landing sites in cities, each of which will be equipped to handle 200 takeoffs and landings every hour. The aircraft will be piloted by humans at first, but eventually will fly autonomously.
The prototype serves as an eye-catching centerpiece for the company’s two-day Elevate conference, which brings together representatives from the aviation industry, real estate, infrastructure, and government regulators. This year, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi will also be making an appearance.
Uber first introduced its plan to bring ride-sharing to the skies in 2016, but the project still faces significant hurdles. The kind of aircraft Uber envisions shuttling passengers from rooftop to rooftop — electric, autonomous, with the ability to take off and land vertically (also known as eVTOL, pronounced ee-vee-tol) — don’t really exist yet, nor does the infrastructure to support such a vehicle. Experts suggest that engineering and regulatory hindrances may prevent flying cars from ever taking off in a meaningful way.
That’s not to say flying cars aren’t having a moment: at least 19 companies are developing flying-car plans. These include legacy manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, and small startups like Kitty Hawk, owned by Google founder Larry Page. Meanwhile, Uber has made significant strides in partnering with a handful of aircraft manufacturers, real estate firms, and regulators to better its chances of developing a fully functional, on-demand flying taxi service.
Uber has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to create a brand-new air traffic control system to manage these low-flying, possibly autonomous aircraft. Expect more news to break this week as the conference kicks off.