Uber, Now Working With NASA, Is Still Promising Us Flying Cars

Video screen capture. UberAIR

We love grand visions at TreeHugger, we are happy utopians at heart. But when Uber first announced its proposal for flying cars a year ago, I was skeptical. Here was a company that's not usually known for following the rules and for playing nicely with the authorities, and suddenly it's going to be flying cars over our heads? But there is at least one authority talking to Uber- NASA, which has been working on aircraft management systems, which will obviously be needed if there are all kinds of little UberAIRcraft buzzing around. According to Uber's head of product Jeff Holden, quoted in Dezeen,

This Space Act Agreement paves the way forward for Uber to collaborate with NASA on the development of next-generation airspace management technology, UberAIR will be performing far more flights over cities on a daily basis than has ever been done before," Holden added. "Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace management technologies.

Uber isn't the only one proposing to avoid traffic congestion by leaving the surface; where they want to go over, Elon Musk wants to go under. He worries about UberAIR and flying cars, telling Bloomberg:

“Obviously, I like flying things. But it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution.... If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you. Your anxiety level will not decrease as a result of things that weigh a lot buzzing around your head.”

That's not stopping Uber, which is already making deals with real estate developers for rooftop launch pads. They say that trips to the airport could take a third the time that they do now, but will need some of that airspace management stuff from NASA; I can't imagine the flight controllers at LAX are happy about all these extra flying objects to manage.

But the biggest issue about Musk going under and Uber going over is what it says about our cities, the people who run them, and the Silicon Valley types making these proposals. Musk got into the tunnel boring business because he hated getting stuck in traffic; Uber shows the mom flying home to her kids looking down on traffic stuck on the highway. When Uber's flying taxi was first proposed, Tom Vanderbilt was quoted in Verge:

“The Silicon Valley approach to congestion seems to suffer from two of its chronic ills,” said Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. “The 'there's an app for that' thinking that often leads to solutions to non-existent problems — Segway was an early example of this — and the question of scaling. Is there anyone, apart from time-pressed one percenters, looking for a helicopter to whisk them, Sao Paolo style, across the dystopian transportation network below?”

Of course I am going to suggest that current technologies like light rail, subways, bicycles and walking are cheaper, proven, and rarely fall out of the sky on top of you, and if cities invested in good infrastructure for them, we wouldn't need flying taxis. But like Phil responding to Yonah Freemark, I will be accused of hating technology. I don't; I love technology. But to quote Tom Vanderbilt again:

One lesson traffic engineers stress all the time is individual optimality does not always equal system optimality, and there's a certain aspect of Silicon Valley culture that is certainly about optimizing one's own individual life — paying someone to wait in line for your burrito for you — without considering larger system effects (e.g., delivery app drivers parking by the fire hydrant to run in and grab those burritos).

We live in cities to do things with people- to work, to play, to meet. Cities are about co-operation. They are supposed to work for everyone, not just the wealthy who want to be alone; that's why we should be investing in better infrastructure on the ground. Enrique Penalosa has written that "an advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation."

I wish there was an Uber for that.