Get Ready for Uber’s “Flying Cars” Conference to Generate Lots of Dumb Headlines

Uber's vision of the future, in which the people in cities and towns below look like tiny little ants. Image: Uber
Uber's vision of the future, in which the people in cities and towns below look like tiny little ants. Image: Uber

For a supposedly forward-looking company, some of Uber’s visions of the future look an awful lot like the unfulfilled dreams of 1960s space-age technophiles.

In that spirit, the company today is kicking off a three-day conference, dubbed the Elevate Summit, to “articulate Uber’s vision for the future of Urban Air Mobility” — in other words, flying cars. Tech reporters are tagging along to the confab in Dallas, so expect headlines about the new partnerships and technological advances the company is sure to tout.

The conference builds on a white paper Uber released last October in which it laid out a vision of replacing car and transit trips with fast, quiet, cheap, and low-emission on-demand aviation. But as the latest barrage of Uber PR hits the airwaves this week, remember the things that aren’t being discussed.

Whizzing above the city sounds appealing in a Jetsons sort of way, but Uber’s thinking on this technology is completely untethered from its impact on the cities and towns below, where the people are. The cultural fascination with flying cars grows out of a worldview that prioritizes speedy private transportation above virtually all else. It’s the same instinct that plowed expressways through cities and built mushrooming, auto-oriented suburbs, rather than building places around the native “killer app” for human transportation — walking.

Uber’s white paper envisions a future where air travelers walk (or take an Uber car, naturally) to and from heliport locations sprinkled across a metropolitan region. In the beginning the service would compete with choppers for the loyalty of the one percent, but in the long run, Uber is pitching it as “an affordable form of daily transportation for the masses, even less expensive than owning a car.”

Of course, the report fails to address the impact relying on ubiquitous local air travel would have on the built environment, just as our decision to prioritize high-speed car travel has had profound consequences for the design of cities and towns.

Cities are fortunately not on the verge of becoming dystopias in which we hop in an airplane to get a gallon of milk. Silicon Valley is testing “flying car” prototypes, but so far they look more like expensive toys at a rich uncle’s lake house, rather than a meaningful transportation option.

But it’s unsettling how transportation trendsetters in the private sector are thinking first and foremost about the need for speed. Silicon Valley is already designing expensive juicers around the assumption that people have forgotten how to squeeze things. Let’s not design yet another transportation system around the assumption that we’ve forgotten how to walk.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The Juicero of urban transportation.

  • Joe R.

    Unless these are autonomous they’re a nonstarter. People can’t even deal with driving in two dimensions, let alone flying in three. I can visualize neighborhoods full of wrecked roofs caused by “out of control” flying cars if these ever became popular.

    On top of that, the noise pollution will be ridiculous. And so will the air pollution unless they’re electric. Seems like a solution in search of a problem if you ask me.

    How about we just figure out ways to live which involve traveling less? That would solve a ton of problems.

  • Jane, stop this crazy thing!

  • Vooch

    The film ‘Blade Runner’ wasn’t meant to be a role model

  • HamTech87

    My initial reaction is that the objections to this based on noise would be countless. Think of anyone who lives near an airport or heliport, or the resistance to new runways. But then I think of all those awful highways plowed through our cities, and more to come (like in Denver) and I sadly conclude that this may be unstoppable.

  • ohnonononono
  • Joe R.

    I’m hopeful we can nip this in the bud. We live in a democracy. Despite the fact this idea is being sold as something which will eventually benefit the masses we all know how that will likely turn it. It’ll be yet another thing which primarily benefits the 1%, just like airports and highways do now, but which causes problems for the other 99%. We just need a critical mass of people who will suffer only the negative effects to come out against it. We should be able to do that with airports, too. We just need to make it a system of one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote. I’m tired of us serfs regularly having to deal with all the negative effects from the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Let them walk, ride a bike, or take public transit like most everyone else.

  • Andy Chow

    When cars were first introduced, traffic wasn’t a problem, and curbs were empty. Wouldn’t they expect that flying cars eventually result in air space traffic jam if everyone had adopted? Unlike cars, air collisions would be more deadly and gravity would enhance the harm. A car with an engine failure can stop on the freeway shoulder and wait for help. An airplane with an engine failure may well mean death.

  • JoshNY

    “fast, quiet, cheap, and low-emission on-demand aviation.”

    Fairy dust, basically. Regardless of whether this is a desirable future, what they’re suggesting isn’t remotely plausible technologically.

  • Miles Bader

    Flying vehicles would be much, much noiser…

  • Miles Bader

    … only Juicero, for all its extreme stupidity, actually works.

    Compared to this, Juicero looks good… ><

  • BlueFairlane

    FWIW, in Star Trek world, the planet would have been wracked by international conflict by the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s, and right now we’d be going through the economic upheaval that would lead to the 30-year-long World War III. So even the future promised by Star Trek understood that it was going to take a long time to get to Utopia.

  • old_athlete

    A taxi service that doesn’t come to your location or take you to your destination… worthless.

  • Joe R.

    After seeing the last election I might actually welcome “genetically improved” leaders at this point. Trump and Clinton seem to be exactly the opposite. Same thing with most of those in leadership positions.

    And we’ve been in World World III for a long time, only we’re just not calling it that. All these ongoing regional conflicts since WWII have amounted to a near continual state of war.

    My point here is that we made the wrong decisions at critical points in history, and as a result we’ve dug ourselves into a hole which will be increasingly hard to get out from.

  • Bruce

    Although I agree that the end goal is not desirable, it is actually plausible. Check out Lilium: https://lilium.com/

  • Tom

    What would be the per year carbon footprint of a plane commute vs a car commute?

  • Vooch

    flying cars have been a pipe dream since 1946. There were actually a number of fly-in fly-out housing tracts built in the hey day of futurama.

    flying cars are old 1940s technology

    fail

  • Miles Bader

    After seeing the last election I might actually welcome “genetically improved” leaders at this point. Trump and Clinton seem to be exactly the opposite. Same thing with most of those in leadership positions.

    Er, Trump may be a walking genetic disaster, but Clinton is most certainly not. She’s intellectually way above average, and has the drive, compassion, and social skills to make an excellent leader (she’s also very, very, experienced, but that’s of course not a genetic thing). She would have been a very good president, even if you disagree with some of her policies.

    It’s true that Clinton is not the campaigning genius her husband is, and this* hurt her in the election. But would you really want to “genetically improve” people’s ability to campaign?

    * Along with the crazy (decades long) GOP smear campaign, and insane conservative identity politics, etc.

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