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Flying cars on demand? Yeah, Uber's working on that

The massive ride-sharing startup envisions a world of flying commuter vehicles not that far down the road. Or is that flight path?

Flying cars have been a trope of every science fiction vision of the future from "The Jetsons" to "Blade Runner" and "Back to the Future," yet we've made little real progress taking traffic to the skies. Now the ultimate uber-startup has a plan to finally make it a reality.

On Thursday, Uber dropped a 99-page white paper (PDF) and companion Medium post by Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden describing "Uber Elevate," the company's vision for on-demand urban air transportation.

The basic idea is to build out a network of small electric aircraft called VTOLs that can hover and take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but are much more efficient, as well as less noisy and expensive, than a chopper. They might not be true flying cars in the sense that they could also be driven down a highway, but Uber envisions them used for commuting from suburbs and getting around cities. Think of it more like a flying replacement for the way most of us use cars today.

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Is the future finally near?

Uber

Naturally, Uber also sees ride sharing, or rather flight sharing, as the way to get flying cars off the ground. You can actually order a flying car today from the likes of Terrafugia. These vehicles have a design you could feasibly drive down a highway to your nearest airport, deploy your wings and take flight. But it will set you back a couple hundred thousand dollars, so it's hard to see it supplanting all those countless Toyota Camrys around town in the next few years.

Uber's plan focuses not only on the technology to bring flying cars to the masses, but on the economics that could actually make the plan work.

"In the long-term, VTOLs will be an affordable form of daily transportation for the masses, even less expensive than owning a car," Holden writes. "Once the ride-sharing service commences, a positive feedback loop should ensue that ultimately reduces costs and thus prices for all users...Logically, this continues with the pooling of trips to achieve higher load factors, and the lower price feeds back to drive more demand. This increases the volume of aircraft required, which in turn drives manufacturing costs down."

In other words, Uber hopes to use its ride-sharing model to take commuting to the next level, literally.

Uber sees ride-sharing flying cars eventually becoming less expensive than ground transportation.

Uber

In addition to Uber's proposed business model, the company has existing proof of concepts for VTOL technology on its side, with a number of companies, plus DARPA, NASA and others, working on their own models. Coincidentally, Boeing was granted a patent for its latest VTOL design the same week Uber dropped its white paper.

Uber's plan goes on to address the handful of significant barriers to its success. First, these new vehicles would have to be certified by government regulators. Unfortunately, the wheels of the Federal Aviation Administration and its counterparts around the world haven't always moved quickly, and arguably for good reason. Uber lays out a 10-year plan for certification that sees initial urban flight operations and testing happening around 2025.

For the idea to succeed, better battery technology, takeoff and landing infrastructure in cities, pilot training and air traffic control measures are just a few of the issues Uber says will need to be sorted out in the coming years.

Not surprisingly, one helpful innovation Uber sees in its long-term vision for a flying car-sharing network is one it's testing right now on the ground: autonomous vehicles.

That's right. If Uber has its way, optimistically we could be commuting in self-flying cars by the end of the next decade.

Could the dream finally be coming true? So many have failed to deliver on this one that we won't be holding our breath, but it sure will be nice not to have to deal with navigating all that pesky ground traffic on the way to the spaceport before the long trip to visit family at the colony on Mars.

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