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Uber looks to the skies for transport solutions

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It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that, one day soon, you could hail an Uber ride and fly to your destination.
Jeff Holden, chief product officer of Uber, outlines the thinking behind this concept in a blog post.
“Every day, millions of hours are wasted on the road worldwide,” he writes. “Last year, the average San Francisco resident spent 230 hours commuting between work and home – that’s half a million hours of productivity lost every single day.
“In Los Angeles and Sydney, residents spend seven whole working weeks each year commuting, two of which are wasted unproductively stuck in gridlock.”
The emerging world has even more severe traffic problems, Holden writes. He doesn’t mention the average commute time for Johannesburg workers, but points out that Mumbai residents face a staggering 90 minute average commute.
“For all of us, that’s less time with family, less time at work growing our economies, more money spent on fuel – and a marked increase in our stress levels: a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, for example, found that those who commute more than 10 miles were at increased odds of elevated blood pressure.”
Holden believes that on-demand aviation has the potential to improve urban mobility, and Uber is keen to get in on the ground floor of this potential new development in urban transportation.
“Uber is close to the commute pain that citizens in cities around the world feel. We view helping to solve this problem as core to our mission and our commitment to our rider base.”
Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground, Holden believes.
“A network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically (called VTOL aircraft for Vertical Take-off and Landing), will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities.”
A further benefit is that the development of infrastructure to support an urban VTOL network would have significant cost advantages over heavy-infrastructure approaches such as roads, rail, bridges and tunnels.
“It has been proposed that the repurposed tops of parking garages, existing helipads, and even unused land surrounding highway interchanges could form the basis of an extensive, distributed network of ‘vertiports’ (VTOL hubs with multiple takeoff and landing pads, as well as charging infrastructure) or single-aircraft ‘vertistops’ (a single VTOL pad with minimal infrastructure),” Holden envisages.
“As costs for traditional infrastructure options continue to increase, the lower cost and increased flexibility provided by these new approaches may provide compelling options for cities and states around the world.”
Another advantage is the fact that VTOLs do not need to follow fixed routes.
“Recently, technology advances have made it practical to build this new class of VTOL aircraft,” Holden points out. “Over a dozen companies, with as many different design approaches, are passionately working to make VTOLs a reality.”
Unlike helicopters, VTOL aircraft would make use of electric propulsion so they have zero operational emissions and would be quiet enough to operate in cities.
Holden expects that daily long-distance commutes in heavily congested urban and suburban areas and routes under-served by existing infrastructure will be the first use cases for urban VTOLs. In the long-term, however, they could become an affordable form of daily transportation for the masses.