Readers of these virtual pages know that I’m a fan of the Uber ride-sharing service. Only last Saturday I used Uber to embark on an adventure in Boston’s historic North End, taking an Uber ride from my hotel in Braintree up to the Old North Church in the morning – spent the day wandering, partaking of fine beers in the North End’s wonderful Irish pubs and returning via Uber (again) to Braintree about eleven o’clock at night – all with no worries about whether I was one beer over the DUI limit, no worries about parking, no worries about navigating.
I like Uber. I like it a lot.
Now Uber is making noises about making their service three-dimensional. Excerpt:
In an onstage interview with me today at the Nantucket Conference, Uber products head Jeff Holden said that the fast-growing ride-sharing company was seriously looking at a new form of transportation to offer its customers: Short-haul flying in cities.
The technology is called VTOL — which stands for vertical takeoff and landing. Simply put, VTOL is an aircraft that can hover, take off and land vertically, which would also describe a helicopter. But, unlike the typical helicopter, these planes have multiple rotors, could have fixed wings and perhaps eventually would use batteries and be more silent. In time, like cars, such aircraft would be autonomous.
Holden said that he has been researching the area, “so we can someday offer our customers as many options as possible to move around.” He added that “doing it in a three-dimensional way is an obvious thing to look at.”
Holden said in the interview that such technology could be in use within a decade, which is an aggressive prediction, given the issues around the complexity of movement in the air above densely populated areas. (Also, you know, the possibility of these VTOL vehicles crashing into each other.)
Holden, who previously worked at Amazon and Groupon, has been deeply involved in Uber’s recent rollout of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. He noted that the company accelerated the development of that technology after it was first mentioned by CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick only a few years ago.
Now, ten years is probably wildly optimistic – unrealistically so. Uber (as noted in the article) is already dipping a toe in the waters of driverless transport, and that’s interesting in and of itself; it promises to trim Uber’s costs and, presumably, prices, if they can make it work. But VSTOL air travel at affordable prices – it cost me $16 one-way for the trip from Braintree to the North End – that’s quite a ways out, with serious technical, regulatory and navigational problems to overcome.
Still, Uber got to where they are today by breaking new ground in commuter travel. If they want to hold their place in the transportation world, it’s in there interest to keep breaking new ground. And new technology won’t be developed if someone doesn’t start.
Best of all – there’s no mention of Uber taking any Imperial funding for research. That’s refreshing. The market, not the Imperial City, is the wellspring of innovation.