Uber has hired 30-year NASA veteran engineer Mark Moore to help its Elevate division design flying cars that will take off and land vertically so it can easily transport commuters in crowded urban areas, Bloomberg reported on Monday. His official title will be director of engineering for aviation.
The company first outlined its vision for the futuristic service in a 97-page white paper in October and claimed it could launch as early as 2026. In its vision of the future, air taxis will transport commuters between aircraft hubs known as "vertiports," which would be located between 50 miles and 100 miles of each other.
"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," the company wrote.
Moore makes sense for the project, considering he wrote a white paper in 2010 on VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) cars to be used for daily commuting. His paper impressed Alphabet (GOOGL) co-founder Larry Page so much that he helped launch flying car startups Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk to bring Moore's vision to life, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.
When most people hear about flying vehicles, they think of the futuristic show "The Jetsons" that ran from 1962 to 1963 as a picture of what the world would look like in 2062. Of course, it included flying cars.
Noted futurist Jim Carroll told TheStreet that a lot of the inventions featured in that show are "becoming real sooner." Both the Apple (AAPL) smartwatch and video and picture sharing app Snapchat could be compared to similar items featured in the TV program. "Trends are accelerating and the future is coming at us faster," Carroll explained.
This acceleration is partly due to the rise of tech companies in traditional sectors, he said. Electric car company Tesla (TSLA) is innovating cars at a faster rate than a traditional car company like Mercedes-Benz. Apple Pay and PayPal (PPL) are innovating the payment space at a quicker pace than Visa (V) . "The tech companies are now the ones dictating," Carroll explained.
Another example of how quickly new technology is being developed are drones, or unmanned flying aircrafts, which have already gone mainstream, he pointed out. "Scale up and stick a human in there," he said jokingly.
Founder and CEO of Futurist.com Glen Hiemstra gave TheStreet a similar view, claiming flying cars are really like "big drones" and are the "ultimate future image." Yet two big problems stand in the way of them going commercial, he said.
First, engineers will have to solve the noise problem by going electric, he said. Second, companies are going to have to endure a long process to get FAA approval and to create skyways for the air taxis to travel down safely. Despite the long road to approval, Uber seems to have hired Moore to help it stay ahead of the curve, he noted.
As for specific timelines, flying vehicles could go mainstream in five to 15 years, according to the two futurists. Other companies working to bring flying vehicles to the masses in the next decade or so include Airbus (AIR) , Terrafugia and the two startups that Larry Page is funding.
Airbus launched Project Vahana in early 2016 and it will have a prototype ready by the end of 2017, CEO Tom Enders said during a tech conference in January. The aircraft will be an autonomous, single-person VTOL.
Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia is working on a car with folding wings that can fly in skyways or drive on roads called The Transition. The company expects production to start in 2019. Terrafugia is also working on the TF-X, which would be able to take off and land vertically, with a prototype ready by 2018.
Zee.Aero, launched in 2010, employs about 150 people and filed a patent to work on a small, electric VTOL plane. But soon after its launch, it became very secretive, even giving employees a handout that explained how to deflect questions from the media, Bloomberg reported. Sightings of a strange aircraft taking off from Hollister, Calif., where it has a hangar, have been reported.
Kitty Hawk, launched in 2015 with employees from Zee.Aero, is competing with Zee.Aero on the VTOL design -- despite being located about a half mile from each other, Bloomberg said.
While the idea of flying cars seems far off compared to the iPhone 8 launch in September or the expected Tesla Model S launch at the end of 2017, it continues to excite even a tech veteran like Page. That's because the idea of traveling in a flying car "captures the imagination of people of where we could be," Morris has said.