In 2010, an advanced aircraft engineer at NASAs Langley Research Center named Mark Moore published a white paper outlining the feasibility of electric aircrafts that could take off and land like helicopters but were smaller and quieter. The vehicles would be capable of providing a speedy alternative to the dreary morning commute.
Moores research into so-called VTOLshort for vertical takeoff and landing, or more colloquially, flying carsinspired at least one billionaire technologist. After reading the white paper, Google co-founder Larry Page secretly started and financedtwo Silicon Valley startups, Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk, to develop the technology, Bloomberg Businessweek reported last summer.
Now Moore is leaving the confines of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where he has spent the last 30 years, to join one of Googles rivals: Uber Technologies Inc. Moore is taking on a new role as director of engineering for aviation at the ride-hailing company, working on a flying car initiative known as Uber Elevate. I cant think of another company in a stronger position to be the leader for this new ecosystem and make the urban electric VTOL market real, he says.
Uber isnt constructing a flying car yet. In its own white paper published last October, the company laid out a radical vision for airborne commutes and identified technical challenges it said it wanted to help the nascent industry solve, like noise pollution, vehicle efficiency and limited battery life. Moore consulted on the paper and was impressed by the companys vision and potential impact.
Moore acknowledged that many obstacles stand in the way, and theyre not only technical. He says each flying car company would need to independently negotiate with suppliers to get prices down, and lobby regulators to certify aircrafts and relax air-traffic restrictions. But he says Uber, with its 55 million active riders, can uniquely demonstrate that there could be a massive, profitable and safe market. If you dont have a business case that makes economic sense, than all of this is just a wild tech game and not really a wise investment, Moore says.
Ubers vision is a seductive one, particularly for sci-fi fans. The company envisions people taking conventional Ubers from their homes to nearby vertiports that dot residential neighborhoods. Then they would zoom up into the air and across town to the vertiport closest to their offices. (We dont need stinking bridges! says Moore.) These air taxis will only need ranges of between 50 to 100 miles, and Moore thinks that they can be at least partially recharged while passengers are boarding or exiting the aircraft. He also predicts well see several well-engineered flying cars in the next one to three years and that there will be human pilots, at least managing the onboard computers, for the foreseeable future.
His move to Uber is a risky one. Moore says hes leaving NASA one year before hes eligible for retirement and walking away from a significant percentage of his pension and free health care for life to be in the right place at the right time to make this market real. (Though its probably safe to say that Uber, with some $11 billion on its balance sheet, is making it worth his while.) Moore seems to be disillusioned with NASA, saying the agency is leaving promising new aviation markets to the private industry. Its the federal government who is best positioned to overcome extremely high levels of risks, he says.
While NASA is larded with layers of bureaucracy and management, Uber Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick has been closely involved in hatching his companys flying car plans, Moore says. That is, when hes not distracted with his own political crises, such as his role on President Donald Trumps advisory council, which he relinquished last week after criticism from customers, drivers and employees.
Kalanicks bet on Uber Elevate is another indication that while Silicon Valley seems on the surface to be consumed with politics and protests these days, the march into the future continues apace.
This article originally published at Bloomberg here