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It's 2020 and Uber's new flying car is here, but is it all it’s cracked up to be?

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It's 2020 and Uber's new flying car is here, but is it all it’s cracked up to be?
The Hyundai S-A1 electric Urban Air Mobility concept is displayed at the CES in Las Vegas.   -   Copyright  AFP Forum
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This week, multinational taxi service Uber has presented a full-scale model of a flying car, alongside South Korean manufacturer Hyundai.

The vehicle was on display at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and will form part of a fleet of Uber Air Taxis, set to accommodate four passengers each. They will be flown by a pilot, but the goal is for the cars to become autonomous over time.

In 2016, Uber released a white paper outlining plans to provide on-demand urban air transportation by 2023, calling the project Uber Elevate. The goal was to partner with an automobile manufacturer to build fully electric aircraft that would be able to take off and land vertically.

It has now been revealed that Hyundai is the chosen partner and is in the process of building aerial taxis that cruise at up to 200 mph with a range of 60 miles. Once the flying cars hit the market, Uber will be able to enrol pilots and create a network with its existing customer base (currently 91 million riders worldwide), advise on routes and collect its share of every fare.

NASA is also involved in the project, with Hyundai having hired aerospace engineer Jaiwon Shin back in September to advance its newly established Urban Air Mobility division.

How does the flying car work?

The flying Hyundai S-A1 features counter rotating blades that minimise noise and uses 8 different rotors to maximise efficiency. Four rotors tilt for vertical and horizontal flight and four are fixed in the horizontal position so that the craft can hover. The air taxi system, once in place, will operate with stations called Hubs, and use Purpose Built Vehicles (PBVs) to shuttle customers to and from their air taxis.

Stating that the goal is to “deliver true freedom of mobility” Euisun Chung, executive vice chairman of Hyundai said the motor group would “accelerate efforts” to redefine the boundaries of airborne transport. While Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber CEO, commented that Hyundai's large scale manufacturing capabilities would result in Uber providing “affordable and seamless transportation in cities around the world”, taking “Uber’s platform into the skies.”

The first public demonstration of the Hyundai S-A1 flying vehicle will take place later this this year.

AFP Forum
The Hyundai S-A1AFP Forum

What about air pollution?

The World Health Organisation reports that some 3.8 million premature deaths are attributed to outdoor (ambient) air pollution every year. The alarming statistics also show that, of a survey of 4300 cities worldwide, only 20% of urban populations live in areas that comply with WHO air quality guidelines. A map made by the World Air Quality Index displays the pollution in a visual way, which helps us understand the severity of the problem.

In order to reduce carbon emissions, Hyundai has ensured that the flying car will be 100% electric, utilising ‘distributed electric propulsion’. Distributed propulsion describes the flight system in place to increase performance in fuel efficiency and emissions, as well as a reduction in noise. The vehicle will be quickly and easily rechargeable, taking around 5-7 minutes to charge during peak hours.

Despite these sustainable claims, some scientists are still sceptical. We spoke to Dr Gary Fuller, air pollution scientist from King’s College London and author of the Invisible Killer.

“It is just an issue of physics that flying must use more energy than surface transport. In that respect this isn’t progress towards a lower consumption future, even if they are battery-electric. Car use already shapes our cities and the locations of shops and leisure at the detriment of city-centres and to the exclusion of those that don’t drive. I doubt this will help.”

For Gary, real progress would see us moving towards more active travel on a daily basis. “Walking or cycling,” he explains, “rather than driving, would help air pollution and our climate emergency.” It would also reverse the “chronic diseases of inactivity that cost our health-care systems so much,” he says.

The air pollution scientist concludes, “it would be great if the innovative energies that were directed into flying cars were instead put into new bicycles and designs for walking-friendly cities.”

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