One day Heidi Patmore hopes to visit her clients out in the east of Johannesburg from her office in the north west of the city in under six minutes – rather than the 90 minutes or even more it might take her in rush hour.
That’s because she’s pinning her hopes on drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and technology, particularly the Lilium Jet, the first ever all-electric jet aircraft being touted as the Uber of the skies.
It’s not as outlandish as it sounds – respected car manufacturer Toyota has thrown its weight behind the SkyDrive, a flying car drone being built by a bunch of volunteers known as Cartivator, that it hopes will soar up and light the Olympic flame when the games open in Tokyo in 2020.
As Patmore told attendees at DroneCon 2018 at Vodaworld, in Midrand, Gauteng on 17 May: “Cars with wings are not a new thing, they’ve been around for 15 years, but there’s been a huge amount of innovation in the last two years and investment in this sector has skyrocketed. Tencent, best known for having South Africa’s Naspers as one of its biggest shareholders, has invested $90 million into Lilium.
“Why would a media company in China invest in a German flying car?” she asked “The answer is that we’re running out of roads. The average commute in China is three hours long. A couple of years ago some commuters spent 11 days stuck in a traffic jam. There’s just no more space.”
As of 2017, the world had 47 megacities, defined as having populations of more than 10 million people – China has 15 of these, with 30 million people living in Shanghai alone.
There are still major barriers to entry however; chief among these the general horror of being flown in autonomous aircraft. The new urban taxis will also need VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) capabilities and be noiseless. The tops of buildings will have to be converted into heliports in major cities.
Uber Elevate, the taxi disruptor’s aviation division, wants to get UberAIR in operation by 2023. They’ve already identified two host US cities; Dallas and Los Angeles, and now they’re looking for a third international city to partner with.
“They’ll be doing 10 times in one city per year what the entire US is currently doing in aviation this year,” Patmore said.
Cities have until 1 July this year to hand in their expressions of interest to Uber Elevate.
The ideal city will have more than two million people, with a density of more than 2 000 people per square mile, be polycentric with multiple dense nodes of urban development and suffer significant congestion.
Other conditions include the presence of a large airport nearby which already takes more than an hour to get to because of demand and bottlenecks, an existing multi-modal transport solution that in public transit, ridesharing, bike-sharing and walking.
Dubai is rumoured to be in pole position to be chosen. Patmore wants it to be Johannesburg.
“Let’s do it,” she said. “Africa is the fastest growing continent with the most potential in the world and South Africa is its gateway. It will cost of trillions and trillions of dollars to fix Africa’s road network, flying cars will solve all of this at a third of the cost.”