Picture this: a well-dressed man enters the elevator of his high-rise condo, but instead of going down, he heads up to the roof. There, he hops inside his autonomous Uber aircraft and whizzes across town to the rooftop of his office building. The charge? $179, give-or-take surge pricing.
This vision of urban, aerial transport is probably still many years in the future, but I’m optimistic we could start seeing flying car prototypes this year. After all, who could guess that we’d start seeing self-driving cars picking up and dropping off passengers in large American cities in 2016? (Even if it just lasted a week.)
Uber started the year by slashing its fares to the bone in a concerted effort to kill off competitors like Lyft, and ended the year in a quixotic battle with the California DMV over its refusal to obtain a $150 permit for its fleet of self-driving cars. So what’s in store for the ride-sharing giant in 2017?
Uber will likely expand its self-driving pilots to a few new states, like Arizona (where it just moved its fleet from ungrateful San Francisco) or Michigan. Hoping to avoid further bad PR, it will probably pick these next cities based on local government’s willingness to bend the knee to the company. It will also continue running its autonomous trucks under its Otto brand. The first delivery in Colorado shipped thousands of cans of Budweiser. The next delivery will need to be even more American, so probably prescription opioids or Trump steaks.
But maybe Uber won’t want to be bound by the laws of gravity anymore. We know the company had its Hyperloop moment this year, releasing an extensive white paper on the possibilities of “vertical take-off and landing” (VTOL) aircraft — colloquially known as flying cars. The goal, according to Uber, was to inspire other aeronautic startups to take this idea and run with it. And there are a number of startups already working on their own prototypes. But as it did with self-driving cars, Uber likes to be first out of the gate. Does anyone really believe it would let some other company launch the first ride-sharing service via flying car and hog all the glory?
So what about Uber’s terrestrial services, the ones you and me and most people we know use the most? In 2016, Uber completely redesigned its logo and app to emphasize convenience, celebrate the cities in which it is now engrained, and even take a stab at new social sharing tools. Expect to see more of this in the new year: Uber integrating with Instagram or messaging apps.
In 2017, Uber will look to sink its tentacles further into cities by partnering with cash-strapped local governments to supplement — or even replace — public transit like trains and buses. Paratransit services could become Uber branded minivans. Kiss-and-ride commuter lots could be replaced by Uber-style taxi stands.
Uber will probably just say “Fuck it” and do buses. The company is convinced that carpooling is the answer to bulk deleting cars from the road. But minivans can only carry so many Google engineers between San Francisco and Mountain View. So why not Uber minibuses? Public transportation is overcrowded and unreliable in many communities. And Silicon Valley technologists speak of the abolition of fixed route transit. Transit officials are begging Uber to take over their car-choked towns.
Public transportation evangelists are convinced Uber won’t kill those transit systems that carry tens of thousands, or even millions, of commuters every day. To be sure, the fates of Uber and public transportation are intertwined. Uber aims to address the “last mile challenge,” helping people connect from their homes to transit hubs. Uber has started dabbling in filling this important transit gap; 2017 could see an explosion of these experiments.
Those won’t sit well with everyone. The privatization of public transportation will continue to creep across America in the new year, and most people won’t notice or care. That should worry us all. Because when local priorities shift away from providing transit to everyone on an equitable basis and towards just those privileged few with Uber accounts, then public transportation ceases to become public anymore.