On Thursday, Uber announced the goal of bringing personal urban air transportation—essentially a fleet of mini electric aircraft that would cruise city skies—to the masses. A big part of the sell is that it would drastically reduce commute times, and that's bound to be a popular pitch. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who enjoys their commute.
"Last year, the average San Francisco resident spent 230 hours commuting between work and home," says a post from Uber's Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden. People who live in LA and Sydney, meanwhile, spend "seven whole working weeks each year commuting," two of those hanging out in gridlock. Mumbai residents' average commute is 90 minutes, producing a huge drain on time with family, productivity, and even our health, Holden explains.
Riding a personal aircraft to work admittedly doesn't sound too bad. But instead of finding different ways to make the same trip from point A to B—a bit faster and more efficiently, maybe, but still—we need to do away with commuting entirely. In the future, we'll be using VR, AR, and an array of other technologies to transport ourselves virtually from place to place, and commuting should become mostly obsolete.
Commuting is already expensive. Personal helicopters might be a good solution for those who are wealthy enough to afford them. (Holden doesn't peg a number on what this service would cost users, but suggests that growing ridership will bring costs down.) Even Uber's services today, though, are financially out of reach for a lot of people.
It's enough to make you envision a bleak future where the rich can zip around in 'copters overhead, while the poor are stuck on the ground in gridlock.
Then there's the matter of ridership. In New York, about 5.6 million people took the subway on an average weekday in 2015, according to the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Are we really going to get all of these people, or even a significant number of them, in personal aircraft in the skies?
In the future, instead, you might be able to transport yourself into your own robot body, far away. Consider the Beam, which allows instant, face-to-face communication, like Skype or Facetime, but mounted on a frame you can drive remotely around the room. As robotics improve, and better devices proliferate, there's no reason you won't be able to access one in some other distant location, "transport[ing] yourself over to visit a family member across the country, or to tour Paris or Hong Kong for the afternoon," as Motherboard contributor Mark Mann wrote earlier this year.
VR and AR, of course, are getting better and richer all the time, with new haptic feedback devices that will allow for realistic sensations of touch within the virtual environments we'll increasingly inhabit. (In some ways, they're becoming a little too realistic and high-fidelity. A woman recently wrote a harrowing account of being groped in VR.)
Aside from commuting into work, you might need to travel something critical—like a doctor's appointment. But in remote communities such as Canada's North (or in places even more remote, like on the Space Station), people have had to devise ways of seeking medical attention without always being able to jump on a plane to the nearest city. Researchers are developing robotic surgery techniques, and wearables that can track and monitor health in real-time. (Sure, a lot of them aren't very good yet, but they'll get better.)
Sex robots, haptic devices and VR will even make virtual sex feel real, doing away with maybe the last worthwhile reason we'd need to see each other face-to-face.
Uber has set its sights on personal air travel. But in the coming decades, we can hope there won't be very many good reasons to jump on one of their aircraft, even if they do manage to deliver on what they're promising. The future of commuting isn't a faster commute. It's no commute at all.
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