Uber’s worth $18 billion… if it replaces your jetpack.
Uber’s worth $18 billion… if it replaces your jetpack. - 
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The latest venture-capital investment in Uber, a mobile app that allows users to hail a ride in a town car or taxi, pegs the company’s value at more than $18 billion. That's more than United Airlines or Sony, just shy of what car-rental Avis and Hertz are worth together. That may seem high for a company with direct competition like Lyft, Sidecar and the entire taxi industry.

For Uber to be worth what investors are betting, the company might need to capture half of the worldwide market for taxis, says Andy Brennan, author of a recent report on that industry from IBIS World Research.  “I can’t see that ever happening,” he says. “Generally taxi customers are quite price-conscious.”

A ride in one of Uber’s town cars costs more than a cab. “The average person who gets a taxi is not necessarily going to use Uber on a regular basis,” Brennan says.

However, competing with taxis isn’t Uber’s goal. The company’s CEO has identified a much bigger competitor: The personal automobile.

The idea of Americans parting with their cars may sound wild, but younger people may not feel as strong of an urge to own one. “Someone who’s 20-years-old today may be much less concerned with whether their car expresses their personality than with whether their phone or their tablet expresses their personality,” says analyst James McQuivey of Forrester Research.

He sees a future where people could subscribe to Uber like a service. Uber cars—with robot drivers, of course--may deliver their packages, or shlep their kids to piano lessons.

Ultimately, Uber may not just replace a taxi, or a car, but something that hasn’t even been invented yet. “We’ve all been waiting for that personal helicopter, that personal jetpack,” McQuivey says. “But really, you don’t need to move around as much as the stuff in your life needs to move around. And someone will help you do that much more efficiently than waiting for that jetpack.”

Maybe a company with that market is worth at least $18 billion dollars -- because the competition in that scenario is something like Amazon— currently valued at about $150 billion.

Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann