In “The Fifth Element”, Korben Dallas is visited by a flying street food stall at his apartment window. Only one of any number of flying cars – including the one Bruce Willis is driving when Leeloo lands on it – the whole image of the cityscape is of high-rise buildings, and equally high-rise transport. From “Blade Runner”’s police ‘spinners’ to “The Jetsons”, airborne personal transport is a trope of the technological prowess of the future.
As so often, the world tries to catch up with science fiction. Subaru’s “air mobility concept”, Xpeng Aeroht’s “moon rover for earth”, Pivotal’s Helix – to identify three ventures from the last couple of days only – all join the flying car revolution. In Guangzhou, the pilotless EHang has just been approved as a flying tour service. As The Guardian tells us “Your flying taxi is just around the corner”.
Sir Stephen Hillier, chair of the Civil Aviation Authority, says the travel industry is at an “inflection point” ahead of, to quote the Financial Times, “the “widespread” adoption of electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) designed to carry passengers on short trips.”
So we’re all going to get a flying car, the streets of London will be full of flying taxis, and we’ll finally be free of traffic jams forever.
No we’re not. Not now, not soon, probably not for the medium-term future. Possibility is, as so often, outpacing ability. Here’s some simple reasons why personal eVTOL is a non-starter.
Safety. Having countless vehicles flying around urban areas would inevitably lead to accidents, crashes, and loss of power, raining bits of metal (and passengers) on the people below. Even if the vehicles were autonomous, and controlled by AI, one system failure would prove the power of gravity. Wind shear, lightning strikes, let alone drivers intentionally causing harm, all mean that any vehicle would need extensive redundancy systems and fail safes.
Regulation. There are at present no regulations for “urban air mobility” worthy of the name because there is currently no urban air mobility. Simply adopting the rules currently in place for helicopters would invalidate the whole attraction of the eVTOL, of simple, easy, air transport. New traffic management systems would need to be put in place. Integrating air into urban transport modes would require oversight, approval and regulation from aviation regulators, transport ministries, transport authorities; flying taxis would require separate passenger regulations…
Noise. If you live anywhere near an urban centre, you know the sound of cars, airplanes, helicopters, motorbikes. Now imagine your neighbour had a four-rotor personal eVTOL aircraft to go to work in. And so does your neighbour on the other side. If they’re lucky enough to have a house, they may ‘park’ in their garden, but if you’re in an apartment block, they may land on the roof. Intrusive constant noise accompanies pervasive adoption of the technology.
Infrastructure. Landing and takeoff points close to people’s homes would be required – these are flying cars, remember, and people want to park outside their home. Charging, maintenance, parking – a whole new infrastructure mirroring that of vehicles on land. Assuming that electric vehicles become the norm, adding flying vehicles to the mix puts even more pressure on the electricity grid.
And air traffic control is going to be a nightmare. The freedom of the air ignores the fact that currently, aircraft are incredibly tightly managed in the air and on the ground. There is no “freedom” when one has a set route, set height, closely detailed maps, and an air traffic controller instructing every change in course and speed.
Batteries are not yet good enough to provide real range, and until they stop exploding, there will be a real concern over putting current battery technology in vehicles travelling hundreds of yards above people’s heads (see “safety” above).
Weather. Conventional aircraft can struggle with some weather patterns, and smaller aircraft or airports can be defeated by nothing more than fog. Small, easily blown about personal craft will be subject to high winds, or weather extremes.
An option could be to use eVTOL outside of urban areas. After all, that’s where, for instance, gliders are used. Even there, though, the challenges of technology, regulation, training of drivers, infrastructure and noise still persist. And who would want a flying car if you can only fly from your field to someone else’s?
It doesn’t work. Putting lots of airborne metal in the skies above cities even with trained pilots, and adequate control is a constant risk. The core challenges around safety, regulation, infrastructure, noise, training and technology have no obvious solutions. If we need to improve urban and national travel, and we do, then high speed rail, networked electric vehicles, liveable cities, 15-minute neighbourhoods are all better options.
Despite the hype and excitement, flying cars and flying taxis are, absent massive changes in artificial intelligence-controlled traffic management, safety, and law, impractical and un-necessary. We have many more important technologies we need for our future. Let’s focus on those.
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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