Flying taxies may sound like they belong in a Blade Runner film, but in reality, they’ll soon be hitting the skies! While the release of commercial automated cars may be a long way off, the technology already exists. Dubai began the testing of the “Volocopter Taxi” back in September 2017.
The two-seated cars are designed for 30-minute rides to various ‘Volports’, which essentially serve as ‘train stations’, with the aim of reducing flight delays. As you would expect, thoughts are already turning to how the new technology will revolutionise society and the future of business. However, experts have contrasting ideas on how much of a success the prototypes will be. The emerging technology is predicted to become a novelty according to US economists and engineers. But would they be saying the same if the Volcopters were patented in America? Historically, America has always been the globe’s leading innovator of aviation technology.
Regardless of where the technology was created, there’s no doubt that they could provide a fast and efficient mode of transport. It is the social, political and regulatory changes which may cause the implications. No one is even sure if flying cars are legal! So, there will be a lot of red tape and obstacles to get through before there is a full commercial launch, especially one outside of Dubai. Naturally, a lot of people are concerned about passenger safety, other obstacles include high costs and lack of infrastructure to accommodate and support the vehicles. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, ‘Volports’ haven’t been invented yet. This means that taking an automated cab may be easy, yet, landing it outside your home or your office won’t be! Quite simply, it won’t work. Bryan Mulligan from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association has implied that the Volcoper is only a competitor to a helicopter. Which, let’s face it, not a lot of people can afford to ride in.
The other major issue with the Volcopters is whether suitable landing areas are a possibility. They will need to be close to popular landmarks. However, there isn’t much space around city centers which would ensure safe and legal flying.
However, the FAA who work towards integrating new technology into commercial aviation view the Volcopters as highly promising and are currently working to develop the regulations to support the commercialisation. Safety is the number one priority for the FAA; the same organisation which has been cautious about recreational drones owned by members of the public.
Flying taxis will need a Part 135 certification from the FAA to run as passenger transportation. It is likely that for the license to be granted the automated taxis would need operational control of the aircraft.
While the technology physically exists, it’s got a long way to go before being deemed practical. The charge duration is currently two or three times the length of the flight time. Which is highly impractical when compared to helicopters, airplanes, taxis, and pretty much every other mode of transport.
The expense of the power and downtime while charging, along with the excessively high liability insurance means that short rides will be expensive.
What’s the Back-Up?
The majority of flying cars use a parachute system; however, that system isn’t always effective. The safety backup will need to be released at several hundred feet for passengers to land safely. Between 30 feet to several hundred feet, there will be a ‘dead man’s zone’ where there is no usable safety system. Chances are that the impact with the ground would be fatal for onboard passengers.
Cybersecurity is yet another potential obstacle for the commercialisation of flying cabs. The attacks can happen on any autonomously controlled vehicle. If we imagined a future where Volcopters were part and parcel of a cities transport system, you’d assume that there would also be a high number of taxies in the air at the same time. If those taxies were to receive falsified information and crash, the impact of the collision would be fatal for passengers and those on the ground below.
What Does Society Say?
Another problem faced by engineers is the fact that automated flying cars aren’t exactly quiet, and engineers currently have no viable solutions to fix this. As many people now live as well as work in major cities, there aren’t a lot of people who will tolerate their house situated directly below these new flight paths. Just because we saw flying machines invading the skyline in our favourite 80’s Sci-Fi films, doesn’t mean that society is now ready for them.
Currently, societies negative views outweigh the positive regarding these autonomous cars. Right now, the benefits of automated flying machines seem relatively small. It is rightly predicted that it will only be the rich who will be able to afford them, helping save time rather than opting to take a regular taxi. While on the ground, everyone else will be driven crazy by the noise pollution.
The Future for Flying Cars
The regulatory bodies discussing flying vehicles have stated that it is unlikely they will be ready in the next five years and we may start to see them appear commercially in 2027. Yet, the Middle East aren’t the only ones who are forward thinking with their aviation technology as China, America and Europe have now started to think ahead of the curve.
While some see the automated air taxi as the next natural extension of the autonomous ground vehicle industry, others are still highly skeptical.
Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter aims to launch the service within five years. While competitor Airbus aspires to launch their version of the flying cab to market by 2020.
Not content with operating on the ground, Uber expects to launch an airborne ride-share service by 2023. Uber is working alongside NASA to create a safe air traffic system. Yet the ones looking the most likely to reach the finishing line first with their parent designs are General Motors (GM) as they plan on deploying fleets in 2019. Their in-house analysts have recently confirmed that the timeline is still feasible, yet many things must fall into place first.
Uber introduced driverless cars back in October 2016. The driverless vehicles operate by using human-monitored self-driving cars, and they are currently working in partnership with Volvo to patent a car which won’t need to be manually monitored. Considering that Volvo is a brand who take their pride in leadership when it comes to vehicle safety, it’s only a matter of time when getting into a driverless taxi will become the norm.