The case for flying cars
The motor industry is in a race to develop self-driving vehicles for use on public roads, with the hope of eventually replacing our current road-vehicles which require human driver input to operate. There are multiple developmental efforts ongoing around this vision of autonomous, self-driving vehicles. The challenges in developing this type of transportation vehicle are numerous and there are many considerations, rules and regulations to overcome.
Let’s do a contrast and compare between driverless road vehicles (DRV) and the personal air vehicle or pilotless air vehicle (both abbreviated to PAV). Let’s examine some of the advantages of the PAV and why we should be focussing on developing this type of transportation as opposed to the self-driving car.
Let’s assume that both DRVs and PAVs are computer controlled, so are driverless by default.
We have all sat in traffic and will continue to do so as long as we have machines that require roads to move on. DRVs might begin to solve that problem by smartly navigating away from the traffic but the diversion will almost always result in longer journey times.
With PAVs, there will be no traffic, as there are no “hard lanes” in the sky. Lanes can be above or below each other and can be created on-the-fly during peak travel times to increase capacity. Journey times will be significantly reduced overall, particularly daily commutes, improving quality of life for millions.
This author’s annual commute works out to 300 hours or 12.5 days a year. All that time is spent driving a distance of 14 miles / 22.5 km each way at an average speed of 21 miles / 34 km per hour. Those averages are unlikely to change in a DRV. A PRV, on the other hand, only has to travel in a straight line, from Point A to Point B; a total of 10.6 miles / 17 km for this example. Even if we maintain the same average speed, the author can save almost 2 full days a year. That is huge.
DRVs have already been involved in at least one fatality. In 2018, a woman was killed by an Uber autonomous test car in Arizona, USA. There are too many uncertainties involved in trying to navigate on the ground because most urban landscapes are simply too chaotic to account for all eventualities. For this technology to work well - and with a zero-accident rate - it is easy to conclude that all the worlds vehicles should be self-driving and computer controlled, with no human intervention behind the wheel whatsoever. To further increase the safety of other road users such as cyclists and pedestrians, it therefore seems reasonable to suggest that DRVs should be segregated somehow from all other traffic; a solution that is very expensive to implement in already-developed urban areas.
PAVs definitely face safety challenges of their own; the primary one being how to avoid crashing to the ground over a populated area. Both DRVs and PAVs will require very high standards of safety but PAVs nudge ahead, given the already strict governing rules and standards in place around the world with regards to air transportation. Further, obstacle avoidance in a PAV is much easier to program in, aside from the stray bird or two.
DRVs will utilise existing infrastructure but some expensive changes will need to be made, especially in urban areas. For example, networking infrastructure, sensors and guidance markers will have to be installed, depending on how DRVs will eventually operate. In a tightly packed urban environment, this presents a huge challenge because all those high-rise buildings block signals.
With PAVs, there is no infrastructure to build, so no roads or parking lots and associated maintenance costs. PAVs will be designed for vertical take-off, so there is no need for runways. Existing infrastructure can be repurposed to accommodate PAVs; for example, they will need somewhere to park when not in use. Furthermore, disused road infrastructure can be redeveloped into something new. With PAVs, urban planning generally becomes easier.
PAVs can utilise existing air traffic guidance systems and satellite technology. Granted, this technology is expensive, but with mass uptake of PAVs, the economies of scale will kick in, gradually reducing the cost of operation.
Let’s assume that both DRVs and PAVs will be fully electric-powered, so we won’t discuss the environmental impact of fossil fuels. By continuing to develop and push for DRVs over PAVs, we will have to continue adding to the existing road networks and associated infrastructure to accommodate those vehicles. This impacts the wider environment and will result in less green space and less pedestrian and cyclist space. Once could further argue that continuing down this route will also impact the land available for farming.
PAVs do not come with any of these issues and actually have the potential of improving the urban space and wider environment by not requiring so much supporting infrastructure.
There are unanswered questions with regards to how PAVs will cope in high winds or bad weather conditions but there is little doubt that these issues can be overcome as they already have in the existing aviation industry.
In conclusion, PAVs offer a significant advantage over DRVs in terms of infrastructure requirements and associated cost. PAVs are generally safer for third-parties such as pedestrians, cyclists and wildlife, as they can easily be routed over areas with no population. They have the potential to benefit the environment over the medium to long term, particularly in urban areas, and they will reduce travel times.
Technology R&D departments world-wide should be focussing on developing this mode of personal transportation so that we can finally say goodbye to the slow, dirty, expensive, fossil-fuel powered road-car.