For as long as cars and airplanes have co-existed, people have tried valiantly to bring the two together. From a Studebaker with a propellor tacked on, to a two-door sedan with a detachable airplane, the history of failed flying cars is long and thoroughly weird. Even Henry Ford had a brief fling with air transportation with the unfortunately named “Flivver”. After his prototype proved fatal, however, he quickly abandoned the project.
Flash forward to 2018, and the enduring fantasy of safe flying cars is finally inching towards reality. Accepting a package from a flying drone doesn’t faze us, YouTube is flooded with DIY flying-car experiments, and major automobile companies are releasing advanced prototypes for airborne passenger vehicles. Deloitte even predicts that passenger-carrying drones will be commercially available by 2020, with traditional flying cars following suit by 2022.
But our collective excitement over this new technology is masking an important question: Where are all these flying cars going to fit in our airspace? After all, it’ll be pretty hard to keep to your lane when you’re travelling in three dimensions.
According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are about 5,000 passenger aircraft in the sky at any given time, which require 521 aircraft towers, 25 air route traffic control centres, and 6,000 airway transportation systems specialists to coordinate. Meanwhile, the FAA also predicts that the number of unmanned drones registered in its database could surge to more than 6 million by 2021—a fleet of robot that will have to be taken into account when we’re divvying up the skyline.
Establishing new air traffic management systems that could handle the upcoming deluge and ensure passenger safety is complicated work, and it’s causing regulators and policy makers to put the brakes on eager corporations pushing to get their products to the market. “The pace of technological advancement in this industry is faster than anything we’ve had to deal with,” Acting Administrator of the FAA, Dan Elwell, was quoted in Wired magazine last month. “When you put passengers on autonomous vehicles, as opposed to delivering a package, you introduce a much, much higher bar you need to get over.”
Conventional air traffic control is handled by trained professionals who remain in constant communication with pilots while they’re in flight. These workers coordinate the flight paths of thousands of aircraft, helping them to conduct takeoffs and landings, navigate inclement weather, and remain at a safe distance from other aircraft. Scaling up this human workforce to monitor millions of airborne vehicles would be unrealistic, especially as autonomous, unpiloted passenger vehicles are the ultimate goal of most in the industry. So instead of writing job postings, companies and government agencies are looking for fully automated systems that could communicate with flying vehicles and automatically redirect them if they flew too close to anything else that might be occupying the sky, or to an airport’s runways
NASA is developing an air-traffic control framework that could track unmanned flying cars that fly under 500 feet. As reported in Skift, the NASA system is meant to be automated,. It plans to finish its research by 2019, and hand over ideas for the FAA to implement no later than 2025. And in March, Switzerland became the first country to incorporate drones into its air traffic control systems using AirMap, a publically available software platform from a California startup that provides drone pilots in more than 20 countries with real-time feedback of airspace rules and conditions pertaining to their flight specifications.
These short timelines may be thrilling for flying car dreamers, but not everyone shares the enthusiasm. Persistent concerns about passenger safety, environmental sustainability, and unequal access for the wealthy have complicated the often breathless conversation around flying vehicles, and they won’t be easily resolved by a new software program.
“If we allow the tech companies to run away with themselves and create cities overrun with flying cars and autonomous drones, is that the only way of achieving a better future?” asks Glenn Lyons, associate dean at the Faculty of Environment and Technology at The University of the West of England, Bristol in Skift. “There is the real danger that we haven’t developed solutions which are as long-lasting as we had hoped. There is a strong connotation of toys for the boys here.”
Finding the balance between encouraging innovation in the flying car industry and holding it to its responsibilities will be a significant challenge—but a crucial one. Noone wants another Flivver disaster on their hands.