High above Los Angeles, flying cars cruise through skies darkened by pollution, transporting passengers between landing zones located atop maximum-security skyscrapers. That’s the dystopian opening scene in Blade Runner, a 1982 science-fiction classic, and it turns out the film’s creators were on to something.
Thirty-five years later, at a time when flying-taxi prototypes are officially airborne in Dubai, when Silicon Valley venture capitalists are zealously pursuing autonomous tech, and when seasoned automakers are purchasing aero startups, a pair of business analysts have issued a forecast for the future of flying cars that runs counter to the prevailing enthusiasm surrounding this fledgling technology.
In a paper entitled “Flying Autonomous Vehicles: The Next Big Thing That Isn’t,” Kimberly Harris-Ferrante and Michael Ramsey, analysts for global technology consulting firm Gartner, rebuff the notion that these machines are just around the corner. They write that engineering and regulatory hindrances will likely prevent flying cars from ever making an appreciable contribution to next-generation transportation networks. And that might be a good thing. If these contraptions ever did achieve widespread use, the authors postulate, the future could look a lot like Blade Runner, with society’s elite blissfully zipping above crime-ridden and pollution-choked hellholes in flying autonomous vehicles.
“I love the idea of them,” Ramsey told Car and Driver. “Of course we all love the idea. It’s not like we don’t dream of this sort of quick access over traffic. But when I think about it, all I see are more roadblocks.”
The view from the cockpit of the Volocopter, the Daimler-backed flying-car prototype that began testing in Dubai at the end of September.
Start with design. Many early prototypes are battery powered. The latest example is the German manufacturer Volocopter, which is backed by Daimler; it staged its first demonstration of a two-passenger pilotless air vehicle (pictured above) on September 25 in Dubai. Electric power may be adequate for these sorts of demonstrations. But for commercial operations, the weight of batteries will limit either the amount of payload flying cars can carry or the distance they can travel without needing to recharge. For flying vehicles that run on traditional fossil fuels, pollution and global efforts to curb emissions remain long-term concerns.
Regulatory restrictions that mandate minimum distances between aircraft may also limit the number of flying taxis that can be deployed at any given time. Although the Federal Aviation Administration acceded to the increasing presence of drones last year with a spate of new rules covering their use—a signal there’s willingness to adapt to technology and the changing use of airspace—Gartner’s analysts envision a much more cautious approach once human passengers are aboard. They believe both flying vehicles and the airspace surrounding them will remain heavily regulated, with the number of flights restricted to a capacity that doesn’t overload existing air-traffic control or airspace.
“The reality is that a world with flying autonomous vehicles may not be what we want at all.”
– Gartner report
If flying autonomous vehicles leapfrog those logistical hurdles, more intractable problems may remain in terms of how they affect cities. Gartner is careful to say that the cars themselves won’t cause urban decay. But they’ll contribute to them by leaching away infrastructure investments earmarked toward transportation modes that provide wider benefits for society, putting the emphasis instead on landing zones and advanced air-traffic-control systems. At best, flying cars are perks for the wealthy at a time when transportation planners are emphasizing the need for inclusion.
“The reality is that a world with flying autonomous vehicles may not be what we want at all,” the report’s authors wrote, in a challenge to conventional thinking. With a nod to the original Blade Runner movie, they note: “Science fiction, yes, but the circumstances that could make a market for real-world flying cars would be the same: extreme congestion, mass urbanization, and a huge income gap between rich and poor.
“[Flying cars] wouldn’t solve those problems, and they might make them worse by giving a tiny minority a way to avoid facing them.”
That’s far from the established view of flying cars as the ultimate expression of personal freedom, one that has been espoused in the pages of science fiction for the better part of a century, touted by automakers like Henry Ford as far back as 1940, and popularized by George Jetson, who used his flying car as a daily commuter to his middle-class job at Spacely Sprockets.
The Jetson family enjoy their flying car in a space-age cartoon city, circa 1962.
Advances in artificial intelligence and autonomous technology have allowed innovators to transform those science-fiction dreams into actual prototypes in recent years, leading many transportation futurists to believe deployment of vast fleets of flying cars will be the second revolutionary domino to fall for mobility, arriving shortly after self-driving vehicles.
At least 19 companies, both established ones and startups, are developing flying-car plans, like the Daimler-backed Volocopter with its flying-car prototype. Airbus, through its Silicon Valley research arm, already has a flying-taxi service running in São Paulo, Brazil, and the company intends to fly an autonomous prototype by the end of 2017. Chinese automaker Geely, Volvo’s parent company, bought the Terrafugia flying-car company earlier this summer, and startup Kitty Hawk is funded by Google founder Larry Page. Uber and Toyota have also joined the competition, and both are projecting debuts of one kind or another by 2020, the latter intending to display its craft at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Capitalizing on the frenzy, Udacity, a for-profit online educational program founded by Sebastian Thrun, announced the formation of a flying-car nanodegree program last week. In a blog post, the company said it intends to teach students the software skills necessary to “build a flight system for an autonomous flight vehicle that can reliably complete complex missions in urban environments.”
The wings fold up in a demonstration of the Terrafugia Flying Car during the New York auto show in April 2012.
If there’s any precedent that points a way toward future business models for these autonomous urban aircraft—or further illustrates their limitations—it’s that of the traditional helicopter. (Indeed, more than a few of the flying-car concepts are nothing more than glorified helicopters with vertical takeoff and landing capability and no actual car functions.)
In São Paulo, helicopters are especially popular, with Gartner’s research estimating the city handles roughly 500 helicopter flights per day at 193 heliports. Those numbers are increasing every day because of Airbus’s on-demand helicopter-taxi service, called Voom, which launched in May. Voom allows riders to book trips via an app and and pay based on a formula that considers travel distance. A similar app-based service, Blade, has launched, offering trips from multiple destinations on the U.S. East Coast.
Cost can vary considerably, but Voom provides a rough example: a 10-minute flight from a hotel in the city center to the São Paulo Guarulhos International Airport costs the equivalent of $200. For the well heeled, that may be worth paying to bypass an hour’s worth of traffic congestion. That’s precisely the company’s pitch.
A helicopter operated by Voom lands on the roof of a building in São Paulo, Brazil, in June 2017. During rush hour, the city can be choked with 200 to 350 miles of traffic jams.
“Voom is looking skyward with a radical concept to remedy urban congestion and its detrimental consequences today,” Voom CEO Uma Subramanian wrote in a blog post announcing the service. “Our mobile booking platform makes commuters’ dreams come true. Fly over traffic jams with the tap of a button . . . This would be a dream come true for anyone who has endured a regular commute in the world’s largest cities.”
This isn’t so much a remedy for urban congestion as it is an escape hatch from it. When autonomy allows operators to remove human pilots and their associated labor costs, prices may indeed fall to more affordable levels for a greater percentage of commuters. But even if 20,000 flying autonomous vehicles were conceivably used in close quarters each day, those vehicles still could only address a fraction of the transportation needs of the 46 million residents in the state of São Paulo.
“Even as this solution met the needs of perhaps 1 percent of the population—assuming 10 rides per day for each vehicle—it wouldn’t solve most people’s problems. In fact, it could lead to their being neglected even more,” the Gartner analysts wrote. Worse: “The sky above the city would be covered in flying vehicles as thick as swarms of gnats.”
“This would be a dream come true for anyone who has endured a regular commute in the world’s largest cities.”
– Uma Subramanian, Voom CEO
It’s worth noting that these experiments in using helicopters as flying taxis have been conducted before. For three decades, New Yorkers enjoyed something of a golden age of helicopter travel. Starting in 1949, New York Airways began connecting the region’s three main airports with dozens of helicopter flights that cost as little as $4.50 for trips that lasted mere minutes. The service eventually expanded to provide flights from the airports to a helipad atop the Pan Am Building in downtown Manhattan, and the pad became a symbol of the jet-setting lifestyle enjoyed by many of New York’s elite in the 1960s, the same era during which national ambitions conjured in the Space Age pointed even higher.
But on May 16, 1977, the landing gear on one of New York Airways’ helicopters collapsed as it sat on the Pan Am Building helipad. The aircraft toppled on its side, and the spinning blades killed four people waiting to board. Shrapnel fell from the building and killed a fifth person, a pedestrian on the streets below, in equally gruesome fashion. With one crash, those ambitions gave way to the realization that helicopter travel in proximity to major buildings heightened risks for passengers and for the streets below. Within two years, New York Airways declared bankruptcy.
The scene of the New York Airways helicopter crash atop the Pan Am Building on May 16, 1977. Police and firefighters are at the scene.
Today, New York City boasts eight heliports that largely carry the city’s elite and tourists, maintaining an uneasy coexistence with everyday city dwellers. “Helicopters have long had a cranky relationship with some of the city’s populace and politicians who deplore their noise, emissions, and what seems to be an unsettling tendency to end up in the water,” wrote the New York Times in an October 2011 story that appeared amid fresh calls for a ban on tourist flights around Manhattan.
It’s easy to see how a dramatic increase in autonomous flying vehicles could heighten complaints about noise, congestion, and emissions. Less clear are the safety benefits that autonomous technology might bring to flying travel.
The prospect of improved safety seems generally similar to what is promised on the ground by the introduction of autonomous systems in traditional passenger cars. Industry executives have cited federal statistics that show 94 percent of all motor-vehicle crashes are caused by human error or behavior.
The Volocopter began testing in Dubai at the end of September.
Reducing those crashes in any meaningful way would spare carnage on highways. But in reducing those deaths and injuries, there are no hard-and-fast expectations on exactly how much better self-driving vehicles must be before they are allowed on public roads or accepted by the public. Mark Rosekind, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), posited that automation should be twice as good as human drivers and halve traffic deaths. Others in the industry say autonomous cars need to be 100 times as good.
The lack of a quantifiable standard may pass muster for traditional cars. Google’s self-driving vehicles have been involved in more than a dozen fender benders, and crashes like those are generally considered part of the industry’s learning curve. Everyone expects self-driving technology to be better; nobody expects it to be perfect. But does the same hold true for autonomous air travel? In contrast with the self-driving-car industry, companies pursuing self-flying technology don’t yet have millions of miles of validation that would provide data to show the FAA, for example, why it should consider relaxing rules that specify minimum distances between aircraft.
“Even if these things have awesome sensors, it’s very hard to come up with safe distances,” Ramsey said. “No one’s talking about that. And then you have to consider that these aren’t like low-speed car crashes. There’s no fail-safe. If you fall out of the sky from 1000 feet, you are dead.”
Whether the next-generation flying-car industry could collectively recover from a high-profile crash, or whether one accident would cause all these new companies to go the way of New York Airways, remains unknown. But the uncertainty is one reason why Gartner is urging its clients to avoid investing in the self-flying realm.
For the rest of us, there’s no harm in turning our shoulders to the sky—as long as our feet remain firmly planted in reality.