When it comes to flying vehicles of the future, safety concerns set a very high bar, both literally and figuratively.
Automated Vehicles to Start
Talking to 6GWorldTM, Loughborough University’s Andrew Morris noted that mid-air collisions between flying vehicles have the potential to be disastrous, including for people on the ground as a result of falling debris. Morris, a Professor of Human Factors in Transport Safety, suggested such a concern might require them to be completely automated in the future.
“The thing with cars on the road is there is this implicit code of conduct where drivers communicate with one another by some means; gestures, or flashing lights,” he said. “If you’ve got vehicles with uncertain communication channels, it makes it really difficult to predict what another vehicle is going to do. So in some ways yes, I think it is probably essential that [flying] vehicles are either one thing or another and the preference would be that they are all automated, so they all understand what any vehicle is going to do under any circumstances.”
Pilot Charlie Vogelheim, who also has over three decades of experience working in the automotive industry, talked to 6GWorld in a separate interview. Host of The Flying Car show, Vogelheim seconded the notion that automation can actually help prevent accidents, with many forgetting our road safety track record is far from pristine.
“If and when [automated vehicles are] allowed, of 30,000 people that are inadvertently killed by accidents, we can save 10,000 lives[…] but the minute some poor young family or a minivan gets hit by one of these cars, all of a sudden it’s like, ‘This is terrible; They’re killing people,’” he said. “Transferring that to flying cars is a little tough, because I think people would consider the flying car to be more of a luxury than a necessity… If anybody’s ever hurt on the ground, an innocent bystander, all of a sudden it becomes problematic or magnified.”
In truth, the distinction between automated and manual flying vehicles is almost a moot point. Vogelheim explained they would almost certainly have to be automated, even if only out of economic concerns.
“You can’t be training pilots to fly two or three people around. It’s again not like Uber or Lyft, in that if you can get a driver’s license you get a job. Think about this also, if you only have four seats in the aircraft, one of them’s the pilot. You’ve effectively taken up 25% of your potential passenger base just by having someone pushing buttons and following along,” he said.
Air Taxis Ready to Take Off
Nevertheless, Vogelheim said he sees potential for a business model. At least to start, Vogelheim believes it would have to be point-to-point. However, even if it meant first traveling to and from transportation hubs on your own to where flying vehicles would take off and land (like driving to and from a train station) there would still be definite demand in his mind.
“[Driving from Point A to B is] going to take an hour to an hour and a half, because of water and bridges in between, but you’re going to get there in 10 minutes by going up and over and that means that same transportation corridor could be utilised six times an hour as opposed to once an hour. And then you multiply that times seats and everything else and all of a sudden it has the hint of economic success,” he said.
Asked if he sees people ever owning their own private flying vehicles, Morris said he believes it’s inevitable. In the more immediate future, he sees taxis as being a more realistic business model, with German manufacturer Volocopter having recently committed to launching such a service in Singapore in the next few years.
“You’ll get a taxi to pick you up from a building for example and take you to the airport,” he said, “but there will come a point in time when particularly people who are wealthy will start to want to own these things for themselves, if they’re not already.”
Vogelheim commented that electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) vehicles are currently being used to carry cargo. He clarified how the Volocopter is essentially a form of helicopter, with “flying cars” constituting somewhat of a misnomer (hence “flying vehicles”).
“The reasons for the rotors are for the vertical take-off capability, so you don’t need any kind of runway. You minimise the utilisation of real-estate. Some of those are using little mini jets for propulsion for the same type of thing and maybe some of them need a little bit of forward momentum. So, there’s a lot of development and a lot of innovation happening right now, but it’s interesting to follow along,” he said.
The Sky’s the Limit for Flying Vehicles
To be clear, flying cars, that can be driven on the road and have wings that pop out to enable flight, are being developed. In Vogelheim’s opinion, such a design hardly guarantees a very good car or plane, let alone both.
When Vogelheim was asked if any design has impressed him, one that came to mind was the eVTOL Cadillac showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show at the start of 2021. He pointed to the rotors positioned both high and low on the airframe, which creates an efficient flow of air through the rotors. Its compact size, carrying a single passenger, was also a highlight for Vogelheim, as “light-weighting” is one key to future development in the sector. The drawback is the vehicles become more brittle and less safe as a result. Another obstacle is a lack of battery efficiency.
“That isn’t happening as quickly as we all hoped and we were spoiled by technology, Moore’s Law in terms of technology going on an exponential curve. We see the batteries getting better, but it’s more a straight line. We still need them to be able to harness or store more power with the weight to go vertical,” he said.
Morris suggested we may start to see flying vehicles in the next 10-15 years. The safety aspect remains the most critical issue, though.
“Once prototypes start to emerge like with electric cars, the reality doesn’t follow far behind. I think in the next 10-15 years you might start to see these vehicles appearing, maybe even sooner than that. I think there’s a huge lever, several hoops to jump through before we can actually reach that position and safety is the key thing. Once they iron those things out, then I think there will be a very fast pace of progress,” he said. “Possibly even sooner than 10-15 years, but I think it will take that long to get the safety-assurance issues mapped out.”
For his part, Vogelheim gave a projected timeline of at least 10 years before reliable versions start to emerge, even in just a point-to-point capacity. He was speaking in the context of the United States, though. Excluding the recent Boeing 737 Max crashes, which Vogelheim made a point of acknowledging, he believes in the safety record of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“They will be in the air and they will be happening in other places sooner… You can do whatever you want in some overseas countries and the need is even greater because the congestion is just dumbfounding in some places,” he said, pointing to the primary need for flying vehicles. “The FAA is a tough hurdle and I mean that in a good way.”
Vogelheim made it clear that the FAA would presumably regulate the taking-off and in-air aspects of flying vehicles. Landing and other on-ground aspects would be handled by local authorities, he suggested.
Dividing the responsibilities wouldn’t necessarily make the congestion issue less complicated. It would require a lot of management to prevent a new Wild West, in which everyone would be left to their own devices, from coming to pass, Morris suggested. Morris, like Vogelheim, proposed creating “air corridors.” Meanwhile, although Vogelheim still sees the limited passenger capacity of flying vehicles as an issue, he looked back to when Intel put on a demo of hundreds of drones at CES 2018. That one moment convinced him that flying vehicles could become a reality.
“To stand there and see hundreds and hundreds of drones in the air not only making a shape, but not running into each other was remarkable [for] a pilot and a former air traffic controller… These devices weren’t much bigger than a Frisbee in terms of the area that they occupied, but they still had enough sensors to avoid air-to-air contact and the same thing running into wires and trees or things like that,” Vogelheim said.
“For me, it really upped the opportunity in terms of safety and being able to go, ‘Maybe you’re not getting along at 100 miles per hour with everyone up there, but you’re getting up and over without having to build road or infrastructure.’ And again, now that you can start spacing people by altitude, it all of a sudden gives you a lot more space to occupy.”