The flying car from the film Blade Runner
The flying car from the film Blade Runner
( Source: Blade Runner Spinner / Tydence Davis / CC BY NaN)

FLYING CARS A look at possible futures involving flying vehicles

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Florian Richert

While many mobility industry observers foresee a future that includes delivery drones and flying cars, the sheer number of these devices and vehicles that could crowd the sky may eventually present a visual, if not logistical, cacophony.

When the first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - generally referred to as drones - appeared, many technology enthusiasts were intrigued; at last, there was an economical way to take photos and video that might have previously required a helicopter, if it was even physically possible. Besides military applications and camera uses, some firms like Amazon began to imagine a time when small drones could deliver packages to customers, foregoing traditional ground-based delivery services that utilized trucks and vans.

While logistically, some hurdles might still have had to have been overcome (maximum size and weight of a package, inclement weather, and access to homes in multistory buildings, to start with), potential cost savings quickly began to outline themselves.

At the same time, the decades-long dream of flying cars—which worked itself into people’s imaginations (both in film and via inventors’ prototypes) as early as the 1920s—finally looked set to become a reality. Multiple entrepreneurs and startup ventures began to literally get vehicles—that in many cases looked like super-sized versions of the camera-carrying drones people were becoming familiar with—off the ground and into the air.

But before anyone thinks the future will look more like the special-effects shots in the film Blade Runner than a day with bumper-to-bumper traffic at the entrance to New York City’s Lincoln Tunnel, one should recall just how many cars are on roads currently (and how many packages are in transit within delivery vans, trucks, freight trains, and cargo ships). Now, try to imagine any urban metropolis of tomorrow, with all those vehicles and packages flying through the skies simultaneously.

Noise and risk elements

Beyond simply the hazard of visual pollution, there are formidable elements of noise and risk to consider. Anyone who’s been around camera-carrying drones knows they’re typically far from silent. And as flying cars have been developed, noise has been a major factor in determining where and how these vehicles can operate.

In theory, it may be possible to create drones (and perhaps one day even flying cars) that generate very little or no noise. But even if we’re able to cross this threshold, there are the other factors to consider—just as there are a certain number of auto accidents every day, there would likely also be a multitude of incidents involving drones and flying cars. The problem here is that any accident—even just an operating failure—involving a drone or flying car might lead to injuries or fatalities, not just in the sky, but also on the ground. The risk of such eventualities may result in mandates that such devices and vehicles could only be permitted to operate in certain areas or within predefined air corridors.

To be sure, the Vision Zero goal of zero fatalities from ground-based vehicle accidents can and should be translated to the sky; already, the safety requirements for aviation are several orders of magnitude more rigorous than those for ground transportation. But just because there are requirements doesn’t mean that accidents would disappear overnight; the general public might well have to condition themselves to accept that one day, a huge piece of metal and plastic weighing a ton could fall out of the sky and kill them. If public opinion about autonomous cars can be shifted by just a handful of accidents (such as those involving Waymo, Tesla, or Apple vehicles), the same number of incidents involving flying cars could have a disastrous effect on the fledgling industry.

How many vehicles could be tolerated?

And then there’s the visual aspect. While a few drones flying to apartment buildings to deliver Amazon packages might not be that much of an issue (particularly if their noise could be reduced or eliminated), what if you multiplied their numbers by every item that needed to be delivered anywhere—a pizza from the local Domino’s franchise, some medicine from the local apothecary, sushi from the sushi shop, etc. Where does a person draw the line on how many drones are too many?

Translate that to flying cars. Imagine if every car driving on city streets or highways was put into the air; even if one divided that number by four or five to account for shared mobility instead of individual use, that’s still an enormous number of vehicles. Could such flying cars be routed to specific altitudes and/or air corridors? Or would such a scenario more resemble the chaotic New York City aerial scenes in the film The Fifth Element than those of the future Los Angeles in Blade Runner —where only a few dozen vehicles are ever seen in the sky at the same time? Would a city’s inhabitants be able to accept such a quantity of flying vehicles in the sky all at once, even if one could reduce the risk of accidents and collisions to near zero and decrease noise to almost none?

Already, Chinese e-commerce giant has committed to having one million delivery drones in its delivery fleet by 2022, and ridesharing enterprise Uber has stated it intends to introduce flying taxi operations in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne in 2023. In the coming years, as rapid technological advances make all these scenarios possible, if not likely, the above questions may have to be answered sooner rather than later—and not just with opinions, but likely with regulation.