Pay no attention to the man with the flying car.
It has been 11 months since the aviation giant Airbus, through its Silicon Valley branch A3, launched Project Vahana—an effort to build the world’s first certified, commercial passenger aircraft with no pilot. On Monday, Airbus CEO Tom Enders told a tech conference in Munich that a prototype would be ready by the end of 2017.
According to Reuters, Enders argued the vehicle, which would function as a taxi, will allow users to avoid gridlock on city roads. It could even save money on infrastructure, he said. “With flying, you don't need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads.” As he tells it, the switch to airborne vehicles would be as significant as the development of underground subway systems 150 years ago.
Twenty-four hours later, the story was the fifth-most popular on Reuters and had been picked up by dozens of giddy content creators elsewhere. Sample headline from Yahoo: “Flying cars are real and Airbus is making them this year.”
There are a few problems with the breathless press coverage here. First of all, what Enders said wasn’t exactly news. A3 CEO Rodin Lyasoff wrote in September that a prototype, which looks like a bobsled with wings and propellers, would be ready by the end of 2017. More significantly, this month’s Airbus magazine story on the Vahana gives a lot of reasons to be skeptical.
Lyasoff has previously made the case for a “new generation of personal aerial vehicles,” prompted by urban transportation challenges as well as elements of technical progress that were “trending favorably,” including better batteries, low-cost flight control systems, and cheaper manufacturing processes.
Just one thing is missing: “sense-and-avoid technology” to help the vehicles from smashing into things midflight. “That’s one of the bigger challenges we aim to resolve as early as possible,” Lyasoff told the company magazine.
Well … Yes. That does seem like it should be a top priority. (This is a major problem for drone-delivery schemes, too.) And more pedestrian obstacles stand between us and our flying car future.
Airbus is one of a dozen-plus companies working on “flying cars.” In June, Bloomberg Businessweek revealed that Google co-founder Larry Page had been secretly funding one aerial vehicle company for years and had invested in another. Massachusetts-based Terrafugia claims to be developing a "flying car” with a price on-par with high-end luxury cars. In March, the German manufacturer e-volo became the first company to fly a manned, fully electric “multicopter."
Airbus’ size and experience distinguishes it from these start-ups, as does its confidence that such vehicles are a solution to traffic problems in megacities like Cairo, Mumbai, and Tokyo. The company is trying, Lyasoff wrote in September, to “nurture an ecosystem that will help enable the vertical cities of the future.” CNN advertised the concept as “Uber-like air taxis.” (Uber, by contrast, imagines that long-distance trips and route underserved by ground transportation will be the likely first use of so-called VTOLs, or vertical take-off and landing aircraft.)
The flying car is the quintessential undelivered promise of future—right up there with “where’s my jetpack?”—so it seems natural that the term has caught on to describe these propeller-driven entities.
But a child would readily identify these sketches not as cars but as hybrid helicopters. Most of them don’t have wheels. They use blades, not propulsion engines. They take off and land vertically. And so—provided manufacturers can get past the primary problem of flying robot vehicles smashing into buildings, people, power lines, and one another—it is to choppers, not to cars, that they should be compared. The question is not if we can take a cheap, everyday product and make it fly, but if we can take a big, loud, expensive, relatively dangerous, pain-in-the-ass flying machine and make it cheap, quiet, and safe.
Writing in Slate in 2013, Konstantin Kakaes observed the similarities between the drones of today and the helicopters of yesteryear:
As Samuel Solomon, the president of Northeast Airlines, told the Associated Press in 1943, “The helicopter has tremendous possibilities.” Solomon prophesied air taxi services in which helicopters picked up businessmen on a rooftop in Boston and dropped them off “on the roof of an office in downtown New York.” Helicopters would also be used for express air-mail services, he said… Of course, none of this came to pass, for one simple reason: Helicopters could do all of these things, but they could not do them cheaply or efficiently enough to displace other technologies.”
That's the same problem confronting vertical take-off and landing aircraft, before you even take into account tight regulations of airspace, privacy concerns, the provision of parking and landing facilities, and the fastidious maintenance procedures required of airborne vehicles. (Imagine a mechanic working on your car for 20 business days after every 400 hours of driving.) This report from Uber offers a pretty comprehensive summary of the obstacles.
It’s exciting that billions in global R&D are going into solving these problems, because, well, cheap, clean, safe flying robot cars would be sweet. But in the interim, there’s a catch: Every starry-eyed article and chest-thumping press release makes feasible transportation projects look dull and short-sighted. It will only be a matter of time before flying cars are, as Enders predicts, invoked as a reason not to rebuild ground transportation—just as driverless cars are reason not to buy buses and trains, and the Hyperloop is an “alternative” to high-speed rail. And that will happen long before I’m taking a flying taxi to work.