Ever since I can remember spending too much time at conferences, flying cars have been a hot topic, particularly if there was a futurologist on the agenda. I think, according to the first prediction I recall from BT’s resident futurologist about 10 years ago that they were due to launch last year or the year before, but I for one am still waiting to see one.
Not that the world of transport is in need of disruption. Henry Ford would be spinning in his grave if he realised that not only could you have your car in any colour you like – including, but not restricted to black – but also, that within a couple of years, you won’t need a human to drive the thing and moreover, chances are that you won’t need or want to own a car anyway.
Just fire up your car-sharing app and book the autonomous vehicle that best suits your needs this weekend. Quick trip into town to buy a birthday present? That’ll be one of the single seaters that do so much of the last-mile grunt work these days. Long trip up north with the family to see friends? Maybe a home cinema on wheels would fit the bill. After all, if the car doesn’t need windows for you to see where you’re going, it doesn’t really need to look anything like what we think a car should look like.
Some people I talk to are in denial about the driverless car revolution. Ironically, it’s often the better-informed, the petrolheads, who I suspect just don’t like the idea of not being able to drive their car when they want to.
For my part, my head was turned firmly in favour of the idea when I heard Professor John Miles from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering speaking on the subject last year. He explained how 30 per cent of the congestion on our roads is caused by minor incidents, and that 80 per cent of these are caused by driver inattention. “It’s not difficult for a machine to beat an inattentive human,” he concluded.
Professor Miles then went on to explain how driverless cars could reduce congestion in other ways. If the car is in control, and you can trust the car not to crash into the car in front of it, then it can drive closer to it, from both a front-to-back and side-to-side perspective. In effect, a three-lane motorway could become a four-lane motorway, and by driving closer to the car in front, he argued, a 25 per cent increase in headroom on main roads, and a 50 per cent increase on motorways, is not unreasonable.
Added to that, in July 2015, after a Google driverless car was rear-ended by a car under human control, Google confirmed that the shunt was only the 14th accident in six years in just short of 2m miles of testing. 11 of the 14 involved the driverless car being rear-ended, while the only one in which the driverless car was at fault happened when it was under human control.
So apart from anything else, the argument that driverless cars are safer than those under human control seems to me a compelling one. Whether the same will apply to the flying version is a moot point. But at least now, finally, they are a little closer to reality, after Airbus revealed that it would carry out flight tests of its first prototype Project Vahana autonomous flying car by the end of the year.
As the company notes, “no country in the world today allows drones without remote pilots to fly over cities – with or without passengers.” But Airbus and no doubt others are working to, as Airbus puts it, “evolve current regulatory constraints”.
The driverless flying car might look like a leap of faith too far today. But once the grounded version becomes commonplace, it will probably seem a lot less so.