Legislative work focusing on licenses, safety and infrastructure must be done before aerial vehicles can operate legally in China and other markets
A model of a Boeing unmanned flying vehicle. The aircraft maker is working on using AI and blockchain technologies to track unmanned air vehicles in flight and to allocate traffic corridors and routes to ensure safe, secure transportation. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY ASIA WEEKLY)
Flying cars and taxis will become a reality — the only question is when.
No one seems to be denying that they will make transportation fast, convenient and efficient. However, this significant leap in the way we travel will require social, political, and massive regulatory changes.
While the focus has been on the technology, not a lot has been said about the regulations governing flying vehicles. They vary enormously from country to country.
In China’s case, for example, the fact that much of the airspace is controlled by the military has an impact on the world’s biggest and fastest growing aviation market.
Since flying cars are different from ordinary cars in design, speed and the nature of their engines and accessories, it will be a big challenge for lawmakers to include them in the legal standards for vehicles
Swarms of flying cars intruding into those crowded skies would not only be unwelcome by China’s commercial airlines — which struggle to acquire more space for themselves — but also by the military.
Zhang Qihuai, a senior lawyer and deputy director of the aviation branch of the Beijing Law Society, told China Daily Asia Weekly last September that low-altitude airspace governance is still undergoing reforms in China and there is no specific regulation on flying cars.
He said a great deal of legislative work still needs to be done before flying cars can be legally operated in China.
Many questions need to be answered before flying cars can become a reality in China, such as what kind of driving and flying licenses should the drivers hold.
What sort of training do they need? Which department should be in charge of these? What kinds of roads can be used by flying cars to take off and land? And should special roads be built, or can some of the existing ones be reconstructed for the purpose?
Also, devices to monitor “road” safety and flight routes of flying cars have to be installed before such machines are introduced in the country.
More importantly, Chinese laws forbid car owners from modifying their vehicles without official permission, Zhang said.
And since flying cars are different from ordinary cars in design, speed and the nature of their engines and accessories, it will be a big challenge for lawmakers to include them in the legal standards for vehicles.
With flying taxis it is much the same, but these vehicles are envisaged to hop from building to building in cities and urban areas rather than land on the ground.
Safety and security
Marius Bebesel, head of Airbus Helicopters’ CityAirbus program, said the question of who controls the airspace still has to be worked out with all parties involved. “Different solutions in different parts of the world are likely,” he said.
Regulatory issues will be a major factor when it comes to flying cars and or taxis, said global research firm Gartner.
“Flying autonomous vehicles could make transportation fast, convenient and efficient, but it will require huge social, political, and regulatory changes,” Gartner said in a report released late last year.
And the report raised a crucial question: Are flying cars even legal?
Here government regulations are a key obstacle to a full commercial launch, especially in the United States.
Other obstacles to commercial deployment include safety issues, the technology’s high costs, and a lack of critical infrastructure to support such vehicles.
Some analysts, however, say on-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving back the time lost in people’s daily commutes.
Uber, the pioneer of peer-to-peer ridesharing, is close to the pain felt by commuters in cities around the world.
Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground, Uber said in a white paper, Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation.
Uber said it envisaged a network of small, electric VTOL — vertical take-off and landing — aircraft, which will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities.
The ridesharing company said the development of infrastructure to support an urban VTOL network will likely have significant cost advantages over heavy-infrastructure approaches, such as roads, rail, bridges and tunnels.
Uber sees the future with rooftop parking garages, existing helipads, and even unused land surrounding highway interchanges forming the basis of an extensive, distribution network of what it calls “vertiports”.
“As costs for traditional infrastructure options continue to increase, the lower cost and increased flexibility provided by these new approaches may provide compelling options for cities and states around the world,” the Uber white paper said.
VTOLs do not need to follow fixed routes. Trains, buses and cars all funnel people from A to B along a limited number of dedicated routes, exposing travelers to serious delays in the event of a single interruption.
“VTOLs, by contrast, can travel toward their destination independently of any specific path, making route-based congestion less prevalent,” Uber argued.
But before flying cars or air taxis can operate in any country, they will need to comply with regulations from the authorities charged with assuring aviation safety. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Aviation Safety Agency regulate 50 percent and 30 percent of the world’s aviation activity, respectively.
VTOL aircraft are new from a certification standpoint, and progress with certification of new aircraft concepts has historically been very slow, though the process is changing in a way that could accelerate things significantly.
‘Long, hard path’
In the US, the government has embraced drones. In May this year, the FAA endorsed 10 pilot projects that will see unmanned aerial vehicles delivering medicine, inspecting infrastructure, monitoring the border, and more.
“This technology is developing so rapidly that our country is reaching a tipping point,” said US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, when announcing the trials.
At the same time, Uber held a two-day seminar on flying vehicles that was attended by more than 1,000 people from academia, industry and government.
Among them were FAA representatives. But while other participants might have been gung-ho about the possibility of launching passenger drones from the tops of tall buildings, the agency tasked with keeping American skies safe struck a more measured note.
“While saying that it would work on regulations and air traffic control systems, it stressed that, compared to smaller drones, the path to regulating human flight is likely to be different, harder, and longer,” said a report in the tech magazine Wired.
“Uber needs the FAA to certify the vehicles its partners are building and give it permission to operate in the tightly controlled airspace that it’s targeting. And the FAA doesn’t brook revolution.”
This was a reference to how Uber first started in the ridesharing business that revolutionized the way people travel, pitting it against long-established taxi businesses around the world.
“We’re the safety regulators; we’re going to come at this from a safety perspective,” said the acting administrator of the FAA, Dan Elwell, in an onstage conversation with Uber’s head of product, Jeff Holden.
Wired said Uber wants to build a network of a new type of vehicle. Using batteries, motors, and multiple small propellers for lift, these VTOL aircraft should be quieter, cheaper, and easier to fly than helicopters.
Flying cars and taxis may look good on paper and in smart videos, but bringing these to reality may take a little longer than the proponents of future travel would have us believe.