Flying into Transportation Disruption

Day Donaldson/Creative Commons

An artistic rendering of the TF-X, an autonomous flying car currently in development by Boston-based firm Terrafugia. 

Once the stuff of cartoons and science fiction, flying cars—with or without drivers—may hit the market sooner than anyone is ready for them. Federal officials already have trouble keeping pace with autonomous technologies like drones and driverless vehicles. But self-driving flying vehicles threaten to widen the chasm between innovation and regulatory policy.

Technology has long outpaced regulation in transportation, as in many other arenas.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial systems, began attracting widespread consumer interest only in recent years, but the Federal Aviation Administration did not promulgate drone rules until this summer. More than 30 states have statutes covering drone operations, but privacy, security, and safety remain public concerns. Now that North Dakota has become the first state to authorize drones for law enforcement use as “non-lethal weapons” that can fire everything from tasers to tear gas, other federal agencies may have to weigh in (as the Justice Department did last year when it issued guidelines on the use of drones for law enforcement information gathering).

If anything, regulators will have a more difficult time keeping up with driverless vehicle technology. In August, Uber began test-driving autonomous cars in Pittsburgh, even though Pennsylvania has not enacted any comprehensive regulations regarding testing or operation (beyond having a human with a license in the car). Uber also launched its experiment in advance of the Transportation Department’s September 20 announcement of driverless car policies that include “model” recommendations that states can use. (For the moment, the federal department expects states to continue their current licensing, enforcement, and insurance regimes.) Indeed, only nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation regarding the operation, testing, or performance of driverless cars.

But the regulatory issues raised by drones and driverless cars pale in comparison to those posed by self-driving flying cars, which are being aggressively researched and tested by a number of companies. Initially, this type of transport would be piloted by humans. But innovators’ ultimate goal is to produce another driverless form of transportation. The impetus behind driverless flying cars is urban traffic congestion. According to the INTRIX’s 2015 Traffic Scorecard, American commuters waste 50 hours every year in traffic jams: 81 hours each year in Los Angeles, 75 hours in Washington and San Francisco, and 49 hours in Honolulu.

With not enough congestion-busting mass transit solutions on the horizon (like expanded bus and rail networks), the private sector has moved into the breach. Uber again may play a key role as a potential disruptor. According to TechCrunch, an international startup and investment news blog, the company is currently studying how to add planes that take off and land vertically to its roster of on-demand services. (The option would likely be an expensive one.) Airbus, the European multinational aircraft manufacturer, is also working on sending an experimental aircraft into the skies by 2017. Airbus has the on-demand ride sector is in its sights, but is also positioning itself to serve as a short-trek delivery service for companies like Amazon.

Terrafugia, a Boston-area start-up that says its mission is “to create practical flying cars that enable a new dimension of personal freedom,” appears to be well advanced on the research and development front. In July, FAA decided to classify Terrafugia’s flying car prototype as a light-sport airplane, and it may debut in 2018. AeroMobile, a Slovakian company, plans to unveil a flying car next year.

But what are the air safety implications for a flying car? How do state and federal officials begin to integrate flying driverless cars into the existing transportation paradigm and air traffic control? And how do state and municipal police forces address the jurisdictional issues involved in monitoring the hybrids? Do municipalities need to create a special flying car force to police the aircraft? What types of licenses will be required to own and operate the vehicles? Will driverless flying cars know the difference between the sky, and the sky as reflected in mirrored skyscrapers?

“We are taking a flexible, open-minded, and risk-based approach to integrating new technologies into the world’s busiest, most complex—and safest—aviation system,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement provided to The American Prospect.  “We have discussed certification projects with several manufacturers of aircraft that will be flown with a pilot in the beginning, then converted to autonomous passenger aircraft in the future. We have also been working with a NASA On Demand Mobility project addressing advanced air transportation concepts, which include similar vehicles. Several areas still need further research and development, particularly the operational aspects of making sure the automation that will ‘fly’ the autonomous aircraft is safe, and how the automation will interact with the air traffic control system.”

But with driverless cars already on the streets of Pittsburgh, and technology companies like Google making their own significant investments, as well as old-school auto manufacturers from Ford to General Motors, it’s not a stretch to imagine that driverless cars could become the norm in the next decade, and driverless flying cars the transportation sector’s next disruptor.

“Self-flying aircraft is so much easier than what the auto companies are trying to do with self-driving cars,” Mark Moore, a NASA aeronautical engineer told Bloomberg in June.

The FAA may well be “flexible and open-minded,” as its statement assures, but states that are barely equipped to deal with driverless cars could be caught asleep at the wheel when it comes to the flying variety. In Massachusetts, where Terrafugia’s founders were graduated from MIT, there are no state laws on the books yet regulating driverless cars—much less flying ones. (The city of Boston plans to allow testing of driverless cars on streets prowled by some of the country’s worst drivers. The state legislature’s Transportation Committee co-chairman has suggested that the city wait until state lawmakers can address the issue, even though they have formally adjourned until next year.).

Innovators are always prodding lawmakers, not the other way round. Driverless cars have already left the station. Driverless flying cars could emerge as one in a range of transportation services offered by on-demand companies in traffic-clogged metropolitan areas, or as an exclusive alternative for a few wealthy individuals. Either way, public agencies will have to deal with new kinds of traffic. As speeding technology leaps ahead exponentially, while human regulators move only in single bounds, public officials risk applying the regulations of yesterday to the transportation systems of tomorrow.

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