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Public Acceptance of Flying Cars

What's it going to take for UAM to take off?

Photo Credit: EmbraerX
Photo Credit: EmbraerX

Developers of flying cars (or eVTOLs, if you will) predict they will have vehicles ready for certification by 2023. Many of them are looking for governments to certify their aircraft by 2025. Some analysts predict nearly 500,000 air taxis around the globe will be ferrying passengers by 2040.

After conquering the technological and regulatory challenges, one more piece of the puzzle still needs to fall into place for an urban air mobility (UAM) industry to take off: Public acceptance.

Even though autonomous flight will be technically feasible from the get-go, manufacturers realize that many people won’t be ready to get into a flying car for some time – let alone an autonomous, pilotless air taxi— after eVTOLs or hybrid VTOLs are given clearance from regulators.

What will it take to convince the public-at-large to hop into a flying car as readily as they do an airplane or a taxi today?

The Seven Factors Shaping Public Acceptance of UAM

People are more readily accepting of technological advances than they were when “horseless carriages”debuted in the late 19th century. The Wright Brothers demonstrated their flying contraption in 1903, but it was 1919 before the first commercial passenger airline, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, formed in the Netherlands. While technological advances move at cyber speed, human behavioral changes do not.

To get a glimpse into what factors will determine how quickly the flying public will be ready to hail an eVTOL from an app on their phone, researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo (University at Buffalo or UB) in the United States; Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, UK; and Turkish Airlines used modeling and simulation (M&S) to study the factors affecting UAM’s adoption. The researchers identified seven key elements that will shape the public’s acceptance of urban air mobility and allow manufacturers and service providers to integrate them into daily life: Safety, pilot training and certification, infrastructure and navigation, environment, logistics and sustainability, cyber security, and human factors.

1. Safety First

Unless safety is the paramount concern eVTOL and hybrid VTOL developers address, truly, nothing else matters. Getting airborne, providing a smooth, comfortable experience aloft, and landing safely is at the top of every aircraft passenger’s mind when boarding an aircraft today and that won’t change – ever. The first adverse UAM incident could set the industry back years.

To mitigate safety concerns, many of the same principles used in commercial flight today will apply. Redundancy in operating power, navigation, and control systems will be critical. A built-in safe-mode (the ability to override electronic systems and make control decisions in real-time) to react and adjust to unexpected situations is essential.

Unpredictable and rapidly changing weather conditions means that the aircraft developers, operators, and government regulators that oversee a nation’s airspace (such as the FAA overseeing the National Air Space in the U.S.) will need to develop minimum safety standards. As these are dual-purpose vehicles (flying and driving), state or provincial governments will likely impose their own mandates as well. Different types of eVTOLs may prompt regulators to assess varying regulations under changing visibility, wind speed, or precipitation conditions, for example.

2. Flying Car Pilot Training and Certification

When you add an additional dimension to something, whatever it is, it gets more complicated. Think, for example, about the exponential complexity added when a chess game goes from two dimensions to three. UAM industry regulators will face similar challenges. Motor vehicle departments already require different training and certifications for operators of automobiles versus motorcycles versus 18-wheel semi-tractor trailers. Aviation authorities impose different requirements on pilots of small, private aircraft versus commercial jetliners versus helicopters. UAM will demand a blending of these authorities’ regulations and then some.

M&S will be needed to assess and develop training, testing, and certification procedures and guidelines for operators of fixed-wing aircraft (such as the Aurora PAV) and motorcycle-gyrocopter hybrids (such as the PAL-V). And, that’s before the issues of autonomous or remotely piloted aircraft come into service.

3. Infrastructure and Navigation

If time is money, UAM will benefit not just those in the industry but people and businesses as well. Unrestrained by ground traffic, topography, roadways, and the limitations of a two-dimensional transportation system, one of the biggest advantages of an UAM infrastructure will be in time saved traveling from departure point to destination.

Some estimates envision the time saved using flying cars in urban settings could be as much as two-thirds. A 20-minute drive could become a 7-minute flight in an eVTOL. An hour-long commute could be reduced to 20 minutes, thereby extending job and hiring opportunities for employers and delivery options for merchants and suppliers.

Instrumentation, such as speedometers in cars or the instrument panel in contemporary aircraft, will also need to adapt before the public accepts UAM. A heads-up display (HUD) will need to be developed so navigation systems can support personal air travel. An augmented reality (AR) display would hopefully feature traffic information and the interface between us humans and the machines doing the work will also need to be transformative as it switches from ground mode to air mode.

As AeroCar Journal previously related, battery technologies will need to improve substantially before UAM will be fit for the rigors of urban transportation in a multitude of climates. The rules of the road will need to adapt for vehicles that can be grounded and airborne. The signage will need to evolve. Stop signs, traffic lights, exit-only markers, intersections in the sky – currently the stuff of virtual reality and video games – will need to transition to actual reality if the system is to function safely.

4. Environment and Sustainability

Key to public adoption of UAM is, and will be, its promise of being an ecofriendly mode of transportation. With most, if not all, VTOLs expected to be eVTOLs or at least hybrid electric aircraft, the desire by the traveling public to commit to cleaner modes of transportation augers well for UAM.

The sustainability of an electric-driven future is presumed to be better for the environment than one fueled by fossil fuels. Still, the demand for electricity placed on power grids by hundreds of thousands of flying cars is, as yet, uncertain. The demands on developing downstream resources at vertiports and other components of an eVTOL transportation network are also unclear.

While electric cars are noise-free compared to gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles as are the power trains of eVTOLs, propellors are not. The futuristic version of a flying car depicted in The Jetsons appeared to use some type of jet propulsion, but the noise it made was crafted in an animation studio. The reality of flying cars presents a challenge to aviation engineers regarding noise abatement, especially if they are ostensibly to be used in urban or suburban environments. The need to position flight paths above freeway medians might be a necessary yet problematic requirement challenging cost- and time-efficient UAM operations.

More air traffic will require more air traffic control. It will fall to regulators, such as the FAA and NASA in the U.S. and EASA in the EU, to devise systems for passenger and cargo vehicles and drones.

5. Logistics

The economics of operating and maintaining flying cars may also dictate how they evolve in society. For example, emergency response vehicles may take to the skies before private vehicles do. Firefighting drones or package delivery drones may take flight before air taxis do.

A fleet of air taxis may be more sustainable in terms of maintenance and operations than personal operations. The manufacture of eVTOLs or hybrid VTOLs may necessitate economies of scale to operate profitability. That would seem to give auto manufacturers, such as Toyota, Hyundai, and General Motors, and aircraft manufacturers, such as Airbus and Boeing, a distinct advantage over smaller enterprises currently in the works.

6. Cybersecurity

If safety is paramount, then the security of the digital systems underpinning is mission-critical. A computer glitch on a laptop or mobile phone is troublesome and can be financially costly. A malfunction, or worse, the hacking or takeover of something as critical as a flying car’s detect-and-avoid system, is potentially catastrophic.

Terrorists or cyber criminals could wreak havoc if left unchecked. So, it falls to agencies, such as NASA, the FAA, and EASA, to develop standards, practices, and protocols to protect everything from individual vehicles to the entire air transportation network from bad actors.

7. The X Factor: Human Behavior

All of the technological or economic advantages flying cars might offer may be moot if people don’t accept them. There are probably as many, if not more, questions to be answered about how people will perceive UAM as there about the mechanics, avionics, and operational considerations yet to be addressed.

How much will a flying car cost to purchase? How much will a ride in an air taxi cost; is it worth it compared to a conventional taxi or current forms of public transit?

survey conducted online in 2017 by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle from the University of Michigan’s Sustainable Worldwide Transportation project revealed that nearly 63 percent of people were concerned about the safety of flying cars. Nearly the same percentage (about 62 percent) were concerned about the performance of flying cars in congested airspace and poor weather conditions. Nearly half of respondents were concerned with flying cars operating at night. Perhaps most telling: Nearly 80 percent of people thought it “extremely important” or “very important” that flying cars have parachutes.

Almost two-thirds of people surveyed believed flying cars should have a flight range of 200 to 400 miles before requiring a recharge or refueling. More than 80 percent of people preferred a seating capacity of 1-2 people or 3-4 people. Perhaps most notable: nearly three times as many people were interested in fully autonomous flying cars versus those operated by a licensed pilot.

And, the survey said, if the price for a flying car were between US$100,000-US$200,000, nearly 25 percent would consider them affordable. At the current estimated price (somewhere around US$400,000), fewer than 3 percent would consider them affordable.

We Accept!

Karl Benz (yes, he of Mercedes Benz fame) invented the first viable automobile in 1886. It cost US$1,000 to buy (the equivalent of about US$27,000 today). The average American earned about US$1.34 per day (about US$345/year) then.

Henry Ford’s Model T, first sold in 1908 for US$850 when the average American earned US$0.22/hour. Still, a majority of Americans could afford that at the time. Estimates place the cost of a ride in an air taxi somewhere between US$2 and US$8 per mile, with a predicted average of US$5 per mile.

Hardly affordable, the first commercially available mobile phone, the Motorola DynaTAC, cost US$3,995 when it was introduced in 1983. And, when cell phones first arrived on the scene, rumors persisted that they caused brain cancer when held up to your ear. Today, approximately 5.15 billion people own or use cellphones; that’s about 80 percent of the global population.

Will the public accept flying cars? Yes, it’s just a matter of time.

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Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.