Thanks to Sci-Fi movies over the last several decades, flying cars are the first thing that comes to mind when people think about Personal Air Transportation System (PATS). What also helps, is the fact that we are exposed to these “cars” as huge technology companies keep announcing their progress on developing “flying cars.” As a result, we are overly optimistic about driving our own flying machines to work in the very near future. However, this Sci-Fi vision of the future is not as near as movies would have us believe.

As the world’s population grows and moves to urban centers (by 2050 almost 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities), the need for new transportation methods rapidly increases. In a report from the Brookings Institute, Anthony Downs evaluates several future transportation options to deal with the rising traffic congestion, but all of them have major drawbacks. While charging peak-hour tolls gives most people financial burdens, expanding road infrastructure needs greater land. Therefore, experts from NASA and EU have launched projects on PATS, believing that PATS is a better choice for future mid-range trips from 50 to 500 miles.

The main component of PATS, Personal Air Vehicles (PAV) are defined differently by experts. Rather than the “self-owned flying car”, PAVs are not necessarily cars, and nor are they owned or maintained by us, because NASA experts believe that fractional ownership can offer more benefits through increased utilization. Therefore, rather than “fly” to our workplace from home, in the future, we need to go to close-by airports to operate the vehicles from there.

A natural extension from the PAVs is the On-Demand Aviation (ODA), which is an air taxi service. In 2016, Uber outlined its vision in a white paper for the VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) service, named as Uber Elevate. In Uber’s view, the cost of developing basic infrastructure for Uber VTOL is much lower than building bridges, roads, and tunnels. Reusing some unused land near highways, existing helipads, and tops of parking garages can create an extensive and distributed network for VTOL hubs.

No matter who will operate the vehicles, all the experts identified two major critical technology priorities for vehicle designs.

First, future PAVs should achieve ease of control and improved operational safety. The current complex control system for aircrafts should be simplified because future PAVs will be piloted by people without specialized knowledge. As Dr. Jozsef Rohacs explains, the control system of the PAVs should not be more complex than an ordinary car control system. The improved operational safety can be achieved by creating a “variable autonomy relationship between an intelligence vehicle and its user.” The user can either choose to let the vehicle have more autonomy or take a firm control over the vehicle while the vehicle still provides hazard awareness and warnings. 

Second, future PAVs should decrease their noise levels to be accepted by communities. Since small airports for PAVs will be built closer to densely populated areas, it is important for them to not disrupt normal activities. While the current noise regulations are less based on people’s acceptance, as NASA scientists pointed out, the noise level for aircrafts should at least complete a ten times reduction to be accepted. Experts already agree that reducing the noise level is technically achievable. There are multiple ways to deal with the noisiest part of aircrafts—propellers, and using ducted propellers is one of the ways.  

Another expert, Missy Cumming explains that there aren’t any technological hurdles to PATS. The world’s first ultralight all-electric, fixed-wing VTOL aircraft—BlackFly—revealed in 2018 by a technology company called OPENER is an example. The BlackFly has all the basic features required for the future PAVs. While the BlackFly still needs time to perfect its abilities and functions, there is no new disruptive technology needed.

However, building up PATS requires more than technical possibility. A new set of small airports has to be built, with charging stations and maintenance facilities for PAVs. In another Brookings report, experts doubt that people will use the limited resources to invest in the future given that they have already struggled to maintain current transportation facilities. It is hard for people to recognize the importance of PAVs in the future. Even NASA’s Vehicle System Program (VSP) was replaced by the Fundamental Aeronautics Program due to a lack of investment for small aircrafts.

In addition, establishing PATS requires a new set of air traffic rules. Because the PAVs will use the airspace under the space for current air traffic, it is essential to separate the space used by the unprofessional and the space used by the professional, and to pass laws to regulate air drivers’ behaviors. And anything related to policy legislation will be a long battle among powers. A battle can be expected to happen between the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and local Departments of Motor Vehicle for the authority on PAVs.

The biggest difficulties for PATS come from psychological hurdles; people might worry about the flight risks and may not be ready to give up cars just yet. Although most people know that aviation is the safest transportation option, they will not feel the same way when unprofessional air drivers start to pilot. It will take time to persuade people that future PAVs are safer, even with unprofessional drivers.

As society advances, people will need faster transportation to save time and create benefits. PATS is an inevitable step towards a more interconnected world. But though PAVs are already around the corner, we need more time to incorporate them into our society by establishing the institutions that will allow the global publics to feel safe and accept this new mode of transportation. To achieve the goal, a jointed effort is required. On the one hand, scientists need to develop more perfect prototypes. On the other hand, experts in the public sector need to establish more institutions, such as legislation or organizations, to give researchers confidence to invest money and time into this industry..

Rong Qin
Rong Qin is a Washington, DC based correspondent for Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.