“NO-FLY ZONE” RE­SPONSE

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - LETTERS -

Derek Bezuiden­hout’s an­tipa­thy to­wards the con­cept of fly­ing cars as­sumes a world where the av­er­age mo­torist gets to go 3D. That would in­deed be a fright­en­ing prospect, but I sub­mit it’s an un­likely premise. Fly­ing cars have faced huge ob­sta­cles: cost, skills re­quired, and en­sur­ing safety once Joe and Jane Pub­lic get air­borne, where any lit­tle bumper-bash­ing is likely to lead to cat­a­strophic con­se­quences. These ob­sta­cles are all be­com­ing sur­mount­able.

Costs are com­ing down con­stantly as new light­weight ma­te­ri­als and man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nolo­gies evolve, and when (and if) the other prob­lems are over­come and vol­umes rise, costs will come down faster. What is re­ally go­ing to change the out­look though is au­to­ma­tion and AI. In prin­ci­ple, fly­ing cars can now be made as sim­ple as fly­ing a quad­copter: multi-axis ac­celerom­e­ters, pre­ci­sion GPS-, video- and in­frared-based po­si­tion­ing (and pos­si­bly li­dar), mas­sive yet cheap com­put­ing, and the knowl­edge be­ing gained in mak­ing toys (quad­copters) that any dunce can fly will de-skill the pi­lot­ing of fly­ing cars. It would still be ex­ceed­ingly risky to take to the air though if there were thou­sands of other fly­ing cars jostling with you on your daily com­mute but the answer to that co­nun­drum is now in view: fully au­to­mated fly­ing.

It would be lu­natic to al­low the general pub­lic to take to the skies with­out lev­els of train­ing and dis­ci­pline (and en­force­ment) akin to the re­quire­ments of a pi­lot’s li­cence, and that would ef­fec­tively rule out nearly ev­ery­one; but what if all fly­ing cars were self-fly­ing? Just punch in your des­ti­na­tion and sit back. The strides in the de­vel­op­ment of self-driv­ing cars are clear to see, the busi­ness of safely ma­noeu­vring on the roads is more com­plex than safely ma­noeu­vring in the air. On the roads you have pedes­tri­ans, bi­cy­cles, op­pos­ing traf­fic pass­ing within tens of cen­time­tres, and cross­ing traf­fic. Worst of all, you have all those other ve­hi­cles do­ing un­pre­dictable things. Manag­ing air­borne traf­fic, if all ve­hi­cles are fully au­to­mated and net­worked, ob­serv­ing their des­ig­nated al­ti­tudes for di­rec­tion of flight and mon­i­tor­ing all other traf­fic around them, is a much sim­pler propo­si­tion. The tech­nolo­gies are com­ing to­gether and it will be fas­ci­nat­ing to watch. I am cer­tain the big­gest hold-up will be de­vel­op­ing new reg­u­la­tions and iron­ing out li­a­bil­ity is­sues but it is now en­tirely cred­i­ble that air-cars could be quicker and safer than road traf­fic, as long as you don’t let fickle, sleepy, ag­gres­sive, drunk, im­pa­tient peo­ple have the con­trols. And now we don’t need to. CHRIS CROZIER

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