#airtaxi: Why autonomous flying will happen before autonomous driving

The author

 

Your contact at diconium

Alexander Käppler
senior digital consultant
flugtaxi | sicherheit verkehr | diconium
flugtaxi | teaser | diconium

#airtaxi: Why autonomous flying will happen before autonomous driving

THIS IS NO JOKE: AUTONOMOUS FLIGHT WILL BE POSSIBLE EARLIER THAN YOU THINK

This past weekend I once again read a bunch of Tweets that linked our new Minister of Digital Business, Ms. Bär, to #Flugtaxi (#airtaxi).  So I wondered how close we really are to "flying taxi cabs" and I arrived at the conclusion that they will likely become reality before autonomous driving. Hence, while all this social media bashing isn't just stupid; it is also likely that Ms. Bär is absolutely correct. It depends on her and her ministry to pave the way.

The most important arguments against air taxis are security, accidents as well as the current laws and regulations. A look on accident statistics reveals that, instead of planes, it is cars that are the most dangerous means of transport.

FACTOR 1: HUMAN BEINGS

The car enabled humanity to move individually over large distances and freely, independent of any timetables.  Well, a requirement for possessing a car or navigating in traffic is contingent upon some sort of education; nonetheless driving still depends on the individual. From the race car to the Sunday after noon driver (almost) all drivers have a driver's license, i.e. they have at some time gone to driving school. The kind of driving depends on the individual person which is influenced by fear, experience and the physical condition. On the other hand, the paths are not customizable since people will in most cases drive on a street or road. The source for human failure is reduced immensly in planes (or in trains and buses). The two pilots that fly the plane usually have had excellent training and in most cases there is only two sources for human failure in a plane, which is why the pilots cross check each other. This limits both, the "individual traveling" factor (only certain routes and destinations are available) and the source of human failure. This is the reason why plans that carry a large number of passengers crash rarely. 

 

FACTOR 2: LACK OF AN ECOSYSTEM

Given the high degree of individual travel maximization when driving one's own car or motorcycle, the ecosystem is basically only defined by the rules of the road (the StVO in Germany). An enclosed and encapsulated ecosystem as such does not exist, given that there are numerous effects on earth (and thus also in traffic) that have a permanent impact on the "road traffic" ecosystem. Some examples are the weather, pedestrians, bicyclists, animals and many more. All these influences cause the street, and therefore the car on the street, not to represent a closed ecosystem. This is different in the case of air traffic. Sure, there are weather conditions and animals but no cyclists, skaters or potholes. Air traffic is just as regulated as road traffic. Air traffic routes and spaces where one can quasi dead reckon actually do exist. However, the rules in aerospace are very clearly defined and do not allow much room for interpretation - simply because there are few effects on the "ecosystem air travel" that cannot be controlled. Based on exactly this ecosystem concept, I take a critical stance towards autonomous driving and consider it unrealistic in the near future. Autonomous driving will certainly work, if the ecosystem remains closed. This would hinge on only autonomous cars being permitted to drive on roads that are prone to few disruptive elements. As soon as driver operated cars, bicyclists, children, skaters, animals and other hard to predict factors impact the ecosystem, autonomous driving will quickly become a hazard.  The best example is the recent accident of an autonomous Uber-vehicle, which killed one victim. As a consequence, Uber stopped working with autonomous cars. Another case is the accident of a Tesla car with one casualty.

 

FACTOR 3: LACK OF AUTOMATION

In contrast to aviation, there is not a log of automation in cars and on the road. Yes, modern vehicles come with assistance options such as lane warnings, infrared alarm or distance controller. However, at the end of the day, it is still the driver's responsibility to make the decisions.  As previously stated, driving a car is a very personal mobility option, which is subject to countless influences. In aviation, there are various systems that have been used for years allowing for full automation. Solutions such as the autopilot and TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance System) as well as the automatic landing system have been in use for decades. The pilot types the destination airport and the computer calculates the route. Once airborne, the pilot clicks the "autopilot" button. Fifty miles ahead of the destination airport, he/she activates the auto landing mode.  The computer does everything else. This, however, works only because aerospace is actually a closed ecosystem influenced only by a few highly trained individuals and the number of disruptive factors is a) not nearly as large and b) can be forecast rather accurately.

Taking into account these three fundamental factors, of which the ecosystem concept is likely the most critical aspect, I can imagine autonomous driving only if it happens in an encapsulated system. If all cars were autonomous, it would work. That is, if all participants follow the same rules and use the same algorithm. In my opinion, this will be difficult if not even impossible. Because, there will be places in the near future where humans will still steer the car in addition to the high number of external factors in the ecosystem. Or should we ban all pedestrians, bicyclists, animals, scaters etc. from participation in road traffic?

 

CREATING STRUCTURES

However, perhaps the diesel scandal will help create the basic structures. It will certainly raise eyebrows if all diesel cars were to disappear from city traffic and we realized that gasoline vehicles emit just as much nitric oxide as the former.   Based on this conclusion, we could also ban gasoline cars from cities and we would have created at least part of what it takes to operate a system in which only autonomously driving electric cars can be on the road. In my eyes, this is an unlikely scenario, given that the road blocks that would appear in the "automotive industry" context would simply be unsurmountable.  

This would probably also not be an easy feat as far as flying taxi cabs are concerned. In a first step, what we lack is pertinent legislation and the general legal framework - unfortunately, "low flights" above cities and much less near airports, are not permitted.  This definitely applies to private small planes or drones or model airplanes (the rules define a certain size and require planes to travel at a cruising altitude of more than 30 meters; source: German Federal Aviation Agency, March 2018)   The legal and technological safeguards that allow planes to also fly in cities would have to be in place. Another challenge to be considered is the current lack of "landing strips." I assume though that this would be the smallest problem. After all,  bus stops can be installed and moved quickly. The same thing will happen with air taxis. One could put a "roof" over every bus stop and use it as a landing strip for drones. While this would still not make travel planning completely personal; if one were to use the terminology "autonomous flying," it is safe to presume that  #Flugtaxis is the best tradeoff for individual travel by car and plane.

Hence, there will be far more "landing strips" for flying taxies than airports; however, there will definitely also be fewer parking lots, so that the greatest added value would be that we'd no longer sit in traffic jams, but simply fly over them.

Therefore, traveling by autonomous flying taxi would yield the benefit of more flexibility than traveling by plane, although it is less personalized than driving one's own car.

flugtaxi | individualitaet flexibilitaet | diconium

WHAT ELSE DOES IT TAKE?

Automation? Not really. As already mentioned, there are many autonomous systems used in aviation. Using a smaller flying object should therefore not be an obstacle. Acceptance? Yes, there is a lack of that. The mere fact that Ms. Baer is being bashed, indicates the high level of resistance that still exists. Although, probably autonomous flying is much more secure and efficient than autonomous driving.

It is advised to all automobile manufacturers to have a look in their own museums and to recognize which pioneering work has been completed by the founders of Porsche or Mercedes at the end of the 19. century. Now's the time to look into the future of mobility. The construction of autonomous drones for passenger transport should be put forth by car manufacturers and not by Airbus or Boeing. BMW's announcement that it will begin researching the issue as of 2020, leaves me baffled. Seriously? Wait another 2 years before you look into it? Just checking into what is happening in Dubai and China should clearly indicate where things are headed. They are already conducting tests; which means they are already trying what BMW intends to wait for until 2020.

And if even Ms. Baer is familiar with the term  #Flugtaxi, it is high time to pay serious attention to the matter. Forget the idea of autonomous driving. This is an idea that is only possible in a limited way and in an ecosystem that needs to be created first. Concentrate on the things that are the reality of the future - autonomous flying. Just the harnessing of better conditions defined by the ecosystem logic should be so obvious that any automaker CEO should be able to see that autonomous driving is fantastic only if you're stuck in traffic because the number of influential factors appears to be manageable.  But who likes to wait in a traffic jam?

 

The author

 

Your contact at diconium

Alexander Käppler
senior digital consultant