Autonomous decision-making one of biggest challenges for flying cars, industry expert says

A model of Uber's flying taxi concept on display at the Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles in May.
A model of Uber’s flying taxi concept on display at the Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles in May.
(Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images)

Despite several proposals to create flying taxis, industry has a ways to go to master how those vehicles will operate without human pilots and make crucial flight decisions on their own, an industry expert told a congressional committee hearing Tuesday.

The meeting of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology — billed as the first congressional hearing dedicated to the topic of flying cars by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) — made clear that urban flying vehicles will pose a new set of challenges beyond the autonomous vehicles that are being tested on city streets across the United States.

“Traffic and gridlock challenges are better overcome by cars that fly, rather than drive,” Smith said. “Although it will be a while before we see widespread ownership and use of personal vehicles that can both be driven and flown, these advances are visible on the horizon.”


Among the industry representatives at the hearing were executives from ride-hailing company Uber and Terrafugia, a Woburn, Mass., company that plans to release its Transition flying car next year at a price tag of $400,000. Both companies aim to operate services that would eventually allow people to be picked up by an autonomous flying taxi and transported to their destination.

That would require developing systems that can learn from and adapt to situations never before encountered, a challenge that “is one of the biggest,” said John-Paul Clarke, a College of Engineering dean’s professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-chair of a 2014 National Research Council committee on autonomy research for civil aviation.

“But I don’t think it’s insurmountable,” he said during the hearing. Clarke estimated that degree of sophisticated autonomous technology would be developed in five to 10 years, “to the level where I would feel comfortable getting on an airplane.”

Progress is also needed in areas such as cybersecurity, as well as gathering community input on vehicle noise levels, privacy concerns and location of vertiports where passengers could get on flying vehicles, industry experts said.

Uber plans to conduct test flights of flying taxis in Dallas and Los Angeles in 2020, with commercial service starting as soon as 2023. The company doesn’t plan to manufacture its own vehicles but will contract with companies such as Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences and Bell, which had a representative at the hearing.

“We have, as our basis for what we’re doing, a deep view that community engagement is very important from the beginning,” said Eric Allison, head of aviation programs at Uber. “We want to do this in partnership with the local communities.”


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