Flying autonomous vehicles — looking into the crystal ball. By Mike Ramsey

The hype around autonomous transportation is currently focused mainly on cars and trucks — self-driving vehicles (also known as autonomous vehicles) that will operate on public roads. However, this is just the start. The latest form of transportation innovation is flying autonomous vehicles (FAVs). Some of these vehicles are already in early-stage production and have the potential to revolutionise transportation.

There has been a tendency to misname these vehicles as ‘flying cars’ when they are closer to helicopters. They are mostly vertical take-off and landing vehicles, with most FAV designs using multiple rotors, similar to drones. They are an intriguing prospect for both businesses and consumers – promising faster, safer and more convenient transportation, particularly in urban settings.

An old notion taking off
The flying car is by no means a new concept. It has been talked about since at least the 1930s, after all. Technology has developed significantly since then – one need look no further than the advances made in drones, navigation systems and artificial intelligence (AI) — which has made the concept more than just a pipe dream. It should come as no surprise then that Gartner has predicted that FAVs capable of carrying human passengers will be widely available for sale in North America by 2022.

FAV technology – within our reach
Businesses are making significant advances in the technology required to make FAVs a reality. Most of the companies now developing FAVs are working on battery-powered vehicles, and it’s illustrative of the confidence in how close we are to the finished product that Uber intends to have FAVs in operation in as little as three years’ time. But there are currently challenges in this sphere that need to be resolved. For example, battery energy density by weight means that FAVs currently in development will not be able to fly long distances while being light enough to take off and land easily. That being said, as battery technology continues to evolve, it’s likely that this hurdle will be overcome.

A lack of precedent is a holdup
The shift to autonomous cars is happening on the back of a hundred years of infrastructure and regulatory development.

The level to which FAVs are openly adopted and become a key part of everyday transport is severely hindered, and made all the more unlikely, by the fact that there is currently a lack of regulations, airspace supervision, and infrastructure in place for flying cars – never mind flying autonomous vehicles. Additionally, a future scenario with FAVs heavily populating airspace is improbable given the lack of flexibility around drastic changes to air traffic regulation. It’s unlikely that they would be loosened to the point where thousands of FAVs would be permitted in close proximity over urban areas. Some manufacturers and industry observers have attempted to quell some of the obvious safety concerns by suggesting that the vehicles travel in predetermined routes, much like our streets today. This would help alleviate some of the safety concerns but would result in a supply-constrained system that limits the number of FAVs in the air. It is hard to argue that the FAV market can boom if such restrictions exist.

Socio-economic considerations
There are also the socio-economic restrictions to take into account. It’s true, FAVs would potentially offer an escape from mass urbanisation and overcrowded cities, but only for those who can afford them. Some FAV manufacturers have indicated that their vehicles will cost over $1 million, which would place them well out of reach of the huge majority. FAVs would fail to solve any of the existing socio-economic issues, only aggravating the divide.

Who will be affected?
Irrespective of whether the use of FAVs remains extremely limited or widely adopted — business and IT leaders need to consider the effects they will have on their industries and market sectors. Some sectors will be impacted more than others.

There are interesting implications for the insurance sector pertaining to how liability and insurability will be handled. We’ve already seen liability problems with self-driving cars and drones. New insurance policies have been created for personal drone operators, and some auto manufacturers (for instance, Volvo) are offering insurance coverage for autonomous cars. It’s possible that the costs be shifted to the vehicle manufacturers, but many of them are small start-ups, with limited funding and resources. This has a huge impact on insurability. Until the technology is completely developed, there will be sizeable risks around vehicle malfunctions — and important questions about who will cover them.

Governments will also find themselves with questions to answer if FAVs become widely adopted. Extensive use of them will mean that city infrastructure must be adapted, with designated take-off and landing areas built around traffic hubs, including airports, bus and train stations. The cost of city operations will increase as a consequence, as it will be an additional mode of transportation without replacing any of today’s other modes. Both ground and air transportation will need to be managed, driving up taxpayer costs. FAVs will also create more noise and emissions.

FAVs – staying parked
The excitement around FAVs — whether it’s in the media, the industry itself or among the public — is understandable, even inevitable. There’s no denying that making FAVs work would be an impressive achievement. However, FAVs won’t solve mobility problems for the vast majority of people – but rather acting as an escape hatch from congestion on the roads for the affluent. FAV technology is likely to become an aspirational concept for consumers, putting them literally and figuratively above a number of sociological problems without actually resolving them. And given the lack of regulations for flying vehicles, combined with a lack of product – it’s unlikely we will see a world filled with FAVs in the near future.

Mike Ramsey is Research Director at Gartner. Gartner is the world’s leading research and advisory company and a member of the S&P 500. It equips business leaders with indispensable insights, advice and tools to achieve their mission-critical priorities and build the successful organisations of tomorrow.