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Self-driving & self-flying cars: How to fight urban gridlock

Will self-flying cars change the way we live in cities? (Photo: Volocopter)

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Autonomous cabs might just be the beginning. To fight urban gridlock, the industry envisions self-flying drones to transport people. And they’re already preparing for takeoff.

Mitch Snyder, like many, gets annoyed by traffic jams. As CEO of helicopter manufacturer Bell, he has certain privileges when it comes to travelling. Still, on his way to the office in Fort Worth, Bell gets stuck in traffic just like everybody else. But this nuisance might just be coming to an end. At CES 2018, the aerospace company announced a partnership with Uber to produce a fully electric and autonomous helicopter for urban traffic.

Anybody can summon it – just like an Uber cab. “Once again, aviation is set to solve everyday problems, this time tackling the challenge for cities: how to transport people and goods,” Snyder said, describing a world where cab drones fly autonomously over roofs and use defined airways to cross from one side of the city to the other.

Snyder is not alone with his vision: the idea of flying cars is spreading around the globe. Engineers are already collecting hundreds of millions of dollars from investors willing to help make the vision a reality. Reputable and solvent companies from Airbus to Google or Daimler are getting involved. Promising German start-up Volocopter recently went on its maiden voyage over Dubai, funded by Mercedes, among others.

German start-up Volocopter is considered one of the autonomous drone frontrunners. (Photo: Volocopter)

Are we experiencing the breakthrough of this new technology? Swiss futurologist Lars Thomsen thinks there are several reasons to think so. So far, researchers had mostly centered on flying cars that needed a pilot as well as a runway, but according to Thomsen, this not only increases costs but limits use cases. Today, research rather focuses on electric aircrafts capable of vertical takeoffs from any rooftop or parking lot. With society slowly becoming accustomed to the thought of autonomous driving, these cab drones naturally fly automatically. In the developers’ vision, driver’s licenses become a thing of the past.

Technology-wise, the requirements are already in place. According to manufacturers, the electric motors on the first prototypes have enough batteries capacity and performance to be able to carry payloads of 100 kilos over a range of 300+ kilometers. Anybody who has flown an average entry-level drone knows that devices for just a few hundred Euros are smart enough not to crash against a lamppost or indeed other drones. Therefore, the control electronics should not be a showstopper.

Urban mobility: the only way is up?

If we want to maintain or improve urban mobility, experts like Thomsen consider self-flying cabs an inevitability – at least for fixed routes with defined starting and landing areas. After all, commuting from one end of Mexico City to the other takes three hours today. People who can afford it already take the helicopter. “Take housing and office buildings. Insufficient space led us to build upwards,” says Thomsen with regard to skyscrapers that shape many megacities. “Only our roads have stayed on the ground or gone underground. If we want to stay mobile, our traffic needs to make more efficient use of the third dimension.”

Ford CEO Jim Hackett has recognized the signs of the time. He dedicated his CES keynote to building smart cities and improving quality of life in metropolitan areas. He expects to see the end of urban mobility as we know it. “Now the opportunity has come to win back the roads for our lives,” Hackett said. He counts on alternative and public transport modes as well as autonomy on all levels: “With the power of artificial intelligence and the advent of connected and autonomous vehicles, for the first time in a century we have the technology to completely rebuild and redesign our traffic system.” However, even Hackett can’t really predict how the city of the future will eventually look: “We are only at the beginning of this development and we can barely imagine where it will lead us,” Hackett admits.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett delivered a keynote speech at CES 2018. (Photo: Ford)

But still, so much seems certain: besides drones there is another means of transport that could at least delay the total urban gridlock – shared autonomous cabs. “Autonomous vehicles that can be summoned via smartphone and pick up the customer could make many individual rides and the respective cars obsolete,” says Rouven Ramp, Product Manager at Daimler subsidiary Smart. Ever since IAA 2017 he has been touring trade fairs with the design concept car EQ. In Las Vegas, visitors are quite astonished how this electric pod autonomously whizzes up and down the “Strip” at night. The EQ car can be ordered via smartphone, collects other passengers along the way and perfectly matches the city’s sea of light with its illuminated dome and giant flat screens in an otherwise totally empty cockpit.

Autonomous car sharing to tackle traffic jams

For now, an autonomous test drive in Vegas is still a spectacle that provokes massive traffic jams. But soon, it is supposed to cause the opposite effect. Remp is convinced: once the Smart vehicles drive autonomously, are available anytime and anywhere, acceptance and utilization will rise. And if electronics optimize the distribution of the vehicle fleet, less cars will be needed to transport more people than today. That’s especially true if rides are shared. The German carmaker even has programmed a kind of dating app so complete strangers can share a vehicle and thus the costs.

Daimler so far has positioned their autonomous concept cars as luxury goods that give customers back some precious time. With the Smart EQ, they are eying a different trend that is equally powerful. Many carmakers and mobility providers like Uber or Lyft dream of robocabs and driverless minibuses that prevent urban traffic from collapsing. Volvo, for instance, is cooperating with Uber; General Motors is testing an autonomous version of the Chevrolet Bolt in San Francisco; and Volkswagen has developed the rolling shoe box Sedric for driverless short-haul traffic in metropolitan areas. Within this decade, Sedric will be deployed in several major cities, according to Chief Digital Officer Johann Jungwirth.

Autonomous drones: a common sight in a few years? (Photo: Volocopter)

However, Ford has possibly announced the most ambitious plans yet. Executive Chairman Bill Ford wants to establish a company-owned cab or ridesharing project with a fleet of driverless vehicles starting 2021. “And we are not talking about dozens or hundreds of cars in some village,” Ford emphasizes. “We are planning to deploy tens of thousands of vehicles in an area with the size and importance of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles – including highways to the airport.”

Autonomous vehicles on the ground and self-flying drones in the air – this might sound like a distant utopia. But if you walk around CES and talk to people like Bell CEO, Snyder, you get the feeling that those jaw-dropping visions are closer than many people realize. Volocopter is already flying, Bell wants to start in 2019 and GM just announced their autonomous car sharing project – also to start next year. Targeting 2025, like Smart CEO Annette Winkler does with the EQ concept, could almost be considered pessimistic.

Bell CEO Snyder had to concede that there is one variable in his plans he cannot influence: public authorities. “They are lagging behind.” This doesn’t make him worry about his schedule, though. “They would be well advised to accelerate their processes and keep up with reality.”

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