When people find out what I do for a living, I tend to get the same question: When will we see self-driving cars? This is a tricky one to answer. If we only focus on the technology, there are still many variables to consider—ranging from the people, other cars, animals, etc. on the ground to special cases such as floods, ice, and diminishing infrastructure. Self-driving vehicles should connect to each other, and sense everything that isn’t, which is a massive amount of data to move in a short period. In addition, this data and communication needs to happen between multiple public and private sectors.
While I do believe autonomous vehicles will become a reality in my lifetime, and some versions are already on the road, they won’t become commonplace anytime soon. What I think people should watch for instead are autonomous flying vehicles. When I first heard of the concept (probably around the time I first saw “Back to the Future”), I thought it would never happen. An aerial fender-bender might be fatal if it affects the vehicle’s ability to fly. If a vehicle stays aloft, it may still send shrapnel onto the people below. However, when attending Science in the Age of Experience with Dassault Systems, I discovered a few companies that changed my mind.
Sean McCluskey of Joby Aviation was on a panel during the Additive Manufacturing Symposium plenary session. The idea behind autonomous aerial vehicles is not to make hover cars, but to alleviate traffic. Cities are often difficult to get into, and a U.N. report says they will only continue to become more densely populated. Cities in the U.S. already account for 82% of the country’s population. In New York City, the population of Manhattan almost doubles every day from commuters. If flying drones could run between points in and outside a congested city, it could reduce traffic on bottle necks.
In addition, large companies with strong industry and government connections are also working on autonomous flight. Charles Marsh, chief of design tools and standards at Bell, formally Bell Helicopter, talked about this same topic: developing autonomous aerial vehicles for increasingly crowded cities. Bell’s representative said that the next generation will have a new direction: Up and down will be as common as left and right.
So, they may not be the hover cars we want, but the flying taxis we need. Sikorski is also developing an autonomous flying vehicle, and Dassault Systems is producing Reinvent the Sky—a software that has helped some companies reduce prototyping time by 50%. With this much attention on autonomous vehicles, the future is literally looking up.