Flying Cars Are Closer Than You Think

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” Doc Brown told Marty and Jennifer in the 1986 movie Back To The Future, just before they flew through our screens in a rocket-propelled Delorian.

The Jetsons. Star Wars. Blade Runner. All these futuristic shows and movies, and many more besides, featured flying cars. Innovative and far-flung storytelling tickled our imaginations, making us fantasize about a future with flying cars. As with so many inventions of movie magic, though, we’re now at that point where flying cars could become a reality. We have drones flying overhead. We have self-driving cars. Prototypes for flying cars have been built and are being tested as we speak. Technology is ever moving forward.

As former children of a certain age, these possibilities excite us. However, as risk managers, it is something else entirely. If flying cars are a reality of our near future, we and our agencies must prepare for their arrival. And that means asking about how they will affect our skies and society. When you start to get down to it and consider a flying car society’s potential impacts and conflicts, it might induce you to spin out of control.

Matt and I discuss some of the numerous issues public agencies would need to address in our video above. Here are just four of the most concerning.

Air Traffic Management and Routes

If you don’t have a road with signs and traffic lights, how do you know where you are allowed to drive? How would air traffic be managed in a future of flying cars? In our imaginations, we visualize lines of vehicles moving smoothly in two lines running in opposite directions. How exactly would that happen? Maybe we could hang traffic signs and lights below drones. Or build tall poles from the ground. Perhaps GPS could be employed to keep vehicles on set pathways, but where does that leave us with privacy or our freedom to move about?

Vehicle Failures and Crashes

We commonly see cars stopped by the side of the road, hazard lights flashing, and smoke coming out of the engine. Malfunctions happen, and more than a few vehicle operators are notorious for not taking proper care of their cars. When you miss a few oil changes or ignore a balding tire, the result today is that you are stranded and calling a tow truck. You are off to the side (hopefully) and out of the traffic pathway. Your feet stand safely on stable ground.

In a future of flying cars, a malfunction could be catastrophic. The average two-door sedan weighs perhaps 3,000 pounds, not including occupants. If a flying car weighs about the same and breaks down in mid-flight, it becomes a ton and a half of metal and fuel plunging to the surface hundreds of feet below at terminal velocity. If there is an accident, it could be two or more cars falling. What if they land on a house? Or in a school? Even if no one miraculously loses their life, the damage will be a liability nightmare of immense proportions.

Law Enforcement, DUIs, and Car Chases

We commonly see car chases play out on our televisions as criminals desperately seek to evade capture by law enforcement. How would flying cars change law enforcement of traffic? Police officers would face innumerable challenges, such as bringing an errant driver to a stop, conducting a traffic stop, or performing their duties while observing the drivers’ rights. Everything becomes more complex and hazardous 500 feet in the air.

Impaired drivers would present a particular concern. A DUI traffic stop will almost necessarily involve the vehicle operator being requested to leave their vehicle so the officer can assess their driving capability. The officer would need to instruct the vehicle operator to descend to the ground. What if the driver is unable to do so safely? Would law enforcement be given the ability to take over control of the vehicle? That is almost assuredly a violation of constitutional rights on some level.

And the matter of impaired or distracted driving is itself a very concerning possibility. As it is currently, such drivers cost thousands of deaths in vehicle accidents annually. It seems likely that math would project much higher with flying cars. And for those who fail to follow approved traffic routes and go “off-road,” where are the limits on where they can go?

Surveillance and Views

There are also the visual aspects of a flying car society. Suddenly, the skies would fill with thousands of vehicles, along with the airplanes, helicopters, and drones we see today. That view of the mountains, ocean, or downtown just became impossible, or at least hazy. It’s not just aesthetically displeasing but would affect property values and perhaps mental health as well.

Consider the other side of that. Now others can see into backyards with ease. We already see incidents where property owners discharge firearms at drones floating over their property. What would it be like if cars were flying overhead? This would set up a battle between privacy rights and airspace ownership.

Start Preparing Now

It may still seem decades off, but technology has a way of rapidly advancing in ways we do not foresee. We didn’t think about A.I. two years ago as we do now with ChatGPT. Twenty years ago, our cell phones weren’t the portable computers they are today. Forty years ago, the Internet was the stuff of science lab studies. That future of flying cars may not be as far away as you think.

Would you be interested in a forum about the possibility of flying cars and the challenges public agencies would face in dealing with them? Leave a comment below or reach out to us.

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