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Terrestrial traffic jams could soon become a thing of the past. Commercial and personal aircraft maker Airbus is working on a prototype self-piloted flying car that could be ready before the end of the year.
“We are in an experimentation phase, we take this development very seriously,” Airbus CEO Tom Enders said at a digital tech conference in Munich this week. Airbus has a division called Urban Air Mobility that is exploring this technology, particularly as traffic becomes an increasing problem in urban areas (especially in “megacities” such as Los Angeles, New York, and London).
Rather than everyone owning a car that transforms into an airplane, Airbus is looking at ideas that are similar to today’s ride-hailing schemes. That is, you’d be able to book a personal or multiple-rider aircraft via an app to help you soar over traffic congestion below. The technology would “have to be clean,” Enders noted, in order to avoid additional pollution in metropolitan areas. He said that a prototype for single-person transport would be ready before the end of the year.
Airbus certainly isn’t the first to tackle the idea of a flying car. Long the subject of science fiction lore (hello, DeLorean), there are a handful of flying car prototypes that exist—and actually work—today. Aeromobil, which began flight tests back in 2014 and debuted its third-generation prototype in 2016, is one of the better known examples. According to its website, it could be ready to ship in the next few years.
However, Airbus’ idea for implementing flying cars seems to avoid some of the pitfalls that might otherwise hinder adoption if these vehicles followed a car model. That is, as more of an Uber or taxi, the company would have control over who flies its aircraft, ensuring pilots are experienced, vetted, and not idiots. If any old Joe could buy one, well, people have enough problems safely driving their cars on roadways before factoring in things like takeoffs, landings, and a third dimension of navigating. (And heck, with the level of autopilot on aircraft as it is, combined with driverless car technology, perhaps a driver would barely be needed at all.) Airbus could also likely work with cities or airports to develop bus-style stations where you can order one of these vehicles and then soar off to the other side of town.
While a future of sky Ubers is still a ways off, it will be interesting to see what Airbus, and other flying car makers, eventually come up with.
Christina Bonnington is a tech reporter who specializes in consumer gadgets, apps, and the trends shaping the technology industry. Her work has also appeared in Gizmodo, Wired, Refinery29, Slate, Bicycling, and Outside Magazine. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a background in electrical engineering.