Thought Leadership

Autonomous flying cars and government regulation

By Ed Bernardon

As autonomous capabilities gain ground in the automotive industry, automakers are being forced to evaluate how big of a role those capabilities will play in their future business. Much of today’s innovation involves autonomous capabilities.

These autonomous capabilities are already bringing about lots of change, but one of the most interesting potential changes is something just beginning to receive more attention: autonomous flying cars, which aren’t as implausible as you think. A number of people and companies are currently working to create flying car technology to bring a practical flying car into the market. 

John Bourneuf.pngBourneuf is a mechanical engineering consultant who’s worked with Belcan Engineering, GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney, Wyatt-Gordon and Terrafugia.One such person who’s seen this work is John Bourneuf, a mechanical engineering consultant with years of experience in industry. He recently worked with Terrafugia, a company in Massachusetts working to develop a practical flying car. 

In the first part of the series, I spoke with him about how flying cars could be part of transportation’s future. Bourneuf conveyed the nature of the flying cars buzz that has grown over the past year, and the fascination that we all have with being able to fly away from that traffic jam we face each day to and from work. The big unanswered question, though, is when this will happen.

As the OEMs told Terrafugia after a presentation to the Center for Automotive Research, “we love it [flying cars], we think it’s going to happen (not sure when), but we have so much going on with electric and autonomy that we can’t really accommodate the flying car, so come back to us in some period of time and let’s talk further.”

It seems that at least one OEM is going beyond just talking and investing in flying cars: China’s Zhejiang Geely, which owns Volvo and Lotus, has agreed to buy Terrafugia. So the future of flying cars just may be getting closer.

Keep in mind that there are different levels or types of flying cars in the works. For the Terrafugia Transition, a pilot’s license and runway will be required as it’s a fixed wing aircraft. Terrafugia is planning the TF-X flying car that will have vertical take-off capability, so no runway will be required and ultimately will be autonomous. Air taxis, not actually flying cars, which would shuttle you through the air with vertical takeoff capability, are in development by Airbus Vahanna and Volocopter, among others. These air taxis will be testing soon and may be at our service early in the next decade.

Maybe it’s not the technology that will hold flying cars back, but getting all the required regulations in place before a car we drive can get off the ground. Here, we discuss the role government could play in ensuring autonomous flying cars are safe for use. 

Terrafugia Flying Car 1.jpgPerhaps it isn’t the technology that will keep autonomous flying cars on the ground, but gaining all required approvals and regulations.

ED BERNARDON: With land-based autonomous cars, there is an interesting coupling of government to the development efforts of startups. Certainly, government’s role is regulation, but it can also provide infrastructure – for instance, information from traffic lights, or vehicle-to-infrastructure communication that will make it easier to develop autonomous ground cars.

How do you think startups for flying cars have to work together with the government or municipalities to start developing this infrastructure, so that someday, we’ll have what you see in Star Wars, where rows and rows of flying cars are traveling perfectly aligned and safely? 

JOHN BOURNEUF: I think you’re right on the money.I did go to work in this space with Terrafugia, a 10-year-old “early stage” startup. 

I was amazed at the smarts and wisdom of the leadership of the company [in] saying that we can’t [say] “Darn with torpedoes, full-speed ahead, we’re going there with or without you.” They said we have to work with NHTSA, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, we have to work with the FAA. We can’t work despite them because that’s not going to work. And I think Airbus is doing that. I think Uber, I think Zee.Aero — they’re all doing it.

I was talking with somebody at a conference [recently] who reiterated that yeah, there is a lot more space above us and a lack of infrastructure, so it’s a lot more sensible to think about autonomous vehicles in the air and flying cars than it is to think of autonomous vehicles on the ground. Except, if there’s an incident, you’ll probably come out of an incident on the ground, but you probably won’t if there’s an incident in the air. And so that really does speak to the conservative nature of the FAA.

But the FAA is working on the NextGen architecture to capitalize on all of the GPS systems so as to minimize air traffic control problems [and] minimize disruption in flight schedules. They see it [and] they get it. You’ve got to work within that, because if you think that you’re just going to drive a vehicle down the end of your cul-de-sac and just launch it into the air — it’s not going to happen. Look at all of the consternation around drones.

I think drone technology is hugely supported, but in the event that it leads to accidents, loss of life in the ultimate, it’s a formula for disaster. So it’s inevitable that anybody that is going to drive the flying car space has got to work with the regulators.

Autonomous Flying Cars_2.pngBefore autonomous flying cars leave the ground, anyone in the flying car space must work closely with regulators to ensure the technology, and the vehicle, are safe.And you know, reflecting on my time at Terrafugia, that was a badge of courage; and, some actual experience that made the launch of that vehicle, [and what’s] likely to make the launch of that vehicle most successful, is having worked with the FAA to get exemptions. And, you know, a flying car has to have those, depending upon the nature of it, as well as the necessary exemptions from NHTSA.

So if you try to go [at] it alone, I think it’s a formula for failure.

This concludes part two of my conversation with John. In part three, we discuss what’s holding back flying car technologies and what it will take for the flying car market to grow.

About the author
Edward Bernardon is vice president of strategic automotive initiatives for the Specialized Engineering Software business segment of Siemens PLM Software, a business unit of the Siemens Industry Automation Division. Bernardon joined the company when Siemens acquired Vistagy, Inc. in December, 2011. During his 17 year tenure with Vistagy, Bernardon assumed the roles of vice president of sales, and later business development for all specialized engineering software products. Prior to Vistagy, Bernardon directed the Automation and Design Technology Group at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, formerly the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed new manufacturing processes, automated equipment and complementary design software tools. Bernardon received an engineering degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University, and later received an M.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from Butler University. He also holds numerous patents in the area of automated manufacturing systems, robotics and laser technologies.

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