With a version of the Taylor Aerocar featured in a 1974 James Bond film, flying cars seemed just around the corner; however, with just six built from 1949 to 1960, it was ahead of its time. According to J. Scott Drennan, Vice President of Innovation for Bell, current trends in society and progress in technology may harbor the long-awaited future of personal air transportation. Drennan recently spoke as part of the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s thought leadership series on Our New Mobility Future.
Drennan identified three converging trends in society: “We know that urbanization is taking place all across the world, more people are moving to urban centers and choosing to live in urban environments; we know about the shared economy, we hear about folks taking shared rides,…sharing cars; [and we know about] instant gratification,…dial it up…and it can be at the house in two hours.”
In addition to the convergence of urbanization, the shared economy, and instant gratification, technological progress is coming of age as well with Drennan listing autonomy, artificial intelligence, and electric, hybrid, and distributed propulsion as driving factors.
Watch a video highlight about airborne ride sharing from Drennan's talk as part of the Volpe Center's 2019 speaker series, "Our New Mobility Future."
Technology is Not the Challenge
“Technology is the easy part,” Drennan said, listing the biggest challenge as being the operational component, followed by certification, then manufacturing, and finally technology. The operational aspect requires the timely development of a reliable, safe, quiet, and affordable aircraft. This has been a major focus for aerial-ridesharing company Uber Elevate’s five initial urban-air-mobility original-equipment manufacturers, of which Bell is one. Certification entails getting the aircraft approved for airborne use by a range of diverse international regulators. Manufacturing requires building relatively high volumes of the aircraft with Drennan elaborating that, “This would be a scenario where we’d have to build thousands of these types of vehicles per year rather than today’s state [where], if we build 300 everybody’s popping champagne bottles and celebrating, so a very transformational-type projection there from NASA and their partners.” Finally, technology includes the ability for autonomous operation of the aircraft, which could range from having a pilot onboard to monitor the flight, to a remote pilot that is monitoring many air taxis, to operation with little or no human intervention or monitoring.
Drennan presented a compelling photograph illustrating the historical speed of past transportation revolutions. “In 1900 [on] Fifth Avenue, [there is] one car, the rest [are] horse and buggies,” he said, “and then 13 years later, one horse and buggy, the rest [are] cars.” In viewing this, it seems plausible that our near future just may include the long-awaited promise of being able to travel from point to point via the air—traveling like a character from a Bond movie may no longer be that far off.