Flying cars used to be science fiction. Now, companies are actually developing hundreds of viable air taxis. As far as the technology is concerned, we’re nearly ready for flying cars to take to the skies throughout the world.
Sadly, the legal and regulatory aspects of development are lagging. Still, earlier this year the European Union Aviation Safety Agency took a big step in providing a regulatory framework for air taxis and the Federal Aviation Admin. followed suit a few months later. These organizations’ proposals deal with defining airworthiness, pilot licensing, flight paths and other important aspects of both the development and operation of these new aircraft.
Investor money is pouring in to develop the technology, and manufacturers have much of what they need to get started. The next step is for the certification authorities to finalize regulations, and EASA/FAA already have shown us a great starting point.
Let’s take a look at what these flying vehicles look like today and what needs to change before an air taxi service can take flight over European and North American cities.
What Flying Cars?
Flying cars, more accurately known as Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) vehicles, aren’t as futuristic as you might think. Many of the major airplane manufacturers, including Boeing, Beta, Lilium, Volocopter, Joby Aviation and Vertical Aerospace are developing these vehicles. So, what exactly is a VTOL?
You’re probably most familiar with a VTOL in the form of a helicopter. Helicopters take off and land vertically, without requiring a long runway. The problem with helicopters is that they’re large, energy-inefficient and impractical for short, less-constrained flights within cities. Aircraft developers, operators and paying passengers are looking for something much smaller and more energy-efficient.
In theory, a fleet of such vehicles could act as air taxis, allowing people to travel within or between neighboring cities faster, cheaper and “greener” than ever before. Most of the designs for VTOLs are electrically powered (eVTOLs). And electric vehicles don’t leave the large carbon footprint of traditional airplanes.
Certification and Safety for Air Taxis
Since VTOL vehicles are classified as aircraft rather than automobiles, they have an entirely different and much more rigorous process for certification and safety for both the software and the hardware compared to, say, electric or self-driving cars on the ground.
However, the current certification and safety process behind these flying-car models is incomplete at best, particularly in the U.S., which has been lagging Europe’s EASA for the past several years. For most aircraft, the standard DO-178C provides an essential framework for software safety and quality control. For hardware, it’s DO-254.
Unfortunately, eVTOLs have specific features that require special consideration beyond what those two standards currently offer. Those features bring a lot of challenges to developing and certifying such aircraft.
First, electric aircraft need battery power and added redundancy, particularly for the more high-risk takeoff and landing phases of vertical flight. Even for a relatively short-range aircraft, the power draw is considerable, so you need complex infrastructure including a charging system and charging stations.
Also, lithium-ion batteries, which are commonly used in electronic aircraft designs, come with the danger of ignition. So, these batteries require additional containment systems and redundancy/mitigation in case of an excessive heat scenario. Therefore, any certification or regulatory framework for eVTOLs needs to consider battery monitoring and safety.
Second, the more electronic systems a vehicle has, compared to pneumatic systems, the higher the chance of logic errors, an accidental arc or power failure that could cause a catastrophic crash. Worse, eVTOLs that have a system failure are more likely to crash than typical airplanes during the more-risky takeoff/landing phase. An airplane can glide to safety after losing engine power. Helicopters can use auto-rotation. Small eVTOLs don’t have those options to generate lift in case of a system failure.
Any certifying body would have to take this danger into consideration and develop additional requirements for backup systems and other such safety measures.
Third and perhaps most important, a large number of air taxis flying around in a relatively small airspace means more potential for collisions. To prevent accidents, the U.S. would need more robust sense-and-avoid systems and traffic control infrastructure, possibly including automated collision-prevention systems. Such systems would require additional expense, certification and testing requirements.
What’s Next for Air Taxis?
There are many other challenges specific to certifying eVTOLs. Still, the EU already has provided an example of what a regulatory framework can look like for flying-car designs. Europe certified the world’s first all-electric aircraft three years ago via Pipistrel. The U.S. can begin to take a look at those standards, as well as the existing ARP47XX, DO-178C and DO-254 standards, and start to create a comprehensive unified international standard for safety and quality for eVTOLs.
The technology already is here and theoretically could be in commercial production within just a few years. Unfortunately, regulatory bodies are still behind on developing the standards needed to fully operate eVTOLs to function as air taxis. Until those regulatory authorities catch up, flying cars will continue to be a thing of the future for flyers.
Vance Hilderman (pictured, above left) is an aviation expert, author and CEO of AFuzion, an aviation and avionics consultancy.