Opinion: Will Detroit lead the way on flying cars?

Brent Skorup

Flying cars are coming—the only question is when and how many. Known mostly as “air taxis” because company-owned fleets will likely emerge before personal flying vehicles, they are being tested worldwide. However, air taxis will remain what they call “vaporware” in Silicon Valley—an unfulfilled promise—without two things: a Detroit-style manufacturing sector and a clear regulatory path.

Skorup writes: "To develop the precision to use flying taxis safely, innovators are working within the aerospace industry today."

Air taxi designs look much different than conventional flying cars—autos with wings—like the experimental one that recently flew a few feet in the air before a hard landing at an airport in suburban Detroit. Air taxis are one- to six-passenger aircraft with multiple electric rotors—basically huge drones. The technology to make them feasible, including driverless systems, Uber-style ride-sharing apps, and battery innovations, has advanced quickly in the last ten years.

The Chinese company Ehang has gone so far as to fly a few dozen of its employees in a single-seat, autonomous air taxi in tests this past year. Companies like Boeing, Airbus, and Uber have announced plans to test piloted passenger drones in the United States and internationally as early as 2019.

The technological progress is commendable, but the worlds of transportation manufacturing, infrastructure and regulation move much more deliberately.

Manufacturing capacity will be a major obstacle. Air taxis could be a huge industry: Recent NASA-commissioned research estimates that in the best-case scenario, the U.S. air taxi market would be worth about $500 billion annually—nearly the size of the U.S. auto sector. This translates into about 1 million air taxis in the air and 11 million flights per day.

To develop the precision to use flying taxis safely, innovators are working within the aerospace industry today. Tomorrow, they’ll need a parts supplier and assembly network that looks more like Detroit’s.

Even the largest small-aircraft companies manufacture only a few hundred aircraft per year, while the Big Three auto companies manufacture a few million autos per year. A shift to manufacturing air taxis would represent a natural progression for auto companies that are already re-tooling some plants for autonomous cars and making bets on the future of transportation.

Before manufacturers and suppliers invest in modernization, however, they’ll need assurances that regulators will accommodate the air taxi industry. U.S. aviation regulators have an admirable safety record, and will be exceedingly cautious about allowing thousands—or eventually millions—of new aircraft and delivery drones into American skies.

One possible solution would involve the Federal Aviation Administration designating virtual “highways in the sky” in high-traffic areas and then auctioning those corridors to the highest bidder. Giving air taxi operators stable rights to their own flight paths would ensure congestion-free airspace and provide a strong incentive for them to make significant infrastructure investments.

State governments shouldn’t stand still either. About half of U.S. states have laws granting small aircraft a navigational easement to low-altitude airspace. Michigan doesn’t have this provision, and it could impede air taxi operation in the state, potentially lessening its appeal for the industry.

Another thing state lawmakers can do is form an air taxi advisory group. This has been done around the nation for other emerging technology issues and allows stakeholders a platform to identify regulatory roadblocks and to acclimate a skeptical public to a new idea.

Even cities can get involved by modernizing zoning and noise ordinances. Miami-Dade County, Fla. Mayor Carlos Giménez welcomed air taxi service months ago by entering into discussions with one operator. This month, Miami journalists reported that several local developers have constructed air taxi landing pads on luxury high-rise residences in anticipation of the service.

Law, infrastructure, and manufacturing move slowly, but we need all three to make sure the future of transportation isn’t just a novelty found in a few high-tech global cities. The starting gun for flying cars has already sounded.

Brent Skorup is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and author of the new study “Auctioning Airspace.”