During a Salt Lake City conference of transportation experts this week, an audience member asked when Utah should start including flying cars in its long-range transit plans.

“Last week,” Jared Esselman, aeronautics director for the Utah Department of Transportation, said Thursday during the Move Utah Summit.

“We started thinking about it about two years ago,” he added — including how small flying taxis may travel between transportation hubs, what kind of airspace capacity exists for them and possible ascent and descent rates and paths. “We’ve been thinking about all this.”

He said flying cars no longer are just science fiction from “The Jetsons” cartoons or “Back to the Future” movies.

“The thing I hear most is, ‘Well, this will never happen in my lifetime,’” Esseman said. But he believes it will — perhaps soon — given the advances now occurring.

He foresees a possible future when his now 4-year-old daughter will never need a driver license because by the time she is old enough for one, “she will fly everywhere she goes. She will call it on an app. She might take a bike to a hub or train station or bus stop, then she’s going to jump on a Volocopter or an Airbus or a Bell, and it will zip her off to where she needs to be.”

That was part of a discussion about flying cars and self-driving autos, and how they may change the future of Utah transportation.

(Photo courtesy of Bell Helicopter) Drawing of the Bell Nexus, among prototypes of flying cars.

Esselman said he foresees flying cars not as something that everyone would have at home, but more as a flying taxis between transit hubs — a part of commercial aviation, not general aviation. But he says that could be a key to meeting future transit needs.

He said air traffic simulators developed with the University of Utah show that by using the right highway-in-the-sky corridors — “not a point-to-point, Wild West” — that could put “3,000 vehicles in just the geographical space of the city of Salt Lake … and never break separation distance minimums.”

That would never replace such large people moving systems as FrontRunner or TRAX trains, he said. But it could help reduce highway congestion and the need for more roads.

Esselman said early models of such craft essentially look like large drones. He said at operation altitudes, it is unlikely they would be heard from the ground or cause much sight pollution as people look to the sky.

A first step toward them is now occurring, he said, as more businesses use drones to deliver packages — which he notes the U. is doing to deliver medical samples to labs, for example.

A next step, already being tested, may be small air ambulances just big enough for one nurse or doctor and a patient, Esselman said. They are able to land in canyons or tight areas that helicopters cannot easily access — and avoid traffic jams as they speed to a hospital.

(Photo courtesy of Volocopter) Photo of a Volocopter used in rescue operation research.

Besides being futuristic and cool, officials said a key reason for flying cars and self-driving autos is that they would improve safety.

“Statistically speaking, flying is still the safest way to travel, and there’s a very good reason for that,” Esselman said, noting it avoids the congestion and jostling of cars on the road — and could do that while cutting travel time.

Blaine Leonard, technology and innovation engineer at UDOT, said some key numbers show the importance of moving toward automated transportation.

“Thirty-seven thousand people a year die on our highways in the United States, and 94% of those crashes have an element of human error in them,” he said. “If you crashed a Boeing 737 every three days all year long and killed everybody on board, that’s what we do on our highways.”

Leonard said it may be impossible to get to zero fatalities without self-driving vehicles that remove human error. He notes that UDOT and the Utah Transit Authority are experimenting with an early self-driving shuttle to identify where improvements are needed, and many automakers — most notably Tesla — are working on self-driving cars.

Josh Channel, a senior transportation planner with Parametrix, said he’s excited for the possibilities presented by self-driving autos, but added that they should likely be held off roads until they can show they are near-foolproof and would create close to zero fatalities.

Leonard disagrees. “Should we put the same threshold on humans then? Until we get to zero, no one drives? How do we advance the technology if we can’t get it out there in the mix” and test and improve it?