John Croxton: The real reason we don’t have flying cars

Regulations need to catch up to the technology of passenger drones.

“Where’s my flying car?”

It’s a joke (and a book), but also a reasonable question in 2021.

In 1903, the Wright brothers took flight and in 1908, the Model T was churning out of Ford Motor Company factories. That joke could have been made a hundred years ago, yet the world is still waiting for someone to put two and two together.

Admittedly, there have been many attempts. The 1936 Ford Flivver. The 1949 Aerocar. The 1958 Airgeep and the 1980s Sky Commuter. All failed due to either practical concerns or over-regulation, depending on who you ask.

Unfortunately, a future like The Jetsons still looks a long way away.

But a slew of upcoming passenger drone startups plan to succeed where previous generations failed. They’ll have the advantage of an autopilot system that doesn’t need trained operators and electric motors to operate cleanly and quietly. Many can take off and land vertically, anywhere roughly the size of a parking space. For an autopilot, flying in three dimensions of open space is much simpler than driving in two, with all of its traffic signs, road markings and pedestrians.

So, consumers might get self-flying drones before self-driving cars, despite all the hype on that front. Upon their arrival and incorporation, passenger drones could slowly transform Utah’s cities to greener and more open spaces. The American Lung Association ranks Salt Lake City eighth worst in the nation for ozone pollution, caused largely by car exhaust and resulting in high rates of asthma and premature death.

Over time, flying drones could replace a significant part of car traffic, making the air cleaner and streets more walkable. Long-distance air taxis would let distant friends and family visit each other without long hours spent waiting at the airport, bringing people closer to their loved ones. They would also reshape professional travel, able to link the state’s citizens and businesses in hard-to-reach regions.

Passenger drones aren’t the only use for the recent advances in electric motors and battery technology. Cargo drones could be just as important, revolutionizing logistics and storage. They’d be particularly beneficial for Utah residents in rural areas, those far from physical infrastructure like railroads and airports.

Such drones are already being successfully used to drop temperature-sensitive medical supplies to remote villages in developing countries.

Regulations have been heavily influenced by safety concerns over the misuse of consumer drones, like unpermitted drone flights shutting down airports for fear of malicious use or accidental collisions. Luckily, drones flown by commercial firms don’t pose the same risks — Amazon won’t be sending its drone fleet through Salt Lake City International Airport for a joyride.

Companies will more reliably follow flight regulations than recreational consumers, and state regulators should make clear to new firms they’ll be welcomed with open arms. The state of Utah is home to more than a few such firms, including drone startups Teal and ElectraFly that hope to greatly expand their commercial operations in the future.

Critically, regulators must not protect incumbents at the expense of innovators — a challenge we’ve seen from largely city-led barriers to services like Airbnb, Lyft, and Bird.

Once regulation catches up, there’s no reason drones can’t be used for a wide range of growth-boosting innovations in the state. Even leaving passengers aside, automated drones could get goods to consumers in record time, from groceries to smartphones.

Already, drones monitor crops, take pictures and video and survey critical infrastructure. However, they’re limited to line-of-sight remote operation, where experts agree that most of their potential comes from the ability to fly on autopilot. When people need to fly each drone manually, costs stay high and operation is limited to where people can easily go.

Utah can and should do everything in its power to put commercial drones in a position to be successful in the state. The fundamental question for the future of transportation is this: Will state and federal regulators let drones operate like other means of transportation and delivery (e.g. cars, ships, and trains) or throw the whole book of commercial airline rules at them, potentially strangling the nascent industry in its crib?

One path presents an opportunity to unleash the true potential of a stifled technology. The other will have us making regretful jokes about “flying cars” for decades to come.

John Croxton | Libertas Institute

John Croxton is a policy research intern with the Libertas Institute, a free-market think tank in Utah. He is currently working on a master’s degree in economics at George Mason University.