If you’re having trouble getting used to a new car that thinks its cruise control can stay in the same lane of traffic without your help, how would you feel about a car that thinks it can drive unassisted 5,000 feet in the air?
Rush hour traffic along the Wasatch Front may become a thing of the past if last week’s test flight of a driverless drone taxi in Dubai means anything. Too bad we spent all that money on freeway expansion.
The United Arab Emirates is way in front of everyone on this one, pushing a number of technologies, including robotic police officers. The New York Post says the nation wants to distinguish itself from all the crazy fundamentalists and warring factions in its neighborhood, which it probably could have done just by not having any crazy fundamentalist or warring factions.
But no, Sheikh Hamdan and his closest associates stood admiringly last week for a demonstration of a driverless air taxi made by the German company Volocopter. Its machine features 18 propeller engines and looks like a giant version of a drone your annoying neighbor might fly in the neighborhood park. It took off without anyone inside, rose to about 650 feet and then slowly landed where it had started.
Volocopter is just one of several companies working on this. Uber has plans to unveil flying machines in Dubai and Dallas by 2023, expanding to five or more cities by 2025.
Imagine hailing an Uber with your phone, then having to dash to the roof of your building to catch it.
Or maybe not.
Last spring I wrote about research being conducted by two University of Utah professors on how today’s semi-autonomous cars can lull people to sleep. They were monitoring the brain waves of people driving to Wendover in cars that do most of the work except, of course, when they don’t.
Today’s drivers have to stay alert enough to grab the wheel or push the brakes when the car loses track of things, and that can be hard to do when most of the time the car lulls you into a false sense of security.
While I am far from an expert, my guess is people in driverless flying cars would have no trouble staying alert. Whether they would know what to do when the side of Mount Timpanogos is rapidly approaching is another question.
The U of U researchers told me we have a long way to go from today’s semi-autonomous cars to fully autonomous ones. They said the gulf between here and there is like the Grand Canyon.
But in the meantime, we all seem to be gearing up for the day. The University of Michigan’s Sustainable Worldwide Transportation group did an opinion survey earlier this year, asking people how they felt about flying cars.
More women were concerned about safety than men, with 7.8 percent of men saying they were not at all concerned about it. Fully 10.2 percent of men said they weren’t concerned at all about flying a car in congested airspace. I’m guessing these are men you should avoid driving with even in the dumbest of cars.
But while the anticipation grows, state lawmakers ought to begin reworking laws to deal with everything that might come. Someone somewhere needs to figure out how police are supposed to pull over a driverless car, or force a flying car to land, if it may be harboring a criminal or a kidnapping victim.
If you’re the kind who has trouble keeping up with software updates on your smart phone and you can’t quite wrap your head around some disembodied thing named Alexa talking to you in your living room, you may be hoping the next invention is a time machine back to the good old days.
Well, never fear. Ben Tippett at the University of British Columbia, and David Tsang of the University of Maryland have published a paper showing how it could be possible to bend spacetime into a loop and go backwards. All they need is something called exotic material, which has yet to be discovered.
I’m sure someone in Dubai is working on it.