If you thought hurtling along the streets in a driverless car was scary, how about a driverless helicopter aka a human-carrying drone? That’s the Ehang184.
Ehang is an established UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) maker in China, so this video might be viewed in the same way as a concept car. It might never make it onto the market, but it is certainly an interesting tech demo-slash-computer simulation.
The emphasis is on safety, as it should be, although the claim of “absolute safety by design” may be pushing things. The drone works like any other, with multiple rotors (eight in this case) independently controlled by computer to give stability and a measure of redundancy. The whole thing is controlled by a touch-screen app. You tap the spot on the map you want to fly to, and the Ehang184 does the rest.
If we’re going to have flying cars, then they should surely be autonomous. Human drivers are dangerous enough on the ground, so imagine the damage you could do if flying while texting, or eating a bowl of cereal. But the automation itself is a little worrying. If things go wrong in a driverless car, a passenger can grab the wheel, or at least hit the brakes. What happens if you find yourself on a crash-course for a skyscraper? Do you tap the touch screen furiously?
Ehang’s drones can be viewed in a different way. They’d make fantastic rescue vehicles, treating their human cargo as just that–cargo, and able to quickly ferry disaster victims back to base while rescuers work on. And as cargo carriers, larger drones like this could be a make for more practical delivery vehicles than the kinds of limited-capacity drones being tested by the world’s postal services.
One can’t help but wonder if flying cars are a solution to a problem that won’t exist for too much longer. The dream is to fly over traffic-choked streets, and an autonomous drone is preferable to the old, dangerous sci-fi dream of self-piloted flying cars. But just as the tech becomes available to make viable human-carrying drones, the traffic on the ground could be disappearing. The same self-driving tech will clear the traffic jams from city roads, and a shift in the emphasis of city planners to favor mass transit and bikes (in Europe at least) may make flying cars obsolete before they get off the ground.