Monday, October 15, 2018

The technology does not exist. The viability of the market is questionable. Obviously it's the regulators' fault.

I haven't decided if I'm going to discuss this Wired magazine article (Inside the Secret Conference Plotting to Launch Flying Cars by Eric Adams) in greater depth (frankly, probably not worth our time), but I did want to take a moment to hit this one point.
The next morning, the group, which featured more than 100 leaders from well-known high-tech companies, research entities, and investment firms, went to work on a single, seemingly impossible challenge: bringing the nascent air taxi industry to life.

That vision—most prominently laid out by Uber—requires an entirely new class of vehicle powered by batteries far better than the ones we have now. It will depend on approvals from sluggish regulators and safe integration into crowded airspace. Autonomous flight systems that are nowhere near ready for human passengers will be essential. The field will need seemingly unlimited funding and a strategy for convincing the public to put their lives in the hands of this new tech. Oh, and the whole effort already risks being upstaged by well-financed Chinese innovators who are plowing forward absent many of these constraints.
First off, the air taxi industry is not nascent; it is moribund. We've had helicopter-based shuttle services for decades. They just never, if you'll pardon the expression, took off the way a lot of people had expected. To be fair, no one was predicting the kind of door to door service you can get from an automobile, but in a high density area they did provide a fast and flexible way of getting reasonably close to your destination.

Of course, it is entirely possible that we will see some aeronautics innovation that will make this model not only viable but popular. Unfortunately, there are huge engineering challenges involved in developing what we're talking about here, an incredibly compact, autonomous, electric VTOL aircraft that can operate reliably, safely and quietly in dense urban areas with crowded air spaces (that last one alone is enough to make one skeptical about the prospects of the industry. Reducing aircraft noise is a problem that has stumped the world's best engineering minds for longer than any of us have been alive). And we can't begin to talk about the implications for urban planning, infrastructure, and regulation until we see what these things are going to look like.

Given the stunning difficulties on the development side, the questionable business models, and over a century of highly touted proposals for personal aircraft that never made it past the prototype stage, why the hell is the author talking about sluggish regulators?

One of the most cherished tenets of the standard tech narrative is that we would all be living in a wondrous futuristic land – – half sci-fi movie, half amusement park – – if not for those darned regulations. It's a perfect, multipurpose excuse. It teases us with the promise of great things just around the corner. It creates a handy set of villains to boo and hiss. It neatly explains away the failures of tech messiahs to come up with appealing and functional technology or viable business plans.

It is also bullshit. There are certainly cases where onerous regulations hold up big infrastructure projects and you can make the case that the IRB process is delaying certain medical advances, but in the vast majority of cases where a new technology fails to catch on, it is because of incompetent execution, bad engineering or non-feasible business models, but those explanations are difficult to write up, run counter to the standard narrative, and tend to make the journalists look like idiots for having bought the hype in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. The only thing holding back self driving cars are those pesky laws about not killing pedestrians.

    People have been dreaming of air travel in the central city since whenever. I remember Burroughs in one of his Barsooom Mars books explaining how Martian flying cars solve the left turn problem. Then there was the dirigible dock on top of the Empire State Building and the proposed in city suspended airport in Palm Beach Story. At least that latter was a comedy.

    A big setback was the collapse of that helicopter's landing gear on the roof of the Pan Am building that sent chunks of the rotor and debris through midtown office buildings. There was also the big liability crunch in the small aircraft industry that nearly knocked it out.

    If you look at small aircraft today, fixed and rotary wing, they look surprisingly like the models from the 1950s or 1970s. Meanwhile, commercial jets are made of composites and have a pair of fat high bypass engines. Military aircraft are out of science fiction. I keep wondering why we haven't seen more new technology in low and middle range civil aviation. The materials are there. The engine technology is there. The computerization is there. Aside from the GPS, small planes and helicopters look amazingly like creations from the past.