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Odds are people will soon be travelling around town in flying taxis

They are being touted as a solution for congestion and climate change.

Imagine this: you’re heading out to an event, so you whip out your smartphone and with a few taps of an app summon a pilotless drone to fly you there. It sounds like science fiction, but the chances are that we’re not so many years from this scenario becoming a reality.

There are currently about 200 passenger drone prototypes being developed worldwide. Billions of pounds are being invested into the idea, including by companies such as Boeing (who make planes) and Uber (a taxi firm). This April Coventry in the UK will host the world’s first showcase of what an ‘urban airport’ for such drones could look like. Guesses for when these flying cars will be available for use varies, but the experts at McKinsey, a consultancy, are on the conservative end of the timeline with their prediction that by 2030 city dwellers will be hailing a drone in the same way they currently hail a cab.

Flying taxis are tipped to solve some of the biggest problems currently associated with urban transport. The first of these? Congestion. There’s a great deal more space above a city than within it, so drones could help end the rush hour gridlock. Taking to the skies also saves the effort and expense of mapping out and building physical roads. Less congestion means less time being wasted sitting in traffic. That’s good for people’s wellbeing, as it removes a boring activity and gives them more time to spend doing things they like. Removing onerous commutes is also likely to improve people’s job satisfaction and expand the location from which they’d consider job opportunities. Both of these things are good for productivity (how well we’re all working) and economic growth (how much extra value is being created within an economy).

Another advantage of passenger drones is their green credentials. Transport is currently responsible for a fifth of our total climate-change-causing carbon emissions. There’s a few ways flying cars could reduce this tally. One is the reduction in congestion we mentioned above. But the major thing is that many passenger drones are being designed to run off clean energy sources rather than fossil fuels.

Of course, all these benefits are irrelevant if flying taxes are not taken up en masse by consumers. For that to happen, passenger drones need to be two things: desirable and affordable. Not everyone is convinced they will be either. Hailing a quicker, greener and more efficient version of a regular taxi might sound like a no-brainer, but it is also possible this new technology will squick a lot of people out. After all, we don’t yet know what the safety record of passenger drones will be. Then there’s the 2 in 5 people who have a fear of flying; many of whom may prefer to take the longer route round to save their nerves.

Nervousness, unfamiliarity and safety concerns are also likely to put a big blocker in the path of plans to make passenger drones pilotless. Regulators (i.e. rule-setters like governments) and passengers may feel more comfortable knowing there is a human present who can take the wheel if things go wrong, but needing to pay a pilot will presumably add quite a bit to the cost of flying cabs. This would be particularly true if drone pilots were required to hold the same level of qualifications and bound to the same regulations that are currently required for customer-ferrying pilots. In the UK, the current average salary for a commercial pilot is £60,796. The average salary for a taxi driver, in contrast, is just £19,650.

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