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Flying Cars Take Off, Weathering FAA Turbulence

March 20, 2018

It lasted all of 53 seconds, and reached a height of just 16 feet, but aerospace experts agreed that the maiden voyage of the Airbus Vahana flying car may have been the first step in a great leap that changes how humans get around. It’s not so much the Vahana’s technology that made the moment groundbreaking as it was who was in attendance: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

There are many competitors, and the flying car race is still in its early stages, but what is now clear is that the technology is here. There’s nothing holding society back from taking to the skies but society itself. Are we ready? How would we incorporate flying cars into our existing infrastructure? Would it render our current infrastructure unnecessary? Would it be safe? This last question seems to be the most pressing, especially for the the FAA, whose job it is to keep us safe when we fly.

Any company looking to move into flying cars needs to impress the FAA more than it needs to impress consumers. Getting FAA approval is famously difficult, costly, and time consuming. Approval for modifications to Boeing’s 787 took years, and the FAA is intimately familiar with the aircraft. How long would it take them to approve flying cars — an entirely new technology with an entirely new set of “pilots”?

Ehang, a Chinese company, is already flying folks around in a giant drone, and they seem to have figured out how to grease the bureaucratic wheels. They primarily shuttle government workers.

Uber, the car-sharing giant, has announced an audacious plan to launch a flying car service in Dubai and Dallas as soon as 2020.

The FAA, realizing that the pace of technological advancement is overtaking their ability to regulate, is taking steps to modernize its rules for getting new aircraft designs certified. In December of 2016, the FAA rewrote the rigid design requirements for light aircraft to allow for more ways to prove safety — an important step in clearing the runway for flying cars.

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