Since Henry Ford hypothesized the creation of a ‘combination airplane and motorcar’ in 1940, film-makers and fanatics have endorsed the idea and turned it into a futuristic parody, longing for the development of such a vehicle. About 80 years on, the technological advancements in electrical power, navigation and autonomous systems make the development of autonomous flying taxis possible, and have been seen to attract many technology and vehicle based companies such as Airbus and Uber.
Clear for Take-Off?
The principle of beneficence says that we should create the largest ratio of benefit to detriment achievable. To this avail, whilst the development of the flying vehicle itself may be considered costly, flying taxis will be cheaper than driving a car in terms of the cost per distance travelled, and would reduce the travel time by up to 95%. The ability to travel unimpeded would reduce travelling stress as well, allowing passengers to guarantee their arrival times at other destinations.
According to the US Department of Transportation, human error causes 94% of automotive accidents. With flying taxis being developed to be autonomous and controlled using airspace management technology, the number of accidents due to human error will decrease and a safer environment for both passengers and pedestrians would be achieved. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there currently is a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car crash, and a 1 in 9821 on air and space transport. The use of airspace management technology would shift the statistics towards the latter.
Our moral responsibility to nature and the future will be left intact as well. There are currently 34 million vehicles on the road and 22% of carbon emissions in the UK are from road transport. With flying taxis being accessible and more convenient, the need for car ownership will decrease, resulting in a decrease in the number of land vehicles on the road. Subsequently, pollution levels and congestion should decrease, resulting in a cleaner and more sustainable global environment. In addition to that, costly issues such as the growing need for parking spaces and more roads will be mitigated, and their ability to travel vertically or horizontally would eliminate the need for runways and minimises additional infrastructural requirements.
It is clear then that flying taxis would have aid in a cleaner future for the environment, improve passenger safety and the potential government savings from lower infrastructural costs could be reinvested into other pressing issues such as scrapping the NHS budget cuts in the UK that contribute to 100 avoidable deaths every day. This positively affects everyone, right?
Brace for Impact!
The potential benefits of flying taxis are obvious, and who wouldn’t love to see the day when you could take a flying taxi from city to city for the same price as buying a ticket on an overcrowded, overpriced, train?
Well, that may be because we are privileged enough to be able to afford public transport, and the prospect of travelling from city to city would likely be for pleasure or to fill our pockets. In a time when global inequality is on the rise, technological advancements aimed at increasing efficiency in wealthy economies serves only to accelerate this process, and flying taxis would be no exception. Equally, in societies where the technology is available, a (perfectly rational) fear of using a flying taxi would put you at an immediately obvious socioeconomic disadvantage.
Whilst the increase in global inequality is a prominent issue, an equally prevalent issue is that of duty of care to the passengers and pedestrians. In an accident, the software prioritises human life over animals and infrastructure. With particular pertinence to prioritising human life over that of an animal, is a hierarchy of life ethically justifiable? Arguably not…
A second condition by which the software operates in an accident is to ‘minimise harm’ to any human, following the ethical theory of least harm, whether pedestrian or passenger. An objective definition of what constitutes ‘lower harm’ is unachievable, as personal circumstance of each party is not accounted for.
The third condition is that the passenger can take control in morally ambiguous situations. This implies that people are truly capable of adhering to deontological and utilitarianist practices, which is undermined easily by imagining yourself in a life-threatening situation. It seems that bad drivers have been replaced with free-falling taxis.
Using an autonomous vehicle in general puts the user, and others, at immediate risk of cyber attacks. Even non-autonomous vehicles have been vulnerable to attacks in the past years through a method called GPS spoofing, such as in a study conducted in 2013 where a $80 million yacht was successfully misdirected by controlling its GPS. So what guarantees the security of a flying taxi?
Cyber attacks will become more commonplace as the world becomes digitised, but few cyber attacks have the ability to directly take a life. The chances of falling victim would undoubtedly be slim, but it begs the question: is the concept of least harm really appropriate when discussing whether to risk lives for convenience? The cost of these attacks isn’t to be trivialised, either, with the bill expected to rack up to $6 trillion annually by 2021.
Flying Taxis or Dying Fantasies
Clearly flying taxis would benefit our society. The seem to be the natural course of automotive progression, and not pursuing technological advancement arguably detriments society, and goes against deontological and utilitarianist ethical principles. This said, are we ready to introduce these given the ethical dilemmas proposed above, and is it truly beneficial to society if global benefit could not be achieved?