Autonomous taxis are on the way from Airbus

Airbus is developing self-flying vehicles that could be tested in the air as early as next year, and deployed in cities in just 10 years. The company's Vahana project aims to create a vehicle that can "fly over traffic jams at the push of a button."

What's cooler than autonomous vehicles or flying cars? Autonomous flying vehicles. A team of Airbus engineers are developing a self-flying taxi that is designed to fly above traffic to carry individual passengers and cargo throughout busy cities. The utopian vision is a bit far-fetched, but they plan to start testing a prototype of the vehicle in late 2017.

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In Airbus's corporate magazine FORUM, project executive Rodin Lyasoff asserts, "In as little as ten years, we could have projects on the market that revolutionize urban travel for millions of people."

The project, dubbed Vahana, launched in February 2016 at A3, which is Airbus Group's innovation division based (where else?) in Silicon Valley. The vehicle's design is complete, and now engineers are starting to build and test vehicle subsystems.

The idea of hovering above traffic is lovely, but there are several practical matters to consider. US regulators have been conservative with both drones and autonomous vehicles, so the ten-year timeline seems unrealistic. Then there are technical barriers: the aircraft would absolutely need sense-and-avoid technology that is still under development. "That's one of the bigger challenges we aim to resolve as early as possible," says Lyasoff. Additionally, when (if) flying cars become functional and legal, won't traffic just shift from the ground to the air?

To be fair, the Vahana team appears to be self-aware. The A3 website says, "Our projects are built on rigorous analysis, novel insights, and commitment to unreasonable goals." And they're not the only dreamers. Other companies have already announced Terrafugia, Aeromobil, and EHang, which are all prototypes for flying cars that have self-driving features.

Other Airbus divisions around the world are also working on futuristic autonomous aircraft projects. Skyways is a drone delivery service that will be tested in Singapore next year, and City Airbus is a concept for an autonomous helicopter that passengers would summon with a smartphone app. Today in Brazil, you can already order a ride from an UberCopter, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Despite the challenges, Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders is confident that the company's plans are realistic. "I'm no big fan of Star Wars, but it's not crazy to imagine that one day our big cities will have flying cars making their way along roads in the sky," he says. "In a not too distant future, we'll use our smartphones to book a fully automated flying taxi that will land outside our front door -- without any pilot."

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