An escape from gridlock, or the start of three-dimensional bad driving? Having grown up on futuristic movies that feature flying cars — perhaps most especially in the Back to the Future trilogy — we often lament the lack of this technology as some sort of broken promise, usually without asking whether it’s a promise worth keeping. Despair not, though — Airbus says it will have a prototype ready in 2018 as an individual transport:

Airbus Group plans to test a prototype for a self-piloted flying car as a way of avoiding gridlock on city roads by the end of the year, the aerospace group’s chief executive said on Monday.

Airbus last year formed a division called Urban Air Mobility that is exploring concepts such as a vehicle to transport individuals or a helicopter-style vehicle that can carry multiple riders. The aim would be for people to book the vehicle using an app, similar to car-sharing schemes. …

He said using the skies could also reduce costs for city infrastructure planners. “With flying, you don’t need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads,” he said.

Perhaps I’m the only one who sees this more as dystopian than utopian. Having driven in many states over nearly forty years, the more I see of other drivers, the less I want them over my head. Perhaps they think the same thing about me, but that’s part of the point too. It only adds more elements of disaster and distraction when people already have enough difficulty in dealing with surface driving.

Some will argue that limiting flying cars to autonomous rider services will eliminate those issues, but at best they will only minimize them. Surface drivers will still have to deal with vehicles dropping down to the surface for arrivals, and their appearance and movements above the road will distract surface drivers further. Besides, it won’t take long for people to use the cars for manual-control driving, which will further complicate matters. Will drivers need a pilot license from the FAA to utilize this technology, and what does that do to traffic control? Who patrols the skies, and how far do they get above ground? How does one deal with infrastructure like bridges, skywalks, traffic lights, and so on?

A better application for this would be to use the roads for traffic but keep the cars off the ground by the same amount. Not only would that eliminate wear and tear on infrastructure, it should make driving at least somewhat safer by eliminating road hazards like hydroplaning, ice, and deterioration of other kinds. It would also corral cars into specific areas, giving pedestrians more safety than having cars flying above in unpredictable patterns.

Perhaps people think more of the Back to the Future franchise when imagining the possibilities of flying cars. (Worth noting, though: Professor Brown gets caught up in airborne gridlock in the second film.). I tend to think it will eventually look more like the cab scene in The Fifth Element, but YMMV. Almost literally.