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On Thanksgiving, Be Grateful for Technology

We should all be thankful for innovators and visionaries who aren't afraid to dream big.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to remind Americans about some of the tremendous technological advancements we should be thankful for: better cellphones, safer cars, Lasik eye surgery, and drones that deliver pizza and life-saving medications. Technology also provides life-changing services like Uber and Airbnb, too.

Better still, if you combine technology like drones and Uber, you get one of the most exciting developments yet to come: air taxis.

As my Mercatus Center colleague Brent Skorup explains in a recent piece for The Wall Street Journal, "City dwellers in the next decade could fly from Lower Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport in less than 10 minutes. Chicago families could escape the summer heat and shuttle above Lake Michigan to Indiana beaches in less than half an hour."

Can you imagine the amount of time saved? Parts of this dream are already becoming a reality on the ground and in the air. "Ride-sharing and routing software, used by Uber and Lyft, makes complex fleet management possible," Skorup notes. It's already being used by millions of passengers every year to circumvent the older, less reliable traditional cab services. It also provides cheaper access to chauffeur services that were once only available to the wealthy. Thanks to apps like Voom, which started to match helicopter pilots with passengers last year in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and has since expanded to Mexico City, people can take to the skies to reduce their commuting times.

These rides remain expensive, but that won't last. According to Lilium, a European operator, it plans to start service within the next few years. It estimates a price of $36 for a five-minute one-way trip from Manhattan to JFK. Once battery technology and automation improve, the price could drop much lower. Of course, the next step is the adaptation of self-driving car technology to pilot functions to overcome "the greatest hurdles to a flying-taxi industry: high labor costs and the risk of human error," Skorup explains.

In other words, air taxis could be a major urban transportation mode within our lifetimes. That's unless legislators get overzealous and don't get the policies right. In a new research paper, Skorup also gives us a roadmap (or should I say a sky map?) to avoid the problems from traditional aviation that result mostly from a lack of properly defined property rights.

For instance, because airlines share routes, air traffic control, terminals, and technology, they underinvest in new technology, planes, and terminals. For one, any improvement in operations or facilities can be captured by competitors. Likewise, there's an incentive to overschedule flights (and fly half-empty planes), since any free slots could otherwise be used by competitors. Further, any major changes, like transitioning technology from radar to GPS, take way too long since you need buy-in from existing vendors, regulators, and operators.

Skorup's proposal—which draws heavily on another area of his expertise, wireless spectrum auctions—is to exclusively lease aerial corridors and vertiports for air taxis. That would give companies much more freedom to innovate. Exclusive corridors and vertiports also mean that companies are able to profit from the sale of their existing assets to new entrants. (With traditional airlines, the default is that new entrants must operate on a non-interference basis, which is very anticompetitive).

The U.S. government has successful experience with auctioning and leasing federal assets, including wireless spectrum and offshore wind energy and oil sites. Auctions also generate revenue for deficit reduction, which is just a cherry on top. Spectrum auctions have grossed about $100 billion since 1994. As a comparison, oil leases and royalties from federal sites have grossed over $400 billion.

The bottom line is that if we get this right, we could leap ahead of other countries and jump-start a new aerospace-auto manufacturing sector to supply air taxi operators. So on this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for thinkers like Brent Skorup as well as innovators and visionaries who aren't afraid to dream big to bring us those amazing technologies that will change our lives forever.

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  • Mauser||

    I'm thankful for Reason & its rambunctious community. It is always a pleasure to read & engage fellow Reason readers in these informative & educational forums. Happy Thanksgiving Y'all.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    I'm thankful for a holiday that celebrates the important things in life: day drinking, overeating, and football. Happy Thanksgiving all!

  • BigT||

    I'm thankful for cataract surgery that allows me to see well for the first time in almost 60 years.

    But some of what I see makes me wonder if it was a blessing or curse.

  • BigT||

    "City dwellers in the next decade could fly from Lower Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport in less than 10 minutes. Chicago families could escape the summer heat and shuttle above Lake Michigan to Indiana beaches in less than half an hour."

    Not if TSA has anything to say about it.

  • Mauser||

    The mandatory gropings & searches by the TSA will take longer than the taxi flights.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Think in-flight TSA groping robots.

  • CE||

    Some people would pay extra for those.

  • Homple||

    In the next decade we're finally getting those flying cars we've been promised "in the next decade" since the 1930s.

    Can hardly wait.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    The noise pollution from full -size drones lifting families out of neighborhoods will doom them. The recent ionic wind test flights are intriguing and may eventually offer a noise workaround, but the amount of air which has to be moved to lift a drone and occupants is what makes personal flying cars impractical, ionic wind or not. I am sure there are some engineers who could provide calculations, but air is light, people and drones are heavy, and without wings to generate indirect lift from a long runway takeoff, there's just too much air to move too fast.

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    For instance ... air weighs roughly a tenth of a pound per cubic foot. A drone for a family of four would have to weigh about as much as a car or four seat airplane, so call it an optimistic 2000 pounds loaded. I don't know how that relates directly to air; does it mean you need to move 2000 pounds of air downwards every second to hover, and more to lift straight up? If it does, that's 10,000 cubic feet per second. If the footprint is 15 x 8, like a sedan, the rotor footprint is going to be something less; call it 50 sq ft. That means a downward wind of 200 fps. You think the public would put up with that in driveways or at the curb or on every rooftop?

    I am just making up numbers, I am not an aeronautics engineer or any kind of engineer. I'd be glad to hear a real aeronautical engineer correct me. But the figures seem roughly realistic compared to the wind from a Cessna 150 or similar.

  • Sevo||

    I think you're presuming 'copter rotors are some sort of fan, exhausting air to the bottom to lift the payload.
    They're not; they're very long (and narrow-corded) wings; very effective at relatively low speeds. They're not 'moving air downwards', they are flying upwards.
    Pretty sure they are no more noisy than fixed wing-craft at similar distances (perceived noise drops by the distance^3), but I'm also sure that once tech gets assigned to come up with a quiet air-screw, it'll do very well; note the battle between the US and the USSR for 'quiet subs' operating in water, which is a marvelous conductor of pressure variants (non-compressible). Can't remember the numbers, but they got very quiet indeed.

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    Propellers are also wings; they push air backwards and this can be measured in pounds of thrust just as with jet engines. Helicopter rotors are wings, pushing air downwards, and presumably also measurable as pounds of thrust.

    Water propellers don't make anywhere near as much noise, and I do not know why, but guess it is because water is so much denser and doesn't need to be thrashed as much to achieve enough "pounds of thrust", however that is measured. Water propeller blades don't get anywhere near as close to the speed of sound as air propellers do. For this reason, I don't think air propellers could ever become as quiet as water propellers.

    At any rate, my main argument and question is not the noise, but the wind speed from generating downwards pounds of thrust. It must be comparable in volume and speed to a small helicopter in order to lift the same weight, but in a much smaller area to fit within a roadway or parking spot, and thus even faster and noisier. No one would tolerate that outside an airport. You could never start one up in a garage.

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    Meant to also say that wings DO push air downwards; you can't get a movement upwards without an equal and opposite reaction downwards. To lift a 2 ton airplane upwards at, say 1000 feet per minute or 16 feet per second, you have to push air downwards at some equivalence, which I doubt is a straightforward multiplication of 4000 * 16 pound feet per second; there's probably some squaring involved for all I know (I am not an engineer), and if the plane is at all angled upward, some fraction of the propwash contributes.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Or catapults from Manhattan high-rises to the bay near JFK. The basic cost is only $20 (but does not include rescue fee, towel charges, and optional shark insurance).

  • El Oso||

    I dream of a big, bad war where all of our enemies are crushed like ants...

  • Sevo||

    "That's unless legislators get overzealous and don't get the policies right."

    Well, I know where my money is.

  • CE||

    It'll be cool until the air taxis are everywhere and you get stuck in air traffic jams.

    But eventually you won't need to "go" anywhere, because you'll be able to send your hologram, and experience everything it experiences.

  • LiborCon||

    But eventually your hologram will realize that you're redundant.

  • Sevo||

    OT:

    "How Facebook's P.R. Firm Brought Political Trickery to Tech"
    [...]
    "Matt Rhoades, Definers's chief executive, said in a statement that the firm's work "is absolutely no different than what public affairs firms do every day for their clients across industries and issues across the country. We are proud of the work we do for our clients."
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/21/
    technology/definers-public-
    affairs-tim-miller.html

    Yeah, but those other guys do it for the "top men", not anyone who might vote R!
    The gripe seems to do with the outfit's ability to place articles and web-comments positive to their clients and hinting negative to the competition ("Our soap cleans 5 times better than brand X"). And their connection to various R people and organizations.
    Take a look; seems pretty much a hatchet job, "republican" would make a good drinking game. M
    But maybe SV isn't as solidly D as that hag and others wish.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Clinton said rightwing populists in the west met "a psychological as much as political yearning to be told what to do, and where to go, and how to live and have their press basically stifled and so be given one version of reality.

    "The whole American system was designed so that you would eliminate the threat from a strong, authoritarian king or other leader and maybe people are just tired of it. They don't want that much responsibility and freedom. They want to be told what to do and where to go and how to live … and only given one version of reality.

    Hillary statements about immigration laws to curb nationalism gains around the World

    Check Hillary out. "Americans dont want freedom"....fucking authoritarian bitch. Thank God Trump kicked her ass.

  • Richard Stallman||

    Uber, drone pizza delivery, and portable phones are all systems of
    mass surveillance. While I can appreciate that they offer
    convenience, in a narrow sense, they do so at the price of the privacy
    without which it is hard to think freely or practice democracy.
    I think that price is too high, so I won't use them.

    Your opinion may be different -- but don't expect to have much freedom
    for very long if you don't defend it from these "conveniences"?

    As for air taxis, won't they mean increased greenhouse gas emissions?

  • Presskh||

    I'm thankful for the harnessing if electricity for so many everyday uses. No other invention/innovation has had the impact on our overall standard of living as electricity has over the past 125 or so years.

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