Airbus Flying Car Prototype Announced: How Will the Law Adapt?

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By: Will MacIlwaine,

In 2016, Urban Air Mobility, a division of Airbus Group, began looking into the possibility of self-flying vehicles.[1] On January 16, Airbus Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders announced that the company plans to test a prototype of a self-flying taxi for a single passenger by the end of 2017.[2] The company’s flying taxi system will be called CityAirbus, and customers will be able to book a taxi using a smartphone device.[3]

While Airbus plans to have a taxi prototype ready by the end of this year, it also hopes to have models of its flying vehicle for sale by as early as 2020.[4] The benefits of flying vehicles seem abundant, two obvious benefits being avoidance of congested roadways, as well as potentially faster travel times. Aside from the sheer convenience of a flying car, Mr. Enders believes that a product such as his company’s prototype could decrease costs for city infrastructure planners, as flying cars would not travel on roads or bridges that are often costly to maintain and repair.[5] Further, air pollution could be reduced significantly in a move toward flying vehicles, as Airbus is committed to making its flying vehicles fully electric.[6]

As intriguing as this idea may seem, there are certainly issues that will need to be addressed, as well as potential legal ramifications that could arise through the introduction of this product. Airbus believes the biggest task its team will face is making its CityAirbus taxi fly on its own, without a pilot.[7] Tesla has introduced a similar autopilot feature for its Tesla Model S automobile, but has faced criticism as reports of accidents have surfaced in the past year. Enders’ team faces an even taller task: ensuring that its autopilot feature is successful in the air.

There are a variety of potential disastrous lawsuits that the CityAirbus technology might cause. For one, if two CityAirbus taxis crash into each other, how is liability determined? Certainly the passengers in the flying vehicles would not be liable, as the passenger is not the one operating the self-flying car. Airbus would most certainly be legally responsible for these accidents. This could also extend further, encompassing situations in which Airbus vehicles malfunction and damage buildings, or worse, injure the passengers of the flying cars.

Regarding the risk of injury while using a CityAirbus taxi, it is likely that passengers would be given extensive warnings about the dangers and risks of using the vehicles. If the user sees these warnings and understands the dangers inherent in flying cars, yet still voluntarily decides to ride in the vehicle, wouldn’t this amount to implied assumption of risk and bar any negligence claims by the passenger against Airbus?

Further, a new legal framework would need to be developed for flying cars. Would flying cars have to abide by speed limits? Would owners of these vehicles who purchase them in 2020 have to obtain a “flying license,” even though the vehicle is self-operated? Would flying cars need insurance just like ordinary cars? Would federal government regulate all of these things, or would the states be responsible for creating guidelines for flying cars?[8]

These are not the only legal questions surrounding flying vehicles. Would there be restricted areas where flying cars could not travel, such as around airports? If so, how would these regulations be legally enforced, when law enforcement officials are busy fulfilling their duties on the ground? Cities and states might be required to purchase similar flying vehicles so that its law enforcement officers could travel in them to enforce these regulations in the air. Wouldn’t this certainly offset and likely exceed the cost savings for city infrastructure planners that Mr. Enders predicted? While only hypothetical questions today, these legal issues will likely arise eventually if the Airbus team is successful in introducing its prototype by the end of this year.

Flying cars could certainly offer obvious advantages, but it seems that Mr. Enders and his team have many questions to consider in its development of CityAirbus if the company is to ensure that its potentially historical technological advancement does not turn into a legal nightmare.

 

 

[1] See Forget Self-Driving Cars: Airbus Will Test a Prototype Flying-Taxi by the End of This Year, Reuters, Jan. 16, 2017, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4124412/Airbus-CEO-sees-flying-car-prototype-ready-end-year.html.

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See Victoria Bryan, Airbus CEO Sees ‘Flying Car’ Prototype Ready by End of Year, Reuters, Jan. 16, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-airbus-group-tech-idUSKBN1501DM.

[6] See Jay Bennett, Airbus Wants to Test its Flying Car Prototype This Year, Popular Mechanics, Jan. 16, 2017, http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/a24780/airbus-test-its-flying-car-prototype-2017/.

[7] See Forget Self Driving Cars, supra note 1.

[8] See Cory Smith, Soaring to New Heights: Flying Cars and the Law, Michigan Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev., Oct. 22, 2015, http://mttlr.org/2015/10/22/soaring-to-new-heights-flying-cars-and-the-law/.

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