The Only Way Is Up
If your natural inclination is towards skepticism consider that the hardware has already been developed, and that the Artificial Intelligence innovation required to fly the taxis and manage the airspace is likewise in place.
I was recently in Edinburgh, a city I had last visited six years ago. Within hours of my arrival, I was walking through the suburb of Haymarket in search of food and historical stimulus.
Off a quiet street of terraced Edwardian houses undergoing various stages of renovation, I spied what I assumed to be a palace of some significance. And, looping back towards the high street, I poked my head into the vestibule of St Mary’s cathedral. It was quiet and Gothic and magnificent.
Edinburgh is a city of darkened sandstone, wrapped around an imposing hill with a Castle perched on top of it. On a sunny day the are few better places; when it rains, it's still hard to beat.
Culturally assuaged, I turned to more primitive concerns: where to find a decent haggis and 10-year-old Laphroaig single malt. Actually, that’s not entirely true: haggis is sustenance to those who confuse gastronomy with masochism, and Laphroaig is best enjoyed on special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, Wednesdays, Thursdays and weekends. I opted instead for salted beef at the Voyage of Buck – a gastro bar of mahogany and wall-papered walls. And I thought about Jan Jurasek, the Uber driver who’d collected me from the airport earlier that day.
I sat in the front passenger seat anticipating a brief conversation on the 11km trip to my hotel. My judgement proved lacking on two fronts: the first, that Jan, a jovial Czech, had clearly just emerged from a long vow of silence and was determined to make up for lost time. The other, Edinburgh traffic.
Sadly, the Scottish capital has not escaped this modern affliction, its infrastructure simply unable to cope with the number of cars. A situation not helped by its reliance on the cursed roundabout, a prime example of humanity’s propensity for solutions that make the problem worse.
So, to pass the time, I found myself regaled by stories of Jan’s youth, his days as a care-free engineering student and the complexities of his decision to seek out a simpler life in Scotland. And the trauma of a brief career in the hospitality industry. And the ups-and-downs of life with a Bulgarian partner. And the shortcomings of the national health service. And his not-unambitious-nor-brief dreams for the future.
I emerged from his Toyota Yaris a broken and somewhat confused man. A journey of 11km had taken 47 minutes. Or, put another way, roughly half a million words. At that speed, it would have taken us seven hours to finish the Comrades Marathon – well out of silver medal contention.
There are, according to most estimates, over a billion cars on the road globally. By 2040 that figure will have leapt towards two billion. If contemporary transport models continue to be relied upon, the impact on an already overburdened highway system is simply too horrendous to contemplate. As it is, we’re spending a week of our lives each year cooped up in our cars in peak hour traffic. And there isn’t a radio station, rock star or podcaster on this planet able to make that a bearable prospect.
And, as it was technology that got us into this mess, it’s to technology that we must turn to get us out. More than that, a technology that is accessible and has, as its ultimate concern, the wellbeing of the planet.
On a rough head count, about a hundred established and start-up companies are currently working on autonomous passenger drone innovation that could well provide part of the solution. These are so-called Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles designed to fly within our cities. They’ll operate independently of humans, at lower altitudes than most other air traffic and at lower speeds. Their developers insist they’ll be safe, quiet and affordable.
And, if your natural inclination is towards scepticism consider that the hardware has already been developed, and that the Artificial Intelligence innovation required to fly the taxis and manage the airspace is likewise in place. Unsurprisingly, it’s the regulators and bureaucrats – the people who brought us the Home Affairs’ approach to customer service, the Zeppelin and dreaded roundabout - who are holding up the works. Once they fall in line, hailing a flying taxi might become as routine to all of us as catching an Uber.
One missing ingredient, of course, will be the Jan Juraseks of this world. And that, I confess, makes me a little sad.
John Webb began his career in journalism as a wide-eyed cub reporter at news agency Network Radio News in 1997. He joined Talk Radio 702 in 1999 as a reporter and news reader and was assigned to major news stories. John then joined Carte Blanche in 2004, where he presented current affairs programmes from the field. He spent four years with European sports broadcaster Setanta Sports as a presenter and producer, returning to South Africa in 2013 to take up a six-month contract as host of "Talk at Nine" on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. In March 2014, John was the Pretoria field anchor for the highly successful Oscar Pistorius Trial.
You can follow @journojohn on Twitter.