Sorry Elon, driverless passenger drones will be the vehicular disruption of the future

Henry Ford famously said that if you asked people what they wanted, they wouldn’t have said “ a car.”  They would have said – “a faster horse.”

I believe driverless cars are today’s equivalent of faster horses. A continuation of what exists – not a true category break. Predictable but not revolutionary enough.

That takes me to Elon Musk, who is probably our most passionate and visible autonomous hero.

As a fellow car enthusiast, I admire him.  As a tech entrepreneur, I respect him.  And there’s no doubt that Elon has been right most of the time.  (As for Solar City, I will wait for the sunlight of the future to pass judgment, but I’m a believer).

So I hate to diverge from his vision of driverless cars. Yes, in the future we will not drive ourselves. Machines will do it for us – but let me tell you — those machines will be looking down, from above, on the Interstate Highway System.

I believe we will skip driverless cars and go straight into driverless drones.

Cartoon illustration of a flying car passing above other land vehicles

Image: CurvaBezi/Getty Images

Don’t get me wrong – I realize the many benefits that driverless cars could deliver –  fewer accidents, lower costs getting from A to B, and perhaps most important, freeing up time.

In the U.S. alone, the average commute time by car is 24 minutes each way. That means the average commuter will spend ~200,000 minutes focused on the road just to get to and from work. Add in all the other trips we make in our cars – shopping, appointments and travel destinations, and the amount of time we spend with our brains engaged in driving rather than other creative activities we would choose to focus on, is astonishing.

But all those benefits, could solve problems not just of individuals, but also address a range of societal challenges if we moved from cars straight to drones.

What if – instead of driverless cars – we extended ourselves vertically up to 500M, with driverless passenger drones, parking overhead and always ready to pick us up, taking us to our desired destination.

Let me stop you right now and admit my deep bias.

As much as I love cars, I am also a big drone fanatic. I love extending myself into the sky, and discovering landscapes I could never see, at 4k resolution. I used to operate a DJI Phantom 3 drone, then the 4, and now I’m waiting for my Mavic drone to be delivered (which like any other good thing, is delayed, of course).

Apparently I’m not alone in my drone obsession. According to data pulled from the Taboola network in the US, people read about drones about 250,000 times every day.

Developing an autonomous drone is actually technologically easier than ground-based autonomous vehicles, which have to take into account pedestrians, low-quality roads, and unexpected objects.

Not only can a driverless drone be safer, it is probably cheaper to produce on a mass scale, given that it requires less sophisticated technology. I imagine a driverless drone to be as simple as taking an elevator, only an horizontal one – you click a button, and the drone just flies there. Perhaps even Uber could unleash an army of driverless drones to float above us, just ready to go “on demand”. (They just have to replace Waze with in-app turbulence reports)

With 500 meters of airspace suddenly at our disposal, versus the 50 feet of vertical real estate we’ve been concentrating our lives in for the last 200,000 years as homo sapiens — things like parking problems, traffic congestion, and road construction would be history.

And the regulations are on my side. When you buy a drone, for the most part it comes with a pre-configured restriction that they can fly up to 500m high.  That’s just high enough.

Earlier this year, I actually sat in a personal passenger drone, which I admit was a bit frightening, but also so exciting to get a glance into the future.

It’s time we start to think higher, spread our wings, and get on board with driverless passenger drones, skipping driverless cars.  And faster horses.

Perhaps The Jetsons had it figured out all along.