Flying Cars Will Be Better for the Planet – But Only on Long Trips

Artistic rendering of an electric vertical takeoff and landing taxi cruising through an urban center. (Dave Brenner / University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability)

(CN) – Flying cars – a future promised to a generation of Americans who grew up watching the 1960s cartoon “The Jetsons” – will eventually add a whole new dimension to transportation, but for now researchers are weighing in on whether that future will help or hurt the planet.

A new study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications found people will make better use of greenhouse emissions by using their flying electric cars for longer trips or hopping into a ride-share flying taxi service.

Commonly referred to as VTOL, or vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, these helicopter-airplane hybrids will one day become another factor in the equation of meeting transportation demand. But the vehicles must also reduce congestion, improve safety and cut down on emissions that cause climate change, according to the study. 

Most flying cars envisioned will not produce emissions during flight, but they still require batteries charged on the electrical grid. The researchers found a 62-mile trip in a fully loaded VTOL – carrying a pilot and three passengers – produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the same trip in ground-based car carrying one to two people.

Emissions from a VTOL were 52 percent lower than gasoline vehicles and 6 percent lower than battery-electric vehicles, according to the study by the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems and the Ford Motor Company. 

But VTOL trips shorter than 22 miles used more energy and produced more greenhouse gas emissions than cars on the road making similar journeys. The researchers studied prototypes from NASA and other companies and found VTOLs use the most energy at takeoff and landing but are most efficient in cruising phase doing 150 mph – and cruising phase of a 22-mile trip is too short to produce energy savings over road vehicles.

Study author Akshat Kasliwal said the research is necessary to provide the groundwork for a sustainable deployment of this new transportation model before it succumbs to mass commercialization.

“With these VTOLs, there is an opportunity to mutually align the sustainability and business cases,” Kasliwal said. “Not only is high passenger occupancy better for emissions, it also favors the economics of flying cars. Further, consumers could be incentivized to share trips, given the significant time savings from flying versus driving.”

Flying aircraft humming overhead in a neon metropolis might sound exciting, but in the last five years tech giant Amazon already launched its own drone delivery service and ride-hail service Uber has flirted with the idea of rolling out its own VTOL fleet in the next decade.

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