Flying cars have role to play in sustainable mobility

Researchers at the University of Michigan have published a study showing that flying cars could play a niche role in sustainable mobility for longer trips. Several companies around the world are already developing prototypes.

Flying cars, formally known as electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft or VTOLs, may seem like something out a sci-fi film. But according to researchers from the University of Michigan, they could play a role today in addressing our modern urban mobility roles.

In a study published last week in Nature Communications, the researchers argue that VTOLs, which take off and land vertically like a helicopter and are aerodynamically efficient like an airplane, could be especially useful in congested cities as part of a ride-share taxi service.

“To me it was surprising to see that VTOLs were competitive with regard to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in certain scenarios,” said senior author Gregory Keoleian. “VTOLs with full occupancy could outperform ground-based car trips from San Francisco to San Jose or from Detroit to Cleveland, for example.”

The study, which was conducted by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan together with a research and advanced engineering team from American automaker Ford, looked at the time savings, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of VTOLs, which produce zero emissions during flight but use batteries that need to be charged.

They found that for trips of 100 kilometres, a fully loaded VTOL with a pilot and three passengers had 52 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions that ground-based cars with an average vehicle occupancy of 1.54 and 6 per cent less emissions than electric vehicles.

However, for shorter trips of less than 35 kilometres, the researchers found that single-occupancy conventional cars used less energy and produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions than single-occupancy VTOLs. According to the study, this is an important consideration given that the average ground-based vehicle commute is only about 17 kilometres. As such, while a business case exists for VTOLs, their role in a sustainable mobility system will be limited to niche areas such as ride-sharing.

Several aerospace start-ups, industry giants such as Airbus and Boeing, and agencies like NASA are already developing VTOLs prototypes.

Image credit: Dave Brenner/University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability

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