Are flying cars more efficient than road vehicles? Yes, sometimes

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Flying car render Dave Brenner/University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability

Flying cars may be the stuff of Syd Mead‘s futurist illustrations, but they are close enough to reality that researchers at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems have teamed with the Ford Motor Company to study the possible environmental impact of electrically powered vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. Known by the acronym VTOL, such small aircraft are popularly called “flying cars.” The study found that like earthbound cars, commuting to your job by yourself with a privately owned VTOL aircraft wouldn’t be very environmentally sensitive, but that for longer trips or as urban ride-sharing jitneys, they could make sense.

Published in the Nature Communications scientific journal, and funded by Ford, the study is the first look into the sustainability of VTOL vehicles. It concluded that “VTOLs offer fast, predictable transportation and could have a niche role in sustainable mobility.” Researchers also said that because flying is usually faster than driving, travelers would be incentivized to share rides, reducing environmental impact per passenger mile.

Aircraft need a lot of energy to escape the bounds of gravity. The study found that for trips of fewer than 22 miles, a single-occupant car powered by gasoline has less environmental impact than a VTOL flying the same distance with one passenger. When the distance is increased to 62 miles (100 km), however, potential emissions of VTOLs were 52 percent lower than those of comparable gasoline-powered vehicles, and even 6 percent less than those of battery-electric cars.

As no company has actually started producing and selling flying cars as of yet, the researchers used a physics-based model based on prototype information released by those firms proposing VTOL vehicles to calculate anticipated energy use and related emissions.

In a statement quoted by the Detroit News, the lead author on the paper published on the study,  Gregory Keoleian, said, “To me, it was very surprising to see that VTOLs were competitive with regard to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in certain scenarios.” Keoleian is the director of the Center for Sustainable Systems, part of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

Ford, which has recently been investing large sums on future mobility solutions, said in a statement, “As we focus on our commitment to deliver smart vehicles for a smart world, our teams will continue to investigate all innovation avenues that can deliver freedom of movement and drive human progress.”

This would not be the Ford company’s first interest in aviation. The Ford Trimotor airplane was a major factor in the development of commercial passenger aviation in the 1920s and Henry Ford even tried to develop his own flying car, so to speak. After the success of the Trimotor, in 1926 Ford had a number of prototypes made for a small, single passenger airplane called the Ford Flivver that he wanted to be “the Model T of the air.” When test pilot Harry Brooks, a friend of Henry Ford, crashed his Flivver into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida and died, Ford abandoned the project.

Henry Ford never, though, gave up on the idea of a flying car. In 1940, he said, ”Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”

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