Study: Mixed Environmental Impact for Flying Cars

Flying electric cars make environmental sense, but only on relatively long, one-way trips with multiple passengers on board, according to study published in Nature Communications.

The authors, who include researchers from Ford Motor Co. and the University of Michigan, say vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft could play a useful “niche role” as ride-share air taxis for trips longer than 22 miles.

Under those conditions, such vehicles could reduce congestion and improve air quality. But VTOLs consume a lot of energy to get off the ground, and their economics falter for shorter trips, according to the authors. They note that the average car commute is about 11 miles.

Several carmakers, tech companies and startups are developing and testing prototype VTOLs. Among them are Airbus, Aston Martin, Audi, Daimler, PAL-V, Terrafugia, Toyota and Uber. The Ford/U-M researches used publicly available from some of these tests to calculate well-to-wing/wheel energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

On baseline 100-km (62-mile) trip, an electric VTOL carrying three people generates 52% fewer emissions than a midsize piston-powered ground vehicle with an average occupancy rate of 1.5 people, according to the study. The advantage drops to 35% when the VTOL carries only one person.

Compared with an electric car, a fully loaded VTOL generates 6% fewer emissions over 100 km. But emissions are 28% higher when it’s just the pilot in the flying car.