Unless you’re a pilot or a scuba diver, your daily commute exists in two dimensions, a flat plane if you will. You get into your car and you crawl along the surface of the Earth on clearly defined roads, just like everyone else. And when enough people do this at the same time, traffic gets clogged like your arteries after a regret-filled binge of bacon-topped Krispy Kremes.
But when have the laws of physics ever limited humans? Imagine getting into your car, and, rather than merging onto a freeway, flying up, up, up into the third dimension, through a blue sky filled with possibilities, and free as a lark with no traffic or surly drivers to contend with.
Decades in the making, flying cars are closer to reality than ever, with plenty of concept vehicles in development and prototype models demonstrated at special events. But turning these dreams into widespread reality, a form of transportation suitable for daily public use, is an entirely different story.
We’re talking years, and perhaps decades, before we’re whizzing around like George Jetson because keeping them in the air is just the start. Other problems requiring resolution before people like you and me can commute this way include safety, noise, pollution, infrastructure, and government regulations.
And after all of that is solved, there is the issue of cost. Will a flying car be price-competitive with a Honda Civic? Probably not.
In Theory, Flying Cars Will Pollute Less
Nevertheless, someone is always thinking ahead, and as far as pollution concerns go, a study by the journal Nature Communications concludes that flying cars could have less of an environmental impact than previously thought.
Given the proper circumstances – a trip of about 100 kilometers, or 62 miles – with three passengers on board, the emissions from an electrically powered vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft would more resemble that of a plug-in electric car than a fuel-quaffing pickup truck.
It simply takes more energy to get an object moving from rest and into motion, and less energy to keep the momentum going. When you are driving, you use more fuel to get your car moving from a stop than you do to keep it moving. That’s why your fuel economy driving in the city, which requires much more stopping and going, is worse than your highway mileage when you are cruising.
(This, by the way, is why hybrids like the Toyota Prius, which use an electric motor to assist with acceleration, and also recover energy slowing down, often get better fuel economy in the city.)
Similarly, it takes a lot of energy for a VTOL vehicle to take off to a flying altitude of about 1,000 feet and land, but not much energy to fly. And because, theoretically, once aloft, the VTOL won’t perform additional lift offs and landings – unlike cars that constantly need to stop and accelerate – it will use less energy overall.
VTOLs Predicted to Save Time, Too
Researchers also measured how much electricity is necessary to power the vehicles, and the pollution associated with creating that electric power.
Based on findings that modern cars carry, on average, 1.54 passengers at a given time, researchers based this scenario on a VTOL ferrying four people, including the pilot. They also assumed that VTOLs would be used for longer trips of about 120 km, or about 75 miles. Their conclusion was that with the VTOL, greenhouse gas emissions on a per-km and per-person basis would be 52% less than a vehicle with a regular gas engine, and 6% lower than an electric vehicle.
What’s also compelling is that this study further postulates that you would save 83% of your time during the commute, because it assumes that your cruising speed is about 150 mph. That means a VTOL completes a 60-mile commute in about 24 minutes.
Consider that a best-case scenario for saving time, though, because researchers based it on a commute from Malibu, Calif., to Irvine. That geographically challenged route requires drivers to use roads that suffer the worst traffic backups imaginable, and anyone who might have such a commute would get up before dawn to avoid certain insanity. Thus, to Southern Californians, another appeal of flying cars is that you’ll get more sleep.
Clearly, this research is based on a lot of what-ifs. For instance, did the researchers account for Los Angeles International Airport approach and departure flight paths when creating their timesaving estimate for the Malibu to Irvine VTOL flight?
Nevertheless, the idea of actually using VTOLs is exciting. But I am not looking forward to early-adopter smugness from the same people who once strutted around in their Google Glass eyewear, bragging about their cool new flying car.