Electrified aircraft could make flying cars a reality

April 11, 2019

Those 1950s magazine covers with stylized flying cars zipping around may have been onto something after all. Ford Motor Company and the University of Michigan released the results of a study on Tuesday that suggests vertical take-off and landing contraptions—think cars with wings—may make some sense as an eco-friendly alternative to ground transportation thanks to electrification. 

There's a catch, of course. 

The study found that electrified VTOLs are most efficient on trips exceeding 62 miles to compensate for energy lost during takeoff and landing. A cruising VTOL is more efficient than a vehicle on the ground that has to slow down and accelerate with the flow of traffic. 

READ THIS: Study shows that people have concerns about flying cars for some reason

On a 62-mile trip, emissions tied to the VTOL were 52 percent lower than a gasoline-powered vehicle and even 6 percent lower than a battery-electric vehicle. The study assumed the electrified aircraft charged its batteries on the ground from a power source fed with fossil fuels, which explains why there was any emissions impact. 

Where the VTOL is least efficient is where builders want commercialize the vehicles: short-distance travel. Firms such as Uber have imagined hopping onto a VTOL to quickly dart across town and skip gridlocked traffic. However, the study found VTOLs use the most energy during a take-off and climb period. These vehicles would perform numerous take-offs and climb periods if used for short-distance trips across town.

Thus, a gasoline-powered car would actually produce fewer emissions than an electric VTOL for a trip lasting 22 miles. The average ground-based commute is 11 miles, which leaves VTOL as perhaps an unnecessarily complex option for quick trips.

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