Artists impression of a flying car above a city scape.

Flying cars could be coming soon! Image: Dave Brenner/University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability

People have been dreaming of flying cars for more than a century, and they’re almost here. There are plans to test a flying taxi from Melbourne airport as soon as next year. Flying cars are quick and oh-so-cool, but are they good for the planet?

There are plenty of advantages to a flying car, particularly in big, busy cities. Flying cars don’t get held up in traffic, and they’re not stuck on winding roads. That makes them quick, saving the energy of running an engine while travelling at a snail’s pace. Flying cars are also electric, so some of the energy they use comes from renewables such as solar or wind.

It’s not all good news though. It takes a lot of energy for a flying car to climb to a safe height, about 300 metres above the ground. And flying takes energy for every second up in the air.

So what’s the verdict? Could flying cars help fight climate change? A team of researchers from the United States recently crunched the numbers. Looking at energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, the answer was mixed.

On short trips, flying cars were very inefficient. They used a lot of energy climbing upwards, sometimes more than they did cruising to the destination. On trips with longer cruise times, flying cars performed better.

Overall, greenhouse gas emissions due to flying cars were lower than petrol cars, if the trip was at least 35 kilometres. However, emissions weren’t as low as with a ground-based electric car. Except in very particular conditions.

For some journeys, a full flying car carrying three passengers will result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a couple of electric taxis, each with one or two passengers. Since flying cars are likely to be more expensive than regular taxis, sharing could be quite common. And people aren’t going to mind sharing if it’s much faster than a ground-based car.

It’s easy to get excited by new technology, so it’s important that we look at the consequences. But if we use them right, flying cars could be a great way to get around and help save our planet too!

Cars and climate

Petrol cars make carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as they burn fuel. Electric cars don’t make these gases directly, but they use a lot of electricity, and often that electricity comes from burning coal or natural gas.
To compare greenhouse emissions from different sources, such as in this research, scientists use a measurement called carbon dioxide equivalents or CO2e.

If you’re after more on future flight, stay tuned for our 1 December 2019 issue of Double Helix magazine. Subscribe to Double Helix to receive this issue!

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