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How flying cars could help in the fight against climate change

Leila Miller, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Have you ever been stuck in traffic and wished you could zoom above the gridlock in a flying car? A new study predicts these futuristic vehicles could be good for your commute and good for the environment -- as long as they're used on long-distance trips with several carpool buddies.

The finding, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, could help guide the development of flying cars so they'll have more in common with a plug-in electric vehicle than a gas-guzzling SUV.

"We did not imagine that flying cars would have any role in a sustainable mobility system," said study leader Akshat Kasliwal, a graduate student at the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems. "We were surprised to see that they do."

These flying cars -- known officially as vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or VTOLs (pronounced "v-tolls") -- won't be getting off the ground regularly for a few more years, at least. But engineers already have a pretty good idea of how they would operate.

Generally speaking, they would begin their flights by rising straight into the air like a helicopter, then climb to at least 1,000 feet. Once they reach cruising altitude, they are capable of flying about 150 miles per hour. When it's time to land, the final descent would be vertical as well.

A VTOL could get in and out of tight spaces. The amount of real estate needed to park four school buses side by side would be more than enough.

 

But could a VTOL compete with traditional cars in terms of greenhouse gas emissions?

This is an important consideration, because scientists say the world needs to begin reducing its total emissions within the next decade to avoid the worst effects of climate change. By 2050 or so, they say, net carbon emissions will need to be nearly zero.

Cleaning up the transportation system will be a big part of that. Transportation is responsible for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S, and 60% of those emissions come from light duty vehicles like passenger cars, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

To see whether flying cars have a role to play in a sustainable future, Kasliwal and his co-authors from the University of Michigan and Ford Motor Co. compared a hypothetical battery-powered flying car to two vehicles that travel on the ground: a regular car powered by an internal combustion engine, and a battery-powered electric car.

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