Will Flying Cars Provide a Sustainable Means of Transport in the Near Future?

Flying to work in your new VTOL may not be as sustainable as you think.
Donovan Alexander

Flying cars have been a staple of the future. From the Jetsons to Back to the Future, pop culture has consistently associated the future with flying cars, vehicles that will take you through the air on your commute to work.


Companies like Sebastian Thrun’s Kitty Hawk and Uber have already made promises to have flying cars up and running in the coming years. If anything the future is here.

However in a global environment even more concerned about sustainability, it is important to ask the questions: what roles will flying cars have in sustainable mobility and will they outperform their grounded counterparts?

Luckily a group of researchers from the University of Michigan has explored this question in a recent study published in the April 9 issue of Nature Communications.

VTOL: A Sustainable Niche

Flying cars also go by another name because of their specific characteristics. Dubbed VTOLs or electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, the flying cars will have the ability to take off like a helicopter but maintain the efficient aerodynamic flight of a small plane.  

There are obvious benefits to flying cars. In congested areas and limited geographic regions, VTOLs could be a godsend helping drastically lower the number of cars on the roads, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and of course, lessening traffic. No more tedious LA traffic.


In the University of Michigan, study researchers discovered that flying cars perform well when in general when compared to traditional cars. Gregory Keoleian, senior author of the study and director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability, shared these findings in the report.

"To me, it was very surprising to see that VTOLs were competitive with regard to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in certain scenarios. VTOLs with full occupancy could outperform ground-based cars for trips from San Francisco to San Jose or from Detroit to Cleveland.”

Researchers found that fully loaded trips for 100 kilometers created lower greenhouse gas emissions than ground-based cars with an average vehicle occupancy of 1.54. Overall VTOL emissions were 52 percent lower than gasoline vehicles and 6 percent lower than battery-electric vehicles.

However, the story does not end there.

Short Commutes Might Not Be Sustainable.

So for long road or air trips across a region, VTOLs are a great option, however, when it comes to short commutes, VTOLs may not be the best option. Researchers found that anything less than 35 kilometers VTOLs actually produced more greenhouse gas emissions than a single-occupant internal-combustion-engine vehicle.

As stated in the study, "As a result, the trips where VTOLs are more sustainable than gasoline cars only make up a small fraction of total annual vehicle-miles traveled on the ground. Consequently, VTOLs will be limited in their contribution and role in a sustainable mobility system."