You've probably wished cars could fly, especially when you’re stuck in traffic and hurrying to an appointment. But did you know that this wish could become a reality in the near future? A study recently showed that flying cars would one day be in use. The study further asserted that if used for long-distance commutes, these cars would be environmentally friendly, too.
We agree that this might seem like a lofty dream, but it is actually an attainable goal. Flying cars have been touted as the futuristic cars for a long time now. Even Uber announced that it'd hold trials for its 'aerial ride-sharing service' in Melbourne. The service (costing about the same as UberX) will work by moving people from the rooftop of one building to a rooftop of another building. Don't be too eager yet as commercial operations won't begin any time before 2023.
Volocopter, the Transition and more
Wilko Stark, VP Strategy & Future Tech at Mercedes Benz, some time ago projected that moving to airspace was the only room for improvement left in the automobile industry. Mercedes Benz has currently invested in an airspace project called Volocopter and already carried out tests.
According to Stark, we’re now at the crossroads of futuristic forms of transportation that are safer, more comfortable, and beyond imagination. He added, “We envision a third dimension, with drones that can fly people for inner-city transport, with a range of 30-50 km. It’s a very challenging time, but we really have a chance now to change the future, and embrace the future.”
Toyota also announced that it had plans to use its Skydrive at the postponed Tokyo Olympics. Lotus and Volvo are also invested in a US-based company Terrafugia that is building a roadable aircraft named the Transition and a flying car named the TF-X.
Toyota explained that carmakers are interested in these vehicles because “they can take the lead in a disruptive technology at a time when they are faced with becoming car assemblers as others come to the fore in autonomous technologies."
No wonder why automakers like Geely and Toyota are moving to get in on the action of developing flying cars. The Transition model currently reflects how flying cars would look like, i.e. a combination of light aircraft elements within the body of a vehicle. It also shows one of the main obstacles of flying cars – they need runaways to get off from the ground.
Vertical take-off & landing vehicles
But those two aren’t the only companies having a foothold in this venture. Other companies such as Lithium, Rolls-Royce, and Vertical Aerospace have also shown commitment in the idea. The companies have lauded vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles as the way forward. The main concern, though, lies in the power requirements of these vehicles.
According to Ian Constance, CEO Advanced Propulsion Centre, the concept of flying a car at present remains to be one for the rich and only a few will be built. Its practical future application, he said, would be "in pay-per-use as a taxi, and that means testing methods will have to account for both road and air use. That brings many conflicts as it requires a large amount of energy to get a vehicle airborne."
However, the University of Michigan through a study seems to have put this concern to bed. The study aimed at the environmental impact of these cars revealed that they would actually be a better and greener option than EVs.
Dr. Gregory Keoleian, director of the Centre for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan expressed his surprise upon seeing how the VTOLs performed with regard to energy efficiency and clean emissions. He stated that, “VTOLs with full occupancy could outperform ground-based cars for trips from San Francisco to San Jose or from Detroit to Cleveland, for example.”
The team conducting the study reviewed the five phases of VTOL flight, that is, take-off hover, climb, cruise, descent and landing hover. The findings were that VTOLs used a lot of power in the first two phases compared to the rest. They are most efficient on long distances dominated by the third-phase cruising.
In the New Scientist magazine, Dr. Keoleian, who is part of the team that was conducting the study, stated that VTOL vehicles have 6% and 52% less emission than BEVs and ICEVs, respectively. Besides, VTOLs are also faster since they can move from one point to another easily as crows do.
"The VTOL is particularly energy-intensive during take-off and descent, the cruise phase of the flight, however, is much more efficient, and over long distances, makes fully loaded VTOLs competitive with ground-based vehicles," explained Keoleian.
Being realistic and all, 6% isn't a huge difference, but it is something. On the downside, these cars have poor efficiency when used for shorter distance (> 35kms). In this case, the power required to get off and land is more compared to what EVs would use covering the distance. At this point, flying cars will only be viable when used as carpools for longer journeys.
How close are we?
Flying cars have always been a dream for automobile designers and engineers since the dawn of the motoring age. These cars could potentially solve the traffic snarl problem. Sure, the involved companies have made considerable progress, but how close are they attaining the goal?
Flying cars and drones
Automakers and experts in the industry have drawn parallelism between flying cars and drones, as the latter has achieved success beforehand. PAL-V, a Dutch-based company applies the autogyro principles in its Liberty project. These principles and design give the PAL-V an advantage of a smaller area to take off and land.
The PAL-V is still a costly project - to the tune of £350,000 inclusive of training expenses. Cost and complexity concerns need to be managed if companies are to achieve the success of a flying car. The flying car dream remains fairly out-of-reach for the time being, but one thing is inevitable, we'll get there.
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By Sam O.