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.
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.