One of the greatest hopes in the fight against irreversible climate change caused by harmful emissions is the evolution from cars with internal combustion engines to electric alternatives powered by renewable energy sources.
Within 20 years, petrol and diesel engine vehicles are likely to be banned. The UK’s stated ambition is for at least half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric or hybrid and the aim is for all new vehicles to be electric by 2040. It won’t, alone, solve the world’s man-made pollution problems but will certainly have a major positive impact.
However, recent research published in the Nature Communications journal highlights a new danger that could, if not recognised, undo much of the good work – flying cars. Driverless vehicles technology receives far more media attention for now but there are a number of serious flying car projects that are also well advanced. Boeing, Airbus and Uber are all working on car-sized flying vehicles. Uber hopes its Nexus ‘air taxi’ will be operating commercially and able to be hailed from its app by as soon as 2023.
But while the flying car projects currently underway are all based on electrically-powered vehicles, the research suggests they might still not be particularly environmentally friendly. Which could mean, if the numbers of the drone-like flying cars in use grows significantly, the benefits of a drop in regular land-bound cars burning petrol and diesel, being counteracted.
The research’s authors assessed the lifetime carbon footprint expected from flying cars, based on what is currently known of existing projects. They will use a lot more electricity than land cars. Which means, unless that electricity comes from renewable sources, which most of it wouldn’t based on today’s energy mix, their total emissions will be higher than today’s standard petrol-engine cars. Their carbon footprint would only drop lower than that on longer journeys, where the amount of energy needed to take off and land would be a smaller part of the overall trip ratio.
The research’s authors argue that environmental impact should be recognised now and regulation put in place to make sure flying cars don’t undo all of the lower emissions benefits realised by the transition towards electric cars on the roads.
Venture capital and the big tech companies such as Uber are keen on flying cars for a number of reasons. Driverless technology might be easier to realise as there are less variables to take account of in the air. By making transport networks ‘3D’ they are also seen as a valuable means to ease congestion in big cities.
But as exciting as it might be to think we may be able to book a flying car trip to our hotel from the airport, neatly avoiding any traffic holdups, in as little as five years, we have to be careful the environmental benefits of the latest technology in the world are not neutralised by other new technologies.