Electric flying cars are nothing more than renowned helicopters

  • By David Fickling/Bloomberg Opinion

The Jetsons are back and they look green.

Electric flying taxis were the toast of the Singapore Airshow, which ended on February 18. AirAsia and a unit of Embraer SA have announced deals for nearly 200 of the futuristic vehicles, which have not yet passed the prototype stage.

These electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles have seen an explosion of interest in recent years, with an estimated $12.8 billion invested in the field since 2010, according to data from McKinsey & Co.

Photo: AFP

The promise of this burgeoning sector is that they are selling something fundamentally different from the original VTOL aircraft: helicopters.

Unlike their noisy, fuel-guzzling predecessors – the mode of transportation of choice for Bond villains and former US President Donald Trump – eVTOLs will quietly buzz a more ethical race of passengers between office and home, “connecting the communities” and linking city and suburbs “in one fast, smooth, emission-free flight.”

It’s a magnificent triumph of marketing over reality.

While eVTOLs promise real advancements in aviation technology, the investments made will not so much deliver that utopian future as rebrand the old dystopian helicopter industry for a new generation of super-rich people.

If the promise of quiet, affordable, emission-free transportation sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

Take energy efficiency. It has always been true that airplanes in cruise flight are remarkably efficient compared to cars and trains that use friction to laboriously drag themselves along the ground. The problem is how to get up there.

Climbing and, to a lesser extent, descent have always accounted for an inordinate amount of aircraft fuel consumption. This is especially the case with VTOL vehicles, which can use a substantial amount of their energy simply by hovering at treetop height. This means that the differences between an eVTOL used to travel from one city to another and one used to travel from one suburb to another are overwhelming.

A 2019 study in Nature Communications said eVTOLs could be more efficient than even electric cars for trips of 100km, but added that 85% of car trips are less than 35km – a level at which a conventional automobile energy-intensive results in roughly the same emissions. like the flying car.

Occupation also tends to be a critical assumption. A study last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argued that vehicles like the Larry Page-backed Kitty Hawk Heaviside are already more efficient than electric cars – but a crucial aspect of both analyzes is the The idea that ground modes should be judging by the 1.67 occupants carried per trip across the entire US fleet, while eVTOLs should be measured at ideal capacity levels.

This is not a reasonable comparison. If there isn’t a full complement of fresh passengers to pick up each time a flying car lands, its efficiency per passenger per kilometer drops dramatically.

These “empty” flights, where a plane travels to its next destination without any passengers, account for around two-fifths of trips in existing private jets. Indeed, there is a whole cottage industry dedicated to finding cheap tickets on them.

It’s a similar picture with noise pollution. By having multiple small rotors rather than one large one, most eVTOLs promise to be less noisy – “nearly 1,000 times quieter” than a helicopter, according to Archer Aviation Inc.

Although decibels are a useful objective measure of sound pressure, they don’t correlate much with the subjective annoyance factor for noise, which relates to harder-to-measure qualities such as frequency, duration, repetition, and frequency. how sound reflects off building surfaces in an urban environment. Noise also correlates a lot with distance, making an eVTOL quieter the higher its cruising altitude.

However, go higher and you will use more fuel again. It’s nearly impossible to be both energy efficient and quiet.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. For all the excitement about eVTOLs, they are likely to represent only a small part of overall traffic in the future, alongside the workhorses of low-cost buses, trains, cars and jets in which passengers will be crammed into ever smaller seats. .

The problem is that they distract from the real issues facing the aviation industry – above all, the question of how the vast majority of us will travel by the middle of this century without that our carbon emissions don’t destroy the atmosphere through which we fly.

About three-quarters of investment in future aviation technology since 2010 has gone into city flying taxis and similar technologies, says McKinsey & Co, with the pressing issue of sustainable aviation fetching pennies on the dollar by comparison.

A grimly plausible vision of the future will see token non-fungible billionaires traveling from San Francisco to their weekend getaways to Lake Tahoe, blithely unaware of their true carbon footprint.

The townspeople they fly over will be stuck in endless traffic, which the political system never seems to manage to resolve.

Once they get home, they’ll be constantly buzzed with the noise of eVTOLs they could never afford to fly, thanks to how bogus decibel arguments managed to loosen long-standing eVTOL noise regulations. planes.

eVTOLs may be the future of mobility. If they are, it’s not something to be proud of. It is an admission that transportation policy – ​​designed to move the mass of humanity from place to place, rather than to serve the interests of an unwitting elite – has utterly failed.

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