Car Culture

Ford and University of Michigan want to know just how efficient flying cars could be

The study found that electrically powered flying cars would have an edge over gasoline-powered cars on longer trips, but just how useful is that information?

Jeremy Clarkson,when presented with an image of a flying car on The Grand Tour, said, "That's not a flying car, that's a picture of something that won't get built."

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Ford and the University of Michigan undertook a study recently to see just how efficient vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles would be when compared to both internal combustion cars and electric cars. The results, published in part on Tuesday by the Detroit News, are a little surprising.

First, we should clarify what exactly this study means when it talks about VTOLs. Specifically, it looked at the theoretical efficiency of electrically powered VTOL craft as opposed to something like, say, a Harrier jet. That makes a huge difference.

In any case, the Ford and U of M study found that for shorter trips of 22 miles and under, a car -- especially an electric -- one would be more efficient in terms of energy consumption. This is mostly down to the fact that getting a vehicle airborne takes massive amounts of energy. While getting a car up to road speed isn't that big of a deal.

Over 22 miles, though, and the aircraft starts to pull ahead. This is because once in the air, maintaining a cruising speed isn't especially taxing. Aircraft are, by their very nature designed to slip through the air with minimal resistance, so the motors aren't having to work very hard to maintain speed.

This works out to flying cars being 52% more efficient than a gasoline-powered car and 6% more efficient than an electric car on trips of over 62 miles. A 6% increase in energy efficiency isn't anything to write home about, particularly when you compare the likely cost disparity between an EV and a VTOL aircraft.

Still, it's interesting, right? But how did Ford and U of M get those numbers? Well, of course, we don't have any widely available flying cars in use by the public, so to get its data for the study, U of M had to go to several manufacturers of flying car prototypes and ask for access to their numbers. The small sample size and the experimental nature of this data aren't ideal.

Furthermore, this study doesn't take into account flying car efficiency versus other forms of transportation like light rail or buses. Nor does it make mention of potential costs to operators and consumers. The idea of flying cars is fun, but ultimately how likely is it that we'll see them in widespread use in our lifetime?

"As we focus on our commitment to deliver smart vehicles for a smart world, our teams will continue to investigate all innovation avenues that can deliver freedom of movement and drive human progress," said Ford representatives in a statement. "The work with U-M on the sustainability impacts of vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOLs) is a terrific example of our relentless drive for innovation."

Based on Ford's statement, my guess is that flying cars becoming commonplace is not very likely at all, at least not with help from the Blue Oval.