Recently, I have become a little obsessed with “flying cars”. Or at least the kind of transportation that’s most popular in Silicon Valley right now.
Many companies believe it’s time for a change in the aviation industry. They believe that revolutionary transportation will come in the form of eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing): electric vehicles that can take off and land vertically. In simple terms, small electric aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter and fly like a traditional airplane.
If eVTOLs can be developed and approved by regulators, they could change the way we think about flying. But this “what if” is full of unknowns, and the industry still has many burning questions to answer before these new flying machines can become a reality. So now, let’s look at eVTOLs: what are they? How close is it to takeoff? Are they good news for the climate?
What are eVTOLs, and why are companies developing them?
By definition, there are many promising possibilities for this type of electric aircraft, but eVTOLs basically include anything that can take off and land vertically. To many, most of them look like mechanical bugs, or something the villain in a 007 movie drives.
Trying to compare eVTOLs to existing aircraft is tricky. Some people call them flying cars, but they’re not usually designed to move on the ground. They are probably the closest thing to an electric helicopter, though they fly differently.
Whatever you call them, there are literally hundreds of companies working to get eVTOLs into the skies.
A lot of the excitement centers on the fact that these vehicles can give flying new roles: to complete last-mile deliveries in remote areas, transport people or organs to hospitals, or avoid the terrible traffic conditions of big cities. .
In fact, the existing strong public transportation system is sufficient to meet most transportation needs, and an eVTOLs company plans to provide services that transport passengers from Newark Airport in New York to downtown Manhattan, but it is not necessary. But given the current state of infrastructure, especially in the United States, eVTOLs companies see an opportunity to get people around quickly.
How far have these things developed?
There are some well-funded eVTOLs startups working hard to build the next milestone. Two of the largest, Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation, are based in the United States. Europe also has some late start startups, including Germany’s Lilium.
So far, no eVTOLs companies have launched commercial services, although several have announced plans to start commercial operations in 2025.
Companies are currently testing prototype aircraft and showing what they can do — a company called Autoflight last month broke the world record for the longest flight distance by eVTOLs. The plane flew 250km, some 1.6km longer than Joby’s previous record.
While the test flight results are impressive, we are still a long way from seeing commercial eVTOLs take to the air.
Getting approval from regulators can be a thorny issue. Regulators in both the U.S. and the European Union plan to classify eVTOLs as a special category of aircraft, meaning they will be subject to a different set of flight requirements than conventional aircraft. There is still some uncertainty as to how the whole classification and certification process will work, especially in the US.
Still, some companies are moving forward at an accelerated pace. In early 2023, Archer began construction of a manufacturing facility in the US state of Georgia that could begin production as early as 2024, capable of producing 650 aircraft a year.
What do eVTOLs mean for the climate?
Swapping fossil-fuel-powered planes for electric ones could be a good thing for the climate.
Electric planes that charge from the common grid can reduce carbon emissions by about 50 percent compared to conventional, fossil-fuel-dependent planes. If the grid is powered by renewable energy, the reduction increases to 88%. Most of the remaining emissions come from the production of batteries, as they are likely to be used and recharged frequently, and batteries may need to be replaced on an annual basis.
But when it comes to the impact of eVTOLs on the climate, the most important consideration is that these vehicles may not replace fossil fuel-powered aircraft. eVTOLs are primarily about extending the reach of flight, so it may need to be compared to ground vehicles like trains or cars.
There isn’t a whole lot of analysis out there yet, but one study found that eVTOLs emit 30% less emissions per 100 kilometers than gasoline-powered cars, but 30% more than EVs.