Will flying cars of the near future be sustainable? – 06/08/2021 – Rodrigo Tavares

In the first decades of the 20th century an often bloody war was fought in the streets of the cities. Pedestrians and cars fought for the right to enjoy public space.

Cars were initially demonized in the press for their high rate of pedestrian obituaries, but the first traffic control laws (in 1928 in Los Angeles) eventually dictated the car’s ultimate victory. Pedestrians were pushed onto the sidewalks and forced to respect lanes to cross roads, shortening the wide spatial freedom they previously enjoyed.

A similar war is about to be fought, now for the dominance of airspace. More than 150 companies are developing some type of eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles), including Embraer. Japan’s government, one of the most visionary in air mobility, wants the use of “flying cars” to become a common practice as early as 2025.

Morgan Stanley estimates the market size at $1.5 trillion by 2040. Lawmakers, air traffic control agencies, investors and corporations are moving to create the foundation conditions for this market to take off—literally.

One of the arguments recurrently used by the best eVTOLs is that of sustainability. The road policy fueled by fossil fuels generates chronic problems of public health, urban mobility, and environmental sustainability.

eVTOLs, on the other hand, will be cleaner compared to cars. A University of Michigan study showed that eVTOLs emit 52% less (compared to gasoline cars) and 6% less greenhouse gases (compared to electric cars) if used over distances of 100 km.

But are eVTOLs truly sustainable if we interpret sustainability as a holistic concept that considers the environmental, social and economic dimensions?

The vast majority of eVTOLs carry less than a handful of passengers, reinforcing the individualism and dehumanization of urban mobility. Current critics of individual versus collective transport will have a new target audience to direct their arrows.

Another consequence of flying cars is hyperaccess. Mobility will be customized to each person’s personality and the notion of distance will be reinterpreted. The absence of physical restrictions will lead to human beings occupying spaces that are currently inaccessible, penetrating areas of nature’s domain, which are fundamental for carbon sequestration.

In the same way that the construction of the first highways, in the 1950s in the USA, allowed the disorderly advance of city populations to unoccupied areas and the construction of peripheral neighborhoods and dormitory towns, the development of air highways will allow us to work and live in new regions, even further away, unbalancing essential biomes to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Furthermore, these transports will create, at least initially, new archipelagos of exclusion and elitism. As eVTOL is a private rather than collective transport, governments will hardly support its development with tax incentives and other subsidies, which will keep aircraft prices at a high level for a long time.

Interestingly, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), responsible for ensuring the safety and protection of the environment in civil aviation in Europe, released a few weeks ago a manual of technical specifications that eVTOL manufacturers should follow in order to obtain the necessary operating licenses. However, among the requirements, environmental issues are practically neglected. This offers a laissez-passer so that aircraft can be built and operated without the most stringent social and environmental protections.

In Embraer’s brief presentation of its eVTOL on its website, the expressions “disruptive innovation” or “the highest levels of security” are skipped around, but sustainability, at least in marketing, is neglected.

If in the early 2020s the battle was between cars and pedestrians, in the first half of the 21st century the struggle will be between flying cars and the sustainability of the planet. What model of city do we want to build?

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