The case for flying cars as a climate solution

The case for flying cars as a climate solution

A Joby Aviation Inc's electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft outside the New York Stock Exchange on Aug 11, 2021. (Photo: Bloomberg)
A Joby Aviation Inc's electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft outside the New York Stock Exchange on Aug 11, 2021. (Photo: Bloomberg)

SILICON VALLEY: George Jetson, the character in the animated television series The Jetsons, was born in a fictional 2022. By the time he reaches middle age, forty years later, people are zooming around in flying cars.

Venkat Viswanathan thinks there is a “straight shot” from today to the technologies needed to build that future, despite all the jokes about flying cars being fantasy. The professor at Carnegie Mellon University is obsessed with building the batteries that will power these zero-emission aircraft.

Viswanathan has worked with next-generation battery companies such as QuantumScape Corp, 24M Technologies Inc, and Aionics Inc, and concluded that aviation is “the most important problem that batteries can address,” he told the Zero podcast.

For a dose of optimism and scepticism, listen to the full interview with Venkat Viswanathan below, learn more about the Zero podcast here, and subscribe on Apple, Spotify or Google to stay on top of new episodes.

While the “straight shot” may exist, technologically speaking, it will still take a lot of work. That's why Viswanathan serves as an adviser to companies that make aircraft powered by batteries — known as “electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft,” or eVTOLs. Later this year, he will move to the University of Michigan’s aerospace engineering department to double-down on battery research for electric aviation.

Time is of the essence. Even if the world gets on track to reach net-zero by 2050 and emissions from most sectors decline, carbon produced by the aviation industry is projected to increase. BloombergNEF estimates the sector’s carbon pollution is set to double between now and 2050. 

The problem is that it is hard to beat jet fuel when it comes to the right combination of weight and power needed to lift a plane (with passengers and cargo) off the ground. To make a battery that is powerful but light enough to accomplish the same feat is bound to be extremely expensive. 

That is why Viswanathan believes the first application will have to be in the luxury market. Electric aviation will replace the types of trips people might take via helicopter or private jet. The ultimate aspiration may be to make long-haul flights electric, but at first the market will be “small distances and people that value time a lot who will be willing to pay a much higher price to travel that mile.”

While it may seem like a waste of energy, Viswanathan says that electric flying cars are likely to replace trips covering tens of miles that are typically taken by gasoline-powered cars today, in which case “there is a clear energy efficiency argument to be made that an eVTOL would definitely reduce emissions.”

Viswanathan argues that we are close to a “Roadster” moment for aviation. Aviation will go electric the same way the auto industry did after the luxury Tesla Roadster showed there was demand for electric cars.

If this sounds too good to be true, rest easy that Viswanathan is also in the business of poking holes in battery technology that overpromises. It is easy for startups to take advantage of complicated science to create hype for an idea that may be bunk, he says. 

When venture capitalists are trying to figure out if a battery startup is worth investing in, they bring in Viswanathan to look at their claims. The key, he says, is combining "optimism with a healthy dose of scepticism".

Do you like the content of this article?

Chinese pub raided

Dozens of Chinese tourists detained for questioning and drugs seized in a raid on a Huai Khwang nightspot that resembles the infamous gang-run Jinling pub.


Vietnam detains climate activist on tax charges

HANOI: Vietnamese authorities have detained a prominent climate activist for alleged tax evasion, her husband said on Friday, adding to a list of environmentalists facing the accusation.


Zimbabwe outlaws criticism of state ahead of polls

Zimbabwe’s parliament has passed a law that prohibits citizens from criticising the government, two months before it holds presidential elections.