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Make Room in the Garage for Your SAV ... Suburban Air Vehicle

Solar Impulse Plane

Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic each year, according to the transportation research group TRIP, and this costs them $78.2 billion in wasted time and fuel. Brien Seeley, the president of the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation (CAFE), doesn't think a better public transit system will solve this problem. He objects not because he thinks travel--or even single occupancy travel--is bad, but because he thinks ground transportation is never going to get substantially better. We're too hardwired to eschew public transport for the private space afforded by our cars, he argues. So the best way to address gridlock on that asphalt, he explained to attendees of the Future of Electric Vehicles Conference, in San Jose on December 7, is to look up.

It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's a suburban air vehicle! OK, so technically an SAV is a plane. But it's not just any plane. And it also doesn't quite exist yet.

But NASA is willing to pony up $1.65 million for the best prototype. As part of the Green Flight Challenge, sponsored by NASA and to be judged by the CAFE Foundation in July 2011, the contest is like the automotive X Prize for personal, civilian aircraft. Submissions must be quiet, practical, and must fly 200 miles in less than two hours using the energy equivalent of less than 1 gallon of gasoline per occupant.

The SAV, as Seeley envisions it, will also take off and land on very short runways and, despite their great numbers, they'll move through the sky without colliding, thanks to advance air control software. He even compared them to flocks of starlings moving in perfect sync through the sky.

"After a century of flight, aviation has failed to fulfill its purpose of moving people without the use of roads," Seeley said, pointing to the many clogged arteries surrounding major airports. CAFE envisions small "pocket" airports that would be erected both within existing major airports and near urban areas. The idea is that one could likely walk, in town, to a pocket airport and hail an air taxi that would drop them off at a major airport.

In response to questions about the emissions associated with personal flight, Seely and other SAV proponents talk of solar-powered and hybrid planes with emissions lower than automobiles. While this Jetsons-like future might seem far-fetched, there is plenty of research and money going into modernizing aircraft. Much has already been accomplished, such as a 26-hour solar-powered flight in the prototype Solar Impulse plane.And the German aviation company PC Aero--another presenter at the Future of Electric Vehicles event--has already announced its submission for the Green Flight Challenge, an all-electric single seater that can fly for three hours at 75 miles per hour. These designs, and others like them--including hybrid models that combine combustion engines with solar, and even new eco-friendlier airships--should slowly move the needle toward more sustainable flight.

Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mary Catherine O’Connor writes about the environment, adventure sports, and technology.

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