Budget Airline Car Concept Is the Short-flight Alternative

An EV seating six adults, with luggage storage in each door.

The Budget Airline Car concept closures and seating show private aircraft inspiration. (Car Design Research)

Short-haul airline flights can be a great convenience for travelers, but they produce more CO2 emissions – about 250 g/km per person – than any other form of passenger transportation, including compact EVs and electric trains. That’s about 25% more emissions than long-haul flights, because short-hop flying uses proportionately more fuel at takeoff and landing. Could an automotive alternative offer a solution?

That is what Car Design Research (CDR), a U.K.-based consultancy, set out to investigate, working with design associates Yichen Shu in China and Aditya Jangid in India. The resulting concept is the Budget Airline Car, one of six new passenger-vehicle types that CDR director Sam Livingston and his team feel would be enabled by new mobility technologies.

“The idea is very much about the conceptual design of the vehicle and how that then fits into the future world embracing certain specific things which affect design,” Livingstone told SAE Media. He said the Budget Airline Car would provide seating for six adults arranged in three rows of two. Like airline passengers, the six would not necessarily be known to each other, picking up the vehicle as they would a flight from a specific location, similar to collecting a rental vehicle. One of the passengers would drive, or perhaps they would share the driving.

To address the emissions issue, the vehicle would be electric. Although autonomous operation could be a possibility, this was not a primary design goal. “Were it applied to this concept, I think the core thing it would do is unlock the ability to have parity of status among the occupants,” said Livingstone. In the occupant hierarchy, “the driver is the one of importance, and I think to actually have it so you’re all on parity is a subtle but significant shift in the whole in-car thing.”

Luggage innovation, battery swapping

The concept vehicle would provide luggage storage in each of the six doors, giving each passenger a dedicated luggage spot. “The individual may want access to the contents of their baggage if they can, whilst they travel, just as we’re accustomed to on an aircraft,” Livingstone noted. Providing luggage space in the doors also enables easier loading, while the door “inners” include charge points for personal devices, making them “very much be part of your ‘territory’ as an individual within the vehicle.”

Using the doors for luggage storage also helped the Car Design Research team minimize the frontal area of the vehicle and the width of the greenhouse, helping to keep aerodynamic drag as low as possible. The Budget Airline Car’s architecture likely would be a steel spaceframe with composite outer panels, because the vehicle would operate at fairly constant speeds, Livingstone noted.

“While you don’t want it to be heavy, weight is not of paramount importance,” he said. Steel-intensive construction also helps impact performance and moderates per-unit cost at the lower manufacturing volumes the CDR team envisions. Flax bio-composites could be an ideal outer body material, with the spaceframe concept providing “the opportunity to re-skin occasionally when you need to do so.”

Operating the Budget Airline Car like a rental vehicle, from base to base, could make a battery-swap system practical. The rapid turnaround times would help operators control battery condition and re-charging, and thus maximize the vehicle as an asset,” Livingstone said. One potential downside of optimizing aerodynamics is that vehicle’s exterior shape could become less distinctive. Livingstone said this can be overcome by using brightwork, color (via body wraps) and lighting. “The graphical shapes that the surface design can apply enables you to quite quickly make a distinctive impression,” he said.