The dream of commercially viable electric airplanes is getting closer all the time. Eviation, a startup based in Israel, says it plans to deliver the first of its bespoke airplanes to Cape Air, a regional carrier serving New England, in 2022. Eviation began building Alice, its first electric airplane, in 2017. The time lapse video below shows the construction and assembly process in detail.
Business Insider provides a transcript of comments made by co-founder and CEO Omer Bar-Yohay regarding that video and they are very revealing. There is a clear philosophical link between Alice and the Model S, the first electric car from Tesla. Both companies elected not to electrify existing products but rather to start from scratch with a clean sheet design. Bar-Yohay acknowledges that the batteries needed to power Alice present design problems. 30% of the takeoff weight of a typical commercial aircraft is jet fuel. At 8,000 lbs, the weight of Alice’s battery is 60% of the plane’s takeoff weight.
To compensate, the airframe itself is make as light at possible. It is also designed to fly through the air more efficiently than conventional airplanes which typically have a lift to drag ratio of 17:1. For Alice, that rate is 25:1, meaning it’s more aerodynamically efficient and uses less energy getting into the air. ‘The battery is not located in one place. “That battery’s literally all over the place,” ‘Bar-Yohay says. “It’s under the floor, it’s in the wings, in the fuselage in different locations.”
Regional travel is a big part of the airline industry. In 2017, half of the 4 billion air tickets sold were for regional flights, according to Business Insider, yet airlines often use planes that are capable of flying across the Atlantic for those flights. “That’s an insanity because we’re using the wrong tools for the job, Bar-Yohay says. By contrast, Alice is built for regional flights up to 650 miles at a cruising speed of 276 mph. That covers journeys like from San Jose to San Diego or London to Prague. While conventional planes fly faster, electric planes like Alice are 2 to 3 orders of magnitude quieter than commercial jet aircraft and could use shorter runways. Those factors mean they can fly into and out of smaller airports that are closer to travelers’ final destinations.
“I think it’s important that the industry looks at its responsibilities to the planet and makes itself more sustainable in terms of emissions, but it needs to work economically,” Bar-Yohay says. Alice costs about $200 per flight hour to operate. A turboprop with similar performance costs between $1,200 and $2,000 per flight hour, meaning ticket prices for Alice could be substantially less than those for conventional aircraft. Lots of people might be delighted to add an hour or two to their flight if they can fly for half the money.
Making an electric airplane is one thing. Getting airlines to buy it is quite another. “In the very beginning, it was extremely difficult to convince partners, clients, anybody, investors that we’re not delusional. Today it feels like everybody’s on board and this is where the industry should go. The industry is beginning to notice that there is really a tectonic shift here,” Bar-Yohay tells Business Insider.
We have seen in other industries, especially wind and solar energy, that falling prices go a long way toward soothing people’s fears about new technology. Electric airplanes are a long way from going mainstream and none of them can manage the New York to Sydney route yet, but the industry is changing before our eyes. Lighter and cheaper batteries are coming to market soon, which could shift the financial calculus in favor of electric airplanes. When that happens, Eviation will be ready to capitalize on the transition to electric flight.