The idea of electric powered flight has been around for decades, but only recently has it begun to take off. There are over a dozen startups and companies today that are pursuing battery-electric and hybrid prototypes, with some suggesting we could all be nibbling on pretzels and scrolling through in-flight entertainment from within zero-emission, battery-powered aircraft sometime in the next decade.
The concepts under development today look nothing like the retro-futuristic models from the pages of old issues of Popular Science, nor do they resemble the gravity-defying vehicles seen in Blade Runner and Back to the Future. Rather they mostly appear to be slim, futuristic, plane-helicopter hybrids made of lightweight carbon fiber.
But the idea that personal-sized aircraft that can take off and land vertically could operate safely — and make money — is one that’s almost entirely dependent on advances in battery technology.
At least 20 companies are developing aerial taxi plans, including legacy aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, and ride-hailing giant Uber. Almost all of them promise to build aircraft that are battery electric to eliminate the noise and pollution typically associated with helicopters and jetliners.
But flying requires an incredible amount of energy, and presently, batteries are too heavy and too expensive to achieve liftoff. The technology that allows Tesla to squeeze 300 miles of range out of a Model 3 or Chevy to get 200 miles out of the Bolt isn’t enough to power more than a two-seater aircraft with a flight range limited to only a few miles.
Energy density — the amount of energy stored in a given system — is the key metric and today’s batteries don’t contain enough energy needed to get most planes off the ground.
Let’s weigh it out: jet fuel gives us about 43 times more energy than a battery that’s just as heavy.
Could energy storage technology improve significantly in the future? It is possible with battery energy density rising by 5 to 8 percent per year. For batteries to be at a point where they make sense in small-scale aviation they will need to achieve about five times their current density.
At the current pace of battery and electrical engine technology it probably won’t be until 2030 that even hybrid electric technology is used in commercial aviation.
“Hybrid technology is far more promising” than purely battery electric aircraft, said aviation expert Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, an aerospace market research firm. “Hybrid technology is a far more realistic goal, and might be feasible in the 2030s.”
There has some significant progress in battery-powered flight in recent years. In June 2016, a solar-powered airplane completed its year-long circumnavigation of the globe, the first to do so. Solar Impulse 2 is covered in 17,000 photovoltaic cells which power its motors and charge its batteries during the day.
But the plane is no one’s idea of a viable aircraft. The cabin was unpressurized, unheated, and could only hold one pilot. It typically flew at a ground speed of 30 mph, or around 18 times slower than a regular, gas-powered plane.
The Solar Impulse 2 was a positive step, but also a sign of the long road ahead for electric flight. The Long ESA, designed by famed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, was another milestone.
In 2012, it became one of the fastest electric aircraft flown, traveling at 202.6 mph while carrying a single passenger. In contrast, a Boeing 787 flies at 585 mph, and can carry more than 242 passengers: more than twice the speed, and 242 times the people.
But some startups are undeterred by the challenges. Zunum Aero, an electric jet startup backed by Boeing HorizonX and JetBlue Technology Ventures, is aiming to get its 12-passenger, hybrid electric jet off the ground by 2022.
Airbus E-Fan X is being developed with Rolls-Royce and Siemens as a hybrid-electric airline demonstrator. And Kitty Hawk, the electric VTOL startup founded by Google’s Larry Page, is just now starting to sell its short-range, one-seat Flyer. It looks sort of like a bobsled mounted on a couple of pontoons surrounded by a bunch of drone-like rotors.
Uber is predicting test flights of its electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing aircraft by 2020.
The ride-hail giant recently hired Tesla’s in-house battery expert, Celina Mikolajczak, to head up its effort to develop a battery that was powerful yet light enough to get its plane-helicopter hybrids in the air.
“The chemistry tech on cells and batteries is going to get better and better,” Mikolajczak said at Uber’s Elevate conference in Los Angeles in May. “So that means the aircraft with all electric powertrains are also going to get better and better.”
But Mikolajczak also noted that batteries have a tendency to catch fire. The challenge, she said, was to make sure that when there are in-flight fires, they aren’t catastrophic. “We’ve learned how to make those battery packs fail gracefully, even under the most extreme conditions,” she said.
Last May, an experimental, electric-powered aircraft crashed shortly after take-off from an airfield near Budapest, killing its pilot and passenger. German manufacturing firm Siemens, which helped build the Magnus eFusion plane, was testing high power density electric motors and energy density batteries in the aircraft.
After the crash, the manufactures said the cause was unknown, but witnesses reported seeing the aircraft maneuvering at low altitude before catching fire and crashing in a near vertical dive.
If the plane indeed caught fire in air, the batteries would certainly be a major suspect in the investigation.
The crash of the single-motor aircraft was a tragedy and a setback for the nascent electric flight movement.
It was also a clear sign that swapping out jet fuel for batteries won’t come easy — or quickly.
“Battery technology is decades away from being able to do more than lift a few people in the air with a conventional takeoff plane,” Aboulafia said. “The dream of electric flying cars will stay a dream for quite some time.”
There was a fascinating story in Politico last month that detailed the threat to Silicon Valley from spies, especially from Russia and China, seeking to steal intellectual property. As the piece notes, “increasing Russian and Chinese aggressiveness, and the local concentration of world-leading science and technology firms [means] there’s a full-on epidemic of espionage on the West Coast right now. And even more worrisome, many of its targets are unprepared to deal with the growing threat.”
I myself have dealt with Russian spies on numerous occasions going back to 1973. That year, I was with a group of young people from 13 countries, who planned to go to Russia to protest their lack of religious freedom. We did not thoroughly vet those who were part of this group, and unbeknownst to us, Russian leaders got wind of the trip and planted a spy in our group.
His goal was to find out what we were up to and at some point, turn us in to Russian authorities before we could reach Moscow to hold our rally. We entered the country under the guise of a tourist group and the night before we were to go into Moscow, we stayed in Kalinin–now Tver–about 100 miles from Moscow. But overnight, this young man, who was British, stole one of our vehicles and went to the authorities.
The next morning, when we went to our cars, this British chap and about 50 KGB officers arrived, arrested us, and escorted us out of the country. The second time I dealt with Russian spies was in 1984, when Intel was about to release its 80386 processor. At that time, Creative Strategies was owned by a global econometric consulting company which did a great deal of work for the US government.
Creative Strategies was their tech arm, and I got a call from a senior US Defense Department official asking me to set up a meeting between US officials and Intel. While the US government had dealt with Intel for years at various levels, DOD wanted a stealthier way to warn the company of two key things: first, that Russian agents were anxious to get their hands on this new chip, and second, to tell Intel it could not sell this chip for use in a computer outside the US. Then, during the Comdex days, while I was on their advisory board, on two occasions I watched some very suspicious activity on the show floor and brought that to the attention of Comdex officials and local authorities.
It turned out that in both cases the individuals were Russian agents who came to the show to try and steal IP from three major semiconductor companies and one PC company. That happened pretty much every year that Comdex ran. In those days, these agents used what I would call old-school techniques to try and steal intellectual property.
But as the Politico article points out, these days their methods are more fine-tuned and in a lot of cases use normal citizens who work with these tech companies to do their spying for them. The article also points out that in a lot of cases the companies with proprietary IP are not prepared to deal with this challenge. The bigger companies do understand this threat but even they are sometimes challenged to ID spies within.
The recent case of a Chinese national who worked on Apple’s car project and was accused of stealing Apple’s intellectual property is a good example of this. These days, Silicon Valley is attracting more Russian and Chinese spies than ever before. It behooves these tech companies to be more on guard and aware that these agents of foreign governments are working hard to get our proprietary IP.
In many cases, they will use any method available to reach their goals.
While I don’t think every company should be paranoid all the time, they must be diligent.
On one hand, New York City is a natural fit for these scooter companies, which have been valued at as high as £2 billion in recent months. New York is a city with a booming public transit system that millions take every day, but it’s also filled with gaps. A recent report showed that 24 percent of the city’s subway stations — many located in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens — were inaccessible to many of the city’s residents.
Scooter companies are salivating over the prospects, and sources tell The Verge that conversations between company representatives, lobbyists, and elected officials at the state and city level are already taking place. Scooters will need to navigate a labyrinth of regulatory and infrastructure challenges if they hope to ever gain a foothold.
That’s where scooters come in. New York would be a “tremendous scooter city because you’ve got a pretty good public transit infrastructure, but you still have a ton of gaps, particularly in the outer boroughs,” Kazimirov said.
In many cities where shared scooters have already taken hold, they act like an extension to connect with public transit hubs and fill in the gaps where they fall short. They could easily do the same in New York City, which is pretty flat overall, making for easy scooting around.
Its residents have a lot to gain by using these vehicles, according to Joseph Cutrufo, a spokesperson for the transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.
New York is the third most congested city in the world. This is, in part, due to curbside games of Tetris between the thousands of vehicles driving through the streets, battling against those that are double or triple parked throughout the city. This congestion is an environmental blight as well as a drag on commuters’ schedules, and it costs the city billions of dollars annually.
“It’s a borderline untenable system,” Cutrufo said, speaking of the city’s transportation network. “But, you know, we’ve grown used to it.
And though maybe we’re a little fatigued by it, we just accept the status quo as it is.”
In many ways, the city is designed for cars and only cars. As Cutrufo pointed out, the city’s dedicated almost every foot of curbside space to long-term parking — a lot of it free or low-cost. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the city’s zoning laws, which have requirements baked in that obligate the creation of curbside parking spaces for each new building.
And without curbs or designated parking, the dockless scooter system, for all of its benefits, falls apart. Scooters would get dumped onto sidewalks and block pedestrian traffic, he said.
This is happening right now in other cities where electric scooters have gained a foothold. In San Francisco, for example, scooters have been parked in the middle of sidewalks, left to lounge atop trash cans, and tossed into the bay.
Scooter users have also been caught behaving badly in other cities. Now, regulators are reacting the way San Francisco’s local government did: banning the scooters until a permitting process is in place.
“When you introduce dockless bike share, or dockless scooter share but don’t include a place for them to park, you’re kind of doing it on the cheap, politically,” Cutrufo said. “You’re saying, ‘Look at all these bikes and scooters. Look at us doing alternative transportation.’ But you’re just trying to shoehorn them into a car-focused system.
That’s not really sustainable.”
In the past few months, scooter companies have successfully grown their business nationwide. Some cities, like Milwaukee, have opted to put new regulations in place, rather than fight the impending scooter onslaught. Other cities, like Nashville, Denver, and Minneapolis, stood by helplessly as hundreds of scooters were dropped onto their streets.
It’s a messy system, but also entirely legal.
Because scooter-sharing programs are still very new, cities have been caught flatfooted. Nashville officials threatened to take action against the scooter companies when enough citizens complained of sidewalk obstructions or, in some cases, were critically injured.
The scooters in these smaller cities endured because transportation and mobility concerns tend to take the back burner to economic, education, and housing issues, says Jordan Levine, a spokesperson for electric bike service Ofo. A situation like this would never happen in New York.
For all of its faults, he said, New York City’s Department of Transportation is one of the largest and most sophisticated in the world, and New York state is perfectly clear about which electric vehicles are legal (or illegal) to ride in the city.
In the state’s eyes, the electric boost means scooters are motor vehicles, meaning they must be registered the same way someone would register a motorcycle or a moped. But there’s no process in place to register an electric scooter, leaving them in regulatory purgatory. A visit to the New York state’s DMV website reveals that “motorized scooters” can’t be ridden anywhere in the state.
The city has faced criticism for police crackdowns on electric-powered bicycles, with advocates arguing that they disproportionately hurt the immigrant delivery workers who use them to travel faster and longer than they could on traditional pedal bikes.
One city councilmember, Rafael Espinal, criticized the city’s approach in an op-ed in the New York Daily News: “If e-bike riders follow the same laws of the road as do nonelectric-bike riders, they should have the exact same access to our streets.”
Espinal voiced support for a state bill that would include electric-assisted bicycles in the definition of “bicycle,” and thereby permit their use. Legalizing e-bikes could open the door wide enough to allow scooters through, too.
The scooter companies see opportunities — and dollar signs — in a city as large and dense as New York. A source with knowledge of the scooter companies’ plans said that they are aggressively exploring ways to change the law to allow for scooter sharing. “They’re coming,” the source said. “Whether it takes a change in city law or state law, it’s coming.”
If New York state does come around to scooters, the resulting laws might lean on the stringent side, Levine said.
Expect there to be a requirement of a driver’s license and helmet, he said. And, depending on how the DOT interprets the law, it could possibly even require a motorcycle license. These decisions will determine where scooters belong: on sidewalks, in bike lanes, or streets, Levine said.
“I think that’s what the city’s really worried about,” he said. “Are bike riders going to get upset if scooters are zipping by them in bike lanes?
Are these scooters going to be able to operate in traffic in New York City streets? Are they going to hurt pedestrians if they’re on sidewalks?”
The state Senate is starting to wrestle with these issues. State Sen. Martin Golden recently introduced “The Innovative Transportation Act of 2018,” a bill that intends to make scooters legal throughout New York.
Garld Kasser, the chief of staff for Golden, didn’t respond to four emailed attempts to nail down which other states the new framework would be based on.
It turns out that other city politicians are reticent to talk about these issues as well. Genevieve Morton, the communications director who represents councilmember Brad Lander, declined to comment on the issue, as did Jacob Tugendrajch, who represents Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Stephanie Miliano, who represents councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, didn’t respond to multiple emails, and attempts to reach these councilmembers directly on the phone or via email were also ignored.
Until that gets squared away, the city’s eco-conscious commuters will have to make do with bikes rather than electric scooters.
In April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that pedal-assist electric-bikes would be allowed to operate in the city, after previously promising to crack down on the people illegally riding them and seizing hundreds of e-bikes in the process.
On July 13th, he even teamed up with the DOT to kick off a dockless bike-share pilot in the Rockaway Peninsula.
The move suggests that similar rollbacks of current e-scooter laws could one day allow these companies a foothold.
Additional reporting by Andrew J.