It wasn’t that long ago that driving a battery powered car or SUV, let alone a gasless pickup truck, sounded far-fetched. Now, electric vehicles fill roads across the country, Tesla’s Elon Musk is one of the richest men on the planet, and engineers are focused on making another form of transportation greener: air travel.
At the recent United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow, some of the biggest airlines signed a pact to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. In the short term, that means using sustainable fuels. But those fuels are in short supply, expensive and still create greenhouse gas output. In the long term, U.S. carriers including United and Alaska Airlines, are vowing to have net zero carbon emissions.
To do that, those airlines will eventually have to ditch traditional fuels.
“Sustainability is a place that we all realize we have to scale,” said Diana Birkett Rakow, senior vice president of sustainability, at Alaska Airlines during an interview with ABC News at Alaska’s corporate headquarters near Seattle. “We are hyper focused right now on things that can help us accelerate our path to net zero carbon emissions and that we could see viable in our operation in the next three, five, 10 years.”
Several airplane manufacturers, from small startups to giants in the industry, are working on designing and building battery-powered commercial airplanes that could be reliable and at a price point that would be attractable to airlines.
The battery power needed to propel a plane full of passengers to cruising altitude, through weather, and with all safety systems in place is far greater than what vehicles need on the ground to drive across town. In fact the batteries being developed for small commercial aviation are the size of buses and weigh thousands of pounds.
Technology for large aircraft like a Boeing 777 could be decades away. But if all goes according to plan, within a few years that smell of jet fuel at the airport will begin to dissipate and smaller airliners will be emitting nothing out of their engines.
In a hangar on a sleepy corner of the local airport in Arlington, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle, one company is leading the airplane electrification race. In 2015 in Israel, Omer Bar-Yohay created a company called Eviation with the goal of creating environmentally friendly airplanes. Now, with strong investor funding from global firms as far away as Singapore and deals with airlines, his idea for a battery-powered commercial airplane is coming to life inside the hanger in Arlington. The plane is mostly built and Eviation plans to fly it for the first time in the coming weeks.
Original designs for the plane had a more drone-like look, as they included propellers in non-traditional places. Those plans have been modified and the plane is closer to a normal looking aircraft. To Bar-Yohay it is important that his aircraft look and perform like any other aircraft, minus the jet fuel, so it will be easy for pilots to fly and passengers will be comfortable riding in it.
“It’s a plane. It acts like a plane. It has sticks. It has a throttle. It has the behavior of a plane, meaning if something malfunctions it’s failsafe. It continues operation and brings you to a landing because there are so many redundancies built into it,” said Bar-Yohay as he showed the aircraft in final assembly.
The plane’s name is Alice. Like other battery- or hydrogen-powered airliners being developed, it would be used for relatively short flights with under a dozen passengers. But as battery technology advances, Bar-Yohay is hoping that the scale of the aircraft will grow.
On the day ABC News visited, Alice’s batteries had just arrived and engineers in hazmat-like suits were working to fit the behemoth batteries onto the left and right side of the plane. The batteries will be 50% of the takeoff weight and make up the fuselage of the plane near where the wings attach.
“An airport today is an unpleasant experience. It’s noisy, it’s smelly because of the jet fuel and you know in your mind it’s very, very polluting,” explained Bar-Yohay. “Alice changes a lot of things. The plane is dramatically quieter. An electric plane can optimize propeller noise better because the motors are more efficient. You can be roughly half to fifty times quieter.”
The wings and main cabin of Alice are built and ready. The wings are long like those on a glider to get top performance at higher altitudes and the passenger windows are large and not quite round. The cockpit is being outfitted with all the screens one would see in any other aircraft.
As planned, the plane could be flown by a single pilot, but there will be two seats up front for pilots like a traditional airliner.
Eviation says operating Alice will cost far less than what airlines are paying today for jet fuel powered aircraft. “The beautiful part about this plane, beside it being an awesome plane and looking great is that it makes economic sense today,” explained Bar-Yohay. “Per hour of flight, we’re at around $100-$120 dollars of cost for the battery depending on how it’s being operated and used. That’s dramatically cheaper than the maintenance cost of the equivalent system.”
Already Eviation has orders for Alice aircraft from airlines like DHL and Cape Air, which operates short commuter flights on the East Coast. The company teases that more deals will be announced soon with other regional airlines. Bar-Yohay says the plane will be able to fly about 440 miles. While not a long distance plane, 440 miles fits the needs of many regional airlines around the world. Charging the plane will be similar to charging a Tesla. While passengers are boarding, the plane will be plugged in and able to do most of a flight off of just a 30 minute charge.
“It’s a plane built in the 21st Century. We have all fly-by-wire,” said Bar-Yohay. He promises the most advanced auto-pilot system that will rival what is found on a Boeing 787 or an Airbus A350.
The engines, or electric propulsion as it’s known on e-aircraft, were designed, built, and are also in final testing by a sister company called magniX. To the untrained eye, they look like propellers that have been on planes for many decades. But they will require no jet fuel to operate and will output zero carbon emissions.
Bar-Yohay is not worried about larger aircraft manufacturers creating their own electric planes. He invites competition to try to build a better product. He said that while bigger companies are talking about battery-powered aircraft and are starting to design them, that no large company has reached the point of Eviation, which is getting ready to fly and has airlines waiting to put pilots in the environmentally friendly cockpit.
“The industry needs a kick in the butt,” Bar-Yohay said. “It needs someone to come in and say hey we built it, we’re actually eating parts of your lunch, maybe it’s not the lunch you thought you’d be losing because we’re not competing with the Boeing 737 just yet, but when you look at the big picture wouldn’t you rather fly Alice?”
Eviation argues the quieter, less smelly, environmentally friendly experience will attract passengers who choose to fly on a green aircraft.
Finding an exact test flight day is tough around Seattle because of rain, but Bar-Yohay believes Alice will begin test flights before the end of the year. He is hoping to be on board with the test pilots when it rolls down the runway powered only by batteries. Within a few years, he believes Eviation’s Alice will be the plane regional airlines will be flying around the world.