Wright Electric, a start-up supported by Y Combinator, says it is working on building an electric airplane that can fly 150 passengers up to 300 miles. Its goal is to have the airplanes in the air within 10 years. It has already attracted interest from an established airline. EasyJet, a low cost British air travel company tells the BBC it “has had discussions with Wright Electric and is actively providing an airline operator’s perspective on the development of this exciting technology.”
An electric airplane has several advantages over traditional aircraft. First and foremost, it doesn’t spew carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere while in flight. Second, it will be quieter than a conventional airplane. But we know in the era of Trumponmics that the only consideration is cost — the environment be damned. And that’s where the Wright Electric proposal really shines. The cost of electricity should be significantly less than the cost of jet fuel. That would allow the price of plane tickets to drop substantially.
With a range of 300 miles, the Wright Electric airplane would be capable of serving 30% of all commercial airline routes in the world. But where will it get the power to stay aloft and how long will it take to recharge the batteries after each flight? That part’s easy. The company says the batteries will be fitted to conventional airline shipping containers. They will be charged on the ground and simply swapped in and out as needed.
“The way we’ve designed our plane is to have modular battery packs for quick swap using the same cargo container that’s in a regular airplane,” says Jeff Engler, co-founder of Wright Electric. “We want it to be as fast as possible, so airlines can keep their planes in the air as long as possible and cover their costs.”
Some of this is wishful thinking at this point. It all depends on battery technology continuing to improve at its current rate. There are no batteries today that are small enough and powerful enough to keep such an electric airplane in the air long enough to be commercially viable. But Wright Electric is going ahead with the design of the aircraft while it waits for new developments to provide the batteries it will need. The company is working with Chip Yates, the American inventor who currently holds the record for the world’s fastest electric airplane.
Other companies are exploring electric aircraft including Airbus. Siemens is testing a new electric motor that is lighter and 5 times more powerful than normal. Is the era of electric flight upon us? Not quite yet, but it is coming. The electric airplane isn’t a reality yet, but the technology to make it happen is ready to go. All that remains is for battery technology to catch up. John Goodenough may have something to do with when that happens.