The Electric Airplane Performance Dip
I spent a good portion of January conducting interviews and research for a major print piece on electric aircraft to appear in the March issue of Aviation Consumer. My impression is that there's as much going on in this field beneath the surface as there are known projects. Expect to learn more in 2016.
Last year, we reported on the surprise development of Airbus getting into the electric airplane market at the GA level. Such as it's possible to judge the seriousness of such things, Airbus' $55 million project looks as serious as any. It's building a factory in France to produce the E-Fan 2.0—a pure electric trainer—in volume for a rollout next year. It pledges to design and certify the four-place hybrid E-Fan 4.0 for the North American market before 2020. As part of my research, I asked Airbus for some additional detail on these airplanes, but not much is forthcoming just yet.
As to the question why Airbus is doing this, I got this carefully crafted answer via email from Ken McKenzie, Airbus' senior VP for strategy and development: "We believe the larger focus of an innovation project like the E-Fan is not to necessarily make an aircraft that's cheaper to produce, operate and maintain than an aircraft with a combustion engine, but rather, to develop innovative, eco-friendly propulsion and lightweight material solutions, with the goal of bringing them to market quickly as more stringent carbon emissions regulations come into effect."
If there's an oh-I-see moment in this electric airplane business, that's it. Now I already knew this about Airbus' motivation and you probably did, too, but seeing it stated so succinctly is refreshing. In Europe, they've accepted that carbon load regulations are coming and are preparing for it. In the U.S., we haven't quite got past the it's-all-a-hoax stage, jollied along by several current presidential candidates who sense a conspiracy. No surprise then that so much electric aircraft research is coming out of Europe and Asia. Whether you think carbon pollution is a hoax or not is less relevant than the fact that companies are going to start selling electrics.
Question is, will anyone buy? I'm interested in the market uptake of these first-generation electrics for several reasons. One, they're technology demonstrators so we'll get to see how they work juxtaposed against what buyers think they should do. And two, the companies selling them have to build enough airframes to sustain the effort and, as telegraphed by Ken McKenzie's comment above, that doesn't necessarily mean short-term profits. It means building an installed base of sufficient size to learn how electric airplanes fit into the GA ecosystem. Or even if they fit.
Carbon regs will push things along in Europe, but even so, buyers will have to confront what I'll call the performance dip. By that, I mean that an electric airplane—pure electric or hybrid—will be significantly compromised against the equivalent airframe with a conventional gas engine. It won't carry as much payload, it won't go as fast and, in the case of EVs, it won't have nearly the same endurance. At this stage, even the hybrids appear to give up performance. They suffer in payload because they have to haul a couple of hundred pounds of batteries and they suffer in cruise because to make the economics work, they necessarily have a smaller internal combustion engine than that which they may compete against.
As battery energy density improves, so will EV endurance, but it will be a gradual ramp up, not great bounding leaps. As explained in this podcast with battery expert Jeff Chamberlain, lithium ion capacity will inch up at the rate of 7 percent a year for the foreseeable future. The big lightning-in-a-bottle batteries—lithium air and maybe lithium sulfur—may be at least a decade away. So will the performance dip discourage buyers? My guess is it will. But manufacturers of these airplanes will argue that this misses the point and that early-stage electrics are meant to knock down the certification barriers and hunt around for potential market traction. Worth noting is that manufacturers of automotive EVs and hybrids have the same problem. Sales of both of those categories are flat, after several years of robust growth. No one knows if this is a broader trend or a temporary market decline. It began before the current collapse of oil prices.
Between emerging carbon regulations in Europe, the inevitable early adopters and eco-conscious buyers, EVs and hybrids will find some sales. Moreover, Pat Anderson, an Embry Riddle professor and researcher working on electrics, tells me that young people interested in aviation are eco-centric and will tilt toward green solutions. By the time electrics mature, those kids will be making the buying decisions on replacement airplanes. Frankly, I find that encouraging. We're long past due for thinking in GA not bounded by the established values of people who learned to fly in the last century.
I predict the electric market will develop about like the diesel market did. Initially, diesels were slower and had low TBOs, but that didn't stop the technology from carving out about a 10 percent market share over a decade because some buyers liked the economy and ease of operation. Diesel had only operating costs going for it, not favorable regulations on noise and emissions as electric airplanes will have.
Because Airbus' overarching goal is to lay the initial bricks for commercial electric aircraft, I suspect they'll Dutch the board with a complete system for buyers, from battery support and maintenance to training materials and doctrine tailored to the limitations of EVs. I'll be surprised if they simply roll the airplane out of the factory with a take-it-or-leave-it price. It will take a major push to overcome the considerable disadvantage these electric airplanes will have.
Ultimately, where Airbus is headed is an electric hybrid regional airliner called the E-Thrust project. With a 2050 timeline, that airplane has proposed technology that doesn't even exist commercially yet. The real seismic shift will occur not with battery technology but with integrating electric propulsion with low-drag, efficient airframes that only electric propulsion can make possible. I see this going on experimentally, but real airplanes? It will be a while. You probably read that tech whiz Elon Musk says he's going to launch his own electric airplane project, a supersonic design no less. And just today, we reported that Pipistrel powered up for the first time a powerful hybrid-drive system at its Solvenian factory.
What will be interesting for the next generation of journalists covering this—won't be me—is whether the performance dip really is a dip, to be recovered and bettered as the technology advances. My guess is that's exactly what will happen because the nature of transportation has always been faster, better and more efficient, even if the iterations along the road sometimes take steps backwards. That's the nature of progress. It's also the nature of progress to not know what's coming or to be wrong in predicting what is. More than once I've heard people in this field say words to the effect that at this point, we don't even know what we don't know.
Research is supposed to unmask those mysteries but inquiry inevitably also leads to blind alleys. At the moment, the future of electric airplanes is too uncertain to say which is which. But those who insist electric airplane will never be a thing are kidding themselves.