In five years, if you want to take a trip from San Francisco to San Diego, it may be possible to do it on a small electric plane–and with a ticket that costs less than driving or taking the train. The Israel-based startup Eviation, which is building a new all-electric, nine-seat airplane, called the Alice Commuter expects to begin making its first commercial flights in 2021 and scale up to hundreds of routes across the U.S. over the next few years.
The timing is right, the founders say, because of the current state of technology. “There is a revolution happening in aviation, and it’s happening because of lightweight materials, energy density of batteries, the power of electric propulsion, and the computer power of managing this together,” says Omer Bar-Yohay, co-founder and CEO of Eviation, the winner of the transportation category of Fast Company‘s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards.
While some other startups in the space (including Zunum Aero, which has the backing of the VC arms of JetBlue and Boeing) are focusing first on hybrid planes, Eviation chose to go all-electric for its first plane because it thinks that’s what will make flights as affordable as possible. “This will really be available to all, and [it will] make sense to take our aircraft and not drive,” he says.
The technology, he says, is cheaper than hybrid options both because electricity is cheaper than jet fuel and electric planes cost less to maintain. “If you look at the numbers, the overall cost of maintaining the cost of complexity of a hybrid unit compared to just swapping batteries every two years or so–the batteries win hands down.”
Because electric batteries store less energy by weight than jet fuel, the tiny planes can only travel relatively short distances–650 nautical miles–and because they carry a small number of passengers, this won’t be replacing most large commercial flights. But many flights do only fly short distances, and because of the competitive cost of the technology, Eviation saw it as a good place to begin.
The plane is designed to feel as steady and comfortable as flying on a standard private jet so that the small size won’t intimidate passengers. At first, the company expects that regional operators will use the planes to fly people between smaller airports. But over time, it’s possible that big airlines could begin to use the planes for short flights, rather than using something like a 737. They might also begin to shift away from the current hub-and-spoke model, in which most journeys require a connecting flight, to more direct flights between smaller cities.
“What we’re really giving here is a potential for a kind of high-speed rail–A to B–but from any A to any B,” says Bar-Yohav.
The startup has been building a full-scale aircraft since mid-2017 and expects to take demonstration flights in 2019. By 2021, it hopes to be certified and flying on a first proof-of-service route.
After the first plane comes to market, the next step may be a larger plane that can carry 19 passengers. The company may also develop a smaller vertical takeoff plane for urban transportation, similar to those in development by Uber and others. “We’re trying to do this first with regional transportation, and then look to the edges of this huge market,” says Bar-Yohav.