Heading skyward to beat gridlock
By Maggie Shiels Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley
The solution to gridlock on our overcrowded roads is to take to the air in a plane-car hybrid that will revolutionise the way society works. Could flying become a daily means of transportation?
This vision of the future twenty years hence was revealed at the 2008 Electric Aircraft Symposium held a stone's throw from San Francisco airport in California. Plotting the next frontier in green technology was Richard Jones, a technical fellow at Boeing Phantom Works.
He said "Today I am talking about making aviation available to everyone as a daily means of transportation. Transportation changes society."
"When they dumped the horse and cart people took over two continents. 150 years ago steam turned America into a nation. Today 50 per cent of the world lives in urban areas thanks to the car. And in the last 50 years, the aviation industry has made one world thanks to the airplane."
When your 100mpg (miles per gallon) car is stuck in traffic and a 100mpg airplane whizzes overhead, you're going to be jealous. Richard JonesBoeing's research group is designing a hybrid aimed at travelling up to 300 miles at a time. It will use precision navigation systems that would allow the average 'driver cum pilot' to fly without special training thanks to a computerised 'flight instructor' built into the cockpit. This Mr Jones believes could make the compact plane easier to drive than a car. "People will probably be reading a newspaper rather than flying the vehicles."
He said that they will be powered using electricity and /or batteries making them the "cleanest transportation of the future."
This sneak peak at the world twenty years from now was eagerly welcomed by the assembled group of engineers, scientists, venture capitalists and chief executives who were brought together by the CAFE Foundation, a non profit organisation that promotes personal air travel.
The organisation's President Brien Seeley said that there were good sound reasons for believing that such a hybrid will be an everyday part of life. And with an estimated 1.2 billion cars expected to be clogging up the roads by 2030 he said that it is a no brainer.
"When your 100mpg (miles per gallon) car is stuck in traffic and a 100mpg airplane whizzes overhead, you're going to be jealous."
The symposium was told that the environmental need to find an alternative to the combustion engine is long overdue and growing ever more urgent as fuel prices top $120 a barrel and passengers get hit with crippling surcharges for taking to the air. Dr Ben Santer who is a physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory told BBC News "We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are changing the chemistry of the earth's atmosphere by burning fossil fuels in cars and airplanes." "If we don't want to have really serious changes to our climate then we have to figure out other ways of doing business."
The CAFE Foundation believes the solution is obvious. Mr Seeley told the BBC "The electric aircraft promises to solve these problems and produce a real enlightenment of aviation with new technology and a rebirth of popular general aviation and personal aviation travel."
But there is no reason to wait for Boeing's hybrid vehicle according to a Slovenian company called Pipistrel. By the end of the year it plans to deliver the world's first commercially produced, two seater electric aircraft to customers.
Their Taurus Electro can climb to 6,000 feet after taking off using a 30-kilowatt motor.
Recharging the glider's lithium-polymer battery is meant to take about as long as charging a cell phone. And weather permitting, the glider can travel 1,000 miles a day. Pipistrel's head of research and development Tine Tomazic says they already have over a dozen orders for the plane. "We are doing it now. We are flying the world's first two seater self launching glider powered by electrical means, powered by batteries." "We have seen tremendous demand from existing owners who fly the internal combustion powered version and we think the market potential for the Taurus Electro is just huge."
That of course is open to question given that the sticker price for the basic model starts at around $132,000 or £67,000. For the time being it's probably fair to say that the market for the Taurus Electra and similar planes is limited to enthusiasts and those with money to spend. People like Google founder Larry Page who was also at the event and owns his own aircraft.
But in order to generate some buzz about electric planes outside of this cosy coterie of 'plane nuts' CAFE is teaming up with NASA to launch a 'Green Prize' competition. It will award $50,000 for a craft that achieves at least 100 miles per hour and the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. Supporters of such competitions hope it will help convince people that air travel could become the greenest form of transportation. Speaking to the BBC, Mark Moore of NASA Langely said "If such an aircraft can achieve greater efficiencies than being stuck in gridlock or even on commercial airlines then we will have something to get excited about. Boeing's Mr Jones agrees and says making personal aviation the norm is the ultimate goal. "It will change society, the way we work, the way we live, the way cities grow."
Sky's the limit
And while it may take some time to persuade the public at large that they will be whizzing through the air on a vehicle that is part car and part plane, investors were being told that getting on the bandwagon early will pay off in the long run. Adam Grosser of venture capital firm Foundation Capital sponsored the event and not unsurprisingly believes personal electric aircraft is a money winner. "It is vitally important to catalyse an industry like this. A lot of the stuff you are hearing may take a while to come to fruition and we are willing to wait patiently and invest prudently behind that vision. But it will take off and the sky's the limit when it does."