Electric air taxis aren’t quite a thing yet, but a host of well-funded startups want to change that. Chief among them is Joby Aviation, an electric aviation company based in Northern California that just posted a remarkable video of its six-rotor aircraft completing an impressive 150-mile flight.
Admittedly, it doesn’t sound too impressive, but it’s actually one of the longest flights ever performed by an electric plane. It’s equivalent to a trip between Seattle and Vancouver, or Los Angeles to San Diego — the kind of regional trip that’s operated hundreds of times a day by regional partners to major airlines. Exchanging those polluting planes for zero-emission planes like Joby’s could be a big step toward reducing CO2 emissions.
The company, which is backed by Toyota and recently acquired Uber’s flying taxi division, has said it plans to have a full air taxi service up and running, including regional rides, by 2024. The purpose of the 150-mile flight was to show how far the plane could fly on a single charge, allaying concerns about the vehicle’s range and battery. If you want to fly from New York City to Montauk, Joby wanted to show that it can get you there without running out of juice.
“We’ve accomplished something many thought was impossible with current battery technology,” Joby founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt said in a statement. “With this, we have taken the first step towards making convenient, zero-emission air travel between places like San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, Houston and Austin, or Los Angeles and San Diego a daily reality.”
Instead of flying between two points, Joby’s plane flew in a 14-mile circle 11 times for a total flight time of one hour and 17 minutes. It’s an impressive achievement, given the challenges of electric flying. The power-to-weight ratio is one of the biggest inhibitors. Energy density – the amount of energy stored in a given system – is the most important measure, and today’s batteries don’t contain enough energy to get most planes off the ground. To weigh it up, jet fuel gives us about 43 times more energy than a battery of the same weight.
But Joby says his commercially available lithium-ion batteries are specially adapted for use in aerospace:
After internal testing, an 811 NMC cathode and a graphite anode cell were selected to find the optimal trade-off between the specific energy required to fly the aircraft 250 miles, the specific power to take off and land vertically, and the lifespan to sustain a provide affordable service. We’ve proven in the lab that this battery is capable of over 10,000 of our expected rated flight cycles.
The team developing Joby’s power system is led by Jon Wagner, head of powertrain and electronics, who previously led battery engineering at Tesla.
It helps that Joby starts small with a five-seat vehicle. Higher capacity aircraft will not come until the energy density in current batteries improves. But Joby has a financial buffer, because he just went public through a reverse merger with a special acquisition company, or SPAC. As part of the deal, Joby will receive $1.6 billion in cash, which it will use to continue tinkering and perfecting its technology.
The question is: will it be enough to take the company to 2024?