Sun, Oct 22, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Israeli electric airplane start-up could become ‘Uber in the sky’

By Glenn Chapman  /  AFP, LAGUNA BEACH, California

Eviation Aircraft cofounder and chief executive Omer Bar-Yohay poses during a break at the Wall Street Journal D.Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, on Monday.

Photo: AFP

Eviation Aircraft Ltd chief executive Omer Bar-Yohay pictures a day not too far away when summoning a bargain airplane ride with a smartphone will be as easy as hailing Uber.

The Israel-based start-up working on a self-piloting, electric aircraft was on Tuesday at the Wall Street Journal D.Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, with a vision of “Uber Technologies Inc meeting Tesla Motors Inc in the sky.”

Bar-Yohay spoke of a future in which people could take Uber to a regional airport and use another smartphone application to summon an Eviation electric plane to whisk them inexpensively to destinations hundreds of kilometers away.

“What would happen if Uber meets Tesla in the sky?” Bar-Yohay asked rhetorically in an interview. “I think it makes super-commuting not so super anymore; you just go. That is the vision.”

Eviation was at the Paris Air Show earlier this year with a small-scale prototype and is intent on returning in 2019 with a full-scale electric aircraft capable of carrying passengers.

Cofounders were at the Wall Street Journal technology conference to rustle up funding, with a goal of about US$20 million.

The start-up founded about two years ago has been paying its way out of pocket, with some help from the Israeli government, going through about US$10 million to date, Bar-Yohay said.

The new infusion of cash is to be used as fuel in a race to be first to market with an electric airplane, this one designed to carry up to nine passengers and two crew members.

“We have been sprinting full-speed for the past two years,” Bar-Yohay said. “I don’t think it is going to be winner takes all, but it will be winner takes a hell of a lot.”

In his eyes, the appeal was obvious. Instead of spending hours in a car traveling hundreds of kilometers, an electric airplane summoned on-demand to a regional airport would get passengers to far-away destinations quickly and inexpensively.

Eviation is out to take advantage of small, typically underutilized regional airports, making them lift-off spots for on-demand flights.

“It needs to cost like a bus ticket,” Bar-Yohay said of such a service. “If you build the plane electric, like a Tesla, the cost of operating becomes ridiculously low.”

Electric components for airplanes are a fraction of the cost of comparable parts for engines in traditional aircraft, and are more reliable, Bar-Yohay said.

“You need to build machines that will never break; electric components are naturally like this,” he said.

Eviation plane batteries are spread out in more than a dozen places, so “no matter what hits you, some part of the aircraft will have the power to keep you going,” he added.

The expected range of the Eviation plane is to be about 1,050km.

The vision is to have the aircraft be self-piloting, so it could be summoned by an app or be available as desired for people who pool resources to buy one.

“The market can become transportation for the masses,” Bar-Yohay said. “We are already getting used to not owning everything.”

He said that while society might be grappling with trusting self-driving cars, self-piloting aircraft have been around for decades.

“We are not here to steal clients from Cessna [Aircraft Co] or other aircraft makers,” Bar-Yohay said. “We are here to steal clients from Ford [Motor Co], GM [General Motors Co], Tesla ... because we can be cheaper per mile.”

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