December 28th, 2019 by Nicolas Zart
2019 is drawing to a close, so let’s take stock of a decade of green mobility progress that started with a handful of startups a decade ago.
2019 was an explosive year for electric aviation, pushing the proverbial green mobility envelop further while electric cars continued their steady rise.
When I started writing about cool new cars with electric motors in 2007, there was only AC Propulsion and this other Californian startup called Tesla Motors at the time. It was easy to test drive everything. As time grew, Nissan unveiled its LEAF, with plenty of retrofitted Versa and Cube EVs to test drive as well. Ford came out with the Focus Electric, a good start that stalled to make way for the C-Max Energi (PHEV) and Hybrid as well as the Fusion Energi and Hybrid. And now, here comes the much-anticipated Mustang Mach-E!
There were some cool EVs, such as the Commuter Tango. With a low center of gravity, this one-in-the-front, one-in-the-back EV configuration won the attention of many, including George Clooney, who felt having one to zip back and forth between his house and Hollywood was the smartest option. I got a test ride in it and it was virtually glued to the road, even beating then Porsche 911s.
Then Audi gave us plenty of suspense with various iterations of the e-tron — yes, even back then in 2009. At first, it was supposed to be a pure EV, then a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and eventually a hybrid, but then nothing … until the A3 e-tron came out as a PHEV a few years later.
By then, BMW had wowed us with an amazing i8 PHEV and a funky looking i3. That’s when I met Benoit Jacob, head designer, who has since moved onto Byton. He won me over with his candid look at the industry and professionalism, rarely beaten by other artists in this category. Byton wasn’t even a glimmer in Carsten Breitfeld’s eyes at that point, then head of the BMW iDrive team. But something happened and BMW decided to hybridize its sedans instead of developing the cool EVs and PHEVs it fought so hard to make. Many of us felt it was the wrong move. Today, BMW at last is working to bring to market another fully electric vehicle, reportedly.
Then there were a few fun EVs with little corporate future. Honda’s Fit EV was oodles of fun. My German Porsche friend called it the happy car, a high praise. Honda never followed through on this great little EV, saying the US didn’t want it, as many other automakers were telling us about their EVs at the time. Specialized media journalists didn’t agree.
There also was the Kia Soul EV, which was the very first EV that didn’t get me to sprint to a charger every time I used it. The generous 90-mile battery pack was enough to drive 2 to 3 days for an average work commute and still take your time to recharge at home or a fast charger. Today, the Niro EV and Hyundai’s Kona are probably the best bang for your buck in this class, with plenty of standard features you’d expect on higher-end models, 240 to 270-mile range (respectively for the Niro and the Kona), and adaptive cruise control — maybe not quite as sophisticated as a Tesla, but at lower prices, these EVs make so much sense.
By that time Tesla landed the mothership, the Model S. I met Franz von Holzhausen in 2008 when he was working on Project Whitestar and told me: “Nicolas, you can’t imagine how freeing it is to work on a car without the constraint of placing a gasoline tank and a thermal engine.” And the wait was well worth it. The Model S almost eclipsed the Roadster in my heart. I was there when Tesla unveiled the P90D — and oh, my, that was a blast. The P90D driver asked us if we didn’t have any drinks. I thought he was being cocky until the 690 HP kicked in. That thoroughly convinced me EVs could be as good as any nicely tuned thermal engine belching cars. And then the Autopilot demonstration showed how far ahead of the curve Tesla was.
But sitting in Steve Saleen’s Model S race-tuned version in an out-of-the-way Californian desert race track showed me the dormant potential of the S. With copious amount of adrenaline rushing through my body, Steve Saleen pushed his highly tuned Model S through the track, back then the only problem left to solve was the overheating issue. My, how far the Model S has come.
And then there are the startups that get it, like Arcimoto in Eugene, Oregon. I test drove the first Arcimoto in 2012 at the LA Auto Show. It was a funky, open, two-seat, three-wheeled EV. It was fun, no doubt about it. A decade later, the company has diligently refined it and is now producing it, as well as having had a successful IPO. And there is much more to come from the crew.
Although this is just a highlight, there were many more. CODA had an amazing concept but relied on an outdated car that wasn’t enough to convince the public, despite its 133-mile range EV. Its thermal management was above and beyond what anyone did at the time.
What About Aviation?
The lingering thought was, when will we have electric airplanes? Hamilton aEro showed a 2-seater, good for an hour’s worth of flying, perfect for aerobatics. It sported electric Siemens motors – that division now part of Rolls-Royce. This led to a lot of enthusiasm in the aviation field, and let’s face it, a lot of boohoos from traditional aviation folks. It was no different than writing about electric cars in 2007 when they were considered quaint golf carts not able to handle hills. Time would tell, and time is telling. Today, Boeing and Airbus have electric vertical takeoff & landing (eVTOL) aircraft projects. eVTOL.news lists no fewer than 238 at the time of writing, the 239th coming soon.
At last, the idea of automotive and aviation convergence isn’t that far off. Audi briefly teamed up with Airbus, with a skateboard and a cockpit attached whenever needed to a pair of flying wings. Been there, thought of that, and it will happen, eventually.
Aviation startups stepped in through the doors opened by Uber Elevate, and now Uber Air.
ASX is showing how an electric tilt-wing concept approach could handle electric vertical takeoff & landing (eVTOL) air taxi use, while Jaunt Air Mobility stunned us with a modernized and wild gyrocopter developed to further take urban air mobility (UAM) to the next level shown, revealed at the 2019 NBAA.
It didn’t take long for Bell to step in with the Nexus, a six-duct-rotor air taxi unveiled at CES last year. Meanwhile, eHang wasn’t about to let its drone experience go to waste. It increased the capacity enough to carry human passengers. Today, it is about to introduce the first eVTOL service in the world.
My talks with George Bye from Bye Aerospace and the soon to be published interview I had with him showed me how practical electric fixed-wing aircraft are. Bye has consistently and pragmatically improved his 2-seat eFlyer to grow to a 4-seater. He struck an amazing deal with another company that greatly impressed me, Quantum XYZ. I met with Tony Thompson, its CEO, about how the company developed its air taxi operation. I will produce a few articles on it. Quantum XYZ has a lot going for it.
Ampaire showed us eVTOL aircraft aren’t the only show in town. By retrofitting a Cessna 337, it is about to show how these conversions can handle 4 to 9-seat commuters on short distances using Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s. VoltAero is taking a similar approach, but much different in the details and scope of operations. I recently spoke with Jean Botti who came straight out of Airbus to create VoltAero, with a lot of professional experience, and built a team of extraordinary aviation folks about to unleash the full potential of a hybrid-electric airplane that can fly on electricity alone and in a hybrid mode faster and further than any other projects I’ve seen to date. This is going to be an epic fight!
Hydrogen has come back with ZeroAvia. My talk with Val Miftakhov, its CEO, did a great job showing me hydrogen fuel cells have a viable future in the aviation industry. I’m also working on compiling my notes to write a future article on how ZeroAvia sees this industry segment and makes sense of it. It is compelling.
On the complete other end of the environmentally cleaner spectrum, SolarStratos is an aviation project aiming to reach the stratosphere powered by solar energy only. SolarStratos, its scientists, and technical partners are making a point about how far future aviation can go to respect the environment. The project’s success depends on this respect and an eco-responsible vision. And what’s not to like about that flying at 80,000 ft (24,000 m)?
What New Frontiers Are Left For Green Mobility
The secret card which isn’t so secret is Hyperloop technology. Specifically, the Virgin Hyperloop One project is progressing at great speed, close to 700 MPH. I’ve been talking to these folks to see how hyperloop technology closes the loop on the future potential of green mobility. With cleaner electric cars on the road riding to eVTOL and electric fixed-wing aircraft, hyperloops are the last pillar for seamless mobility on this planet. We might have to wait a little bit while tunnels are bored, though, so let’s be patient.
What can we expect for the 2020s? Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) are terms you will hear a lot with regarding to eVTOL aircraft. But perhaps what Boeing inflicted on itself could be used as a guiding light for what not to do with the future of eVTOL and eCTOL certification. I’m working on a 3,000 word article trying to recap the intricacies and bigger angle of the 737 MAX nightmare involving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), investors, Congress, and airlines, all sharing fault and the burden of 346 dead souls and countless family members and friends grieving.
What to Expect in 2020 in Green Mobility
After Harbour Air made world history by flying an electric seaplane, 2020 will be a year when all eyes are on electric aviation certification as the FAA steps up its game. It will also be a year when electric aviation projects start to band together.
Hyperloop will come out in full maturity.
We’re still waiting on the maritime world to electrify its carbon footprint. Sadly, that is the only industry that has for the most part shielded itself from going electric. It will have to happen one way or the other.
Uber will continue to get everyone excited at the prospect of short-hop electric flights as more aviation startups beef up their operations side of the business.
As always, watch for business models to see which companies are adapting.
What else do you see happening in 2020 as we close this decade?
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