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Llewellyn King

Llewellyn King

Llewellyn King is the executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS. His e-mail address is lking@kingpublishing.com

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Disruptive Tech: Electric Airplanes Could Destroy The Automotive Industry

autonomous plane

Electricity, the world’s silent workhorse for a century, is about to conquer new worlds.

While electric cars are coming on fast, their acceptance will speed up geometrically in the next decade, according to an extraordinary new study by RethinkX, a San Francisco-based research group and think tank. Indeed, the group is predicting a true revolution in electrified transportation.

In this revolution, futuristic companies with a lot of talent and a lot of money -- like Uber, Google and Amazon -- will be seminal players. Old-line car companies and the oil companies will have to deal with a new order in which their roles could be dramatically diminished.

The big winner in this transportation future is electricity. Even the electric airplane -- an idea about as old as aviation -- is surging forward.

RethinkX raised the curtain on the future of ground transportation in its new study, Uber raised the curtain on the future of the electric airplane this month at its Elevate conference in Dallas. More than 500 aviation enthusiasts attended the conference: dreamers, designers, builders -- and even venture capital investors, who have already signed their checks. Dozens of designs for small electric airplanes, using multiple rotors and batteries, were on display. Enthusiasm was incandescent.

This July small, electric pilotless aircraft -- crosses between drones and helicopters -- are scheduled to go into service in Dubai. They are supposed to ferry single passengers from their hotels and other gathering points to airports and recreation centers in the largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates.

These small aircraft, with electric motors and batteries, have an endurance time of about 30 minutes. EHang, a Chinese company, developed them.

If Uber, and more than a dozen other U.S. companies have their way, similar aircraft will one day take their place in the skies of America and other advanced nations. Uber hopes to test-fly an electric airplane in 2020.

According to RethinkX, the private car is about to disappear, or to be rapidly reduced in importance. The report -- which might boost the stock of futuristic companies and electric utilities, and depress the stock of oil companies and old-line car makers and oil companies -- is making waves in the far reaches of corporate thinking.

Tony Seba, co-founder of RethinkX and co-author of the report, told me that mainstream analysts are not yet on board with the changes which will rock the automobile, oil and electric industries. They have not understood the impact of technological convergence, he said.

He sees a future, about to happen, in which driverless electric cars, owned not by individuals, but rather by transportation companies like Uber, flood the streets, to be summoned by phone and directed by voice: “Take me out to the ballgame.”

Seba, an MIT-trained engineer and student of what he calls “disruption,” told me he expects a convergence between electric vehicles, automated driving and ride-sharing will come soon, reducing the number of vehicles on U.S. roads from 247 million in 2020 to 44 million in 2030.

“The average family will save $5,600 in transportation costs,” Seba says.

Apart from the transport companies, the big winner will be the utilities which will see a demand growth of 18 percent, Seba predicts. He believes present infrastructure can accommodate this growth surge because demand will be mostly off-peak. Related: Expert Commentary: How Hedge Funds Play The OPEC Deal Extension

There are similar expectations of a golden future for small, electric, vertical takeoff airplanes, incorporating drone and other technologies. The limit for the aircraft, which use lithium batteries, is the batteries. But the enthusiasts gathered at Uber's conference say flight is possible now with present-day batteries and these will only get better.

Richard Whittle, a leading aviation journalist and author who chaired an Elevate session, told me, “It was a pretty impressive event.”

While the arguments by Seba and his co-author James Arbib, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist, point to an electrified transportation future, I have one question: Will people give up the personal, primal pleasure of owning a car?


Seba and Arbib think so, pointing out that people used to take pride in their LP and CD collections, but now they access their music electronically.

The future is pulling up on a highway near you; it may also be flying overhead.

By Llewellyn King for Oilprice.com

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  • zipsprite on May 15 2017 said:
    Electric cars? Full steam ahead. They are the future. Personal electric "planes"? Not going to happen, other than as a toy and novelty for the rich. Think about it- how practical is it as a mode of transportation? Because of range, you are mainly talking about cities. How many people in NYC have room for a plane to land and take off, even vertically? Think power lines, trees, buildings, other planes. Think about bad weather; weather you wouldn't hesitate to drive in, but which would ground your expensive sky toy. How are the neighbors going to feel about it (they are NOT quiet)? Now imagine thousands or tens of thousands of these things buzzing around overhead, landing and taking off. Is that something you would want to live under? Think about thousands of them in the air and a freak storm rolling through. Really??? Who is going to insure them? You will not be flying legally without a very good (expensive) insurance policy. Say your apartment building can host a small number of them on the roof (otherwise you have to access some other mode of transportation to get to a take off point), where are you going to go? Your options will be very limited. You aren't going to the grocery store, the dry cleaners or the movie theater- there just isn't the capacity to handle that kind of air traffic at most places you need to go. Maybe you could go to the airport! That would be handy! Oops, bet they aren't allowed anywhere near any commercial airport, for obvious reasons. Oh and don't forget cargo capacity will be VERY limited by both size and weight. But wouldn't it be fun to fly one? Hah Hah! They will be totally controlled by computer with absolutely no input from the passenger other than destination. Anything else would require an impossible amount of air traffic control and an unrealistic requirement of competence of "pilots". There will be no such thing as just cruising around freely. People are having all kinds of fun fantasizing about this but it ain't a real thing. Navigating in three dimensions is a whole different animal than navigating in essentially two dimensions, as cars do and it is exponentially more complicated and expensive.
  • Steve on May 16 2017 said:
    zipsprite is barely scratching the surface on the problems with this "technology". Current FAA regs on airplanes is that they must have enough fuel to reach their destination and an extra 30 minutes of fuel. This reg would effectively ground these planes as they are currently constructed because they can only fly 30 minutes max.

    There are also very strict and rigorous requirements for licensing of pilots. I can't imagine that the licensing requirements for these electric vehicles would be less stringent. If anything they should be more stringent.

    And the big, big elephant in the room for any electric powered vehicle is the battery technology. They simply do not have the energy density that fossil fuels have. So they can store less energy and they also take hours to recharge. How is that even remotely practical?

    And before anyone pipes up with "technology will improve", all I can say is that you have to assume that batteries will eventually be improved to the point of practicality. I see no evidence that that will ever happen. I could be wrong, but if it does happen, it will be a random event and not something anyone should count on.
  • GregS on May 16 2017 said:
    Not to mention you will be trying to fly through a swarm of Amazon drones delivering parcels, a swarm of Dominos drones trying to deliver pizza, not to mention the swarm of drones already doing stupid stuff like spying on neighbours, police drones, news channel drones etc etc.

    No thanks, I will just stay safe on the ground and hope one of these idiots does not fall out of the sky on top of me.
  • Kent on May 20 2017 said:
    Um....no. Won't happen.
  • Jack on May 23 2017 said:
    Electric airplane? Don't hold your breath, the simple fact is there are no battery technology that can even come close to the energy density of gasoline or jet fuel. When, if ever, there is a battery that is even close to providing enough energy AND can be recharged as fast as a liquid fuel you might see a PRACTICAL electric aircraft.

    The laws of physics can't be replaced with wishful thinking....
  • Slideguy on May 23 2017 said:
    The usual, totally unthought-out hype about a personal aircraft in your garage, and the air full people like that moron that cut you off on the freeway. Don't you people think before you write?
  • Teh Gerg on May 26 2017 said:
    Electric airplanes don't scare me. Unqualified pilots of electric airplanes scare me. They need to function purely on autopilot except for emergency situations.
  • Vernon Mooney on May 28 2017 said:
    Even if these things become feasible, the Koch bros. and other fossil fuel people will probably try to undermine it.
  • Bob on June 02 2017 said:
    Agree with the shift to fewer private cars and more automated, e-cars run by transport companies. My question: how will that effect the plans for US infrastructure re-build if we expect less private cars on road?
  • carlos on June 04 2017 said:
    I'm surprised nobody talks about the most obvius risk...TERRORISM.Should I explain this?...hope not because the possibilities are limitless and don't want to give any bad ideas
  • DC on June 07 2017 said:
    The plastic which will inevitably be used in the construction of these planes will come from where, yep from oil. If all gasoline cars where removed from our roads we will still need oil companies.
  • Jens Zeemann on June 08 2017 said:
    WOW!, The list of negative comments here are astonishing!
    People, just realize - where there are problems, there are opportunities waiting to be taken.
    if no one pushes the envelope simply because of the negative thought patterns then no innovation will occur.
    In case you haven't been keeping up with tech, perhaps you should take a much more deeper look at what's happening with battery technology. And more importantly the path that it's on at the moment. But that's not to say things will change overnight, of course.

    The same thing that's happening with driver-less vehicles will HAVE to happen with personal flying vehicles - no human control allowed because we know just how badly some human beings behave in cars today. That's the only way that personal flying vehicles can become reality. So that takes care of that whole list of problems mentioned by zipsprite and seconded by others. We already see this in Drones. Plus there'll be no need to park the flying vehicle at one's place of abode because there'll be no need to OWN it. Just think about that.
    There are solutions to problems. So please stop being so negative.

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