Is the future of affordable travel self-flying cars and electric airplanes?
A pair of aeronautical headlines hit the Northwest Thursday. A Bothell company has found its engine for their line of hybrid-electric airplanes, while Boeing’s CEO announced that operational flying cars are just a few years away.
Bothell’s Zunum Aero has quietly been developing a hybrid-electric airplane, billed as a “Chevy Volt for the skies,” with funding coming straight from Boeing-run HorizonX. The design calls for a plane that carries anywhere between 10 and 50 passengers, with a 700-mile range before its battery requires a fresh charge.
Now, Zunum has finally found an engine capable of powering the plane. Wired describes it as a “gas turbine … modified version of the Ardiden 3Z engine made by Safran Helicopter Engines, coupled to a generator that will deliver 500 kilowatts of electric power.”
They go on to note that the significance here is that most other batteries are “far too big and heavy to make long-distance commercial flights even remotely possible.”
Given the size of the plane and the limited travel distance, the goal here is short-range, affordable travel, rather than your more typical globe-trotting, international flight options offered by bigger airlines.
Boeing’s flying cars
This comes right on the heels of an announcement from Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, outlining an ambitious plan to have fully operational self-flying cars ready in less than five years.
“Imagine a future city that has three-dimensional highways, with flying taxis, flying cars,” Muilenburg said at the recent Geekwire Summit. “That future is not that far away. In fact we are building the prototype vehicles today. We are also investing in the ecosystem that will allow that to operate safely and reliably as it must.”
That said, Tom Tangney aptly points out we’re still not all that close to flying cars becoming a reality.
“It’s a little misleading,” Tangney says. “(Muilenberg) acknowledges that this whole vision of self-flying cars taking people around is still pretty far off. It’ll take much longer than five years — you have to change the entire infrastructure of [how] transportation works in this country.”
That all puts the short-term goal more in the realm of cargo transportation than commercial passenger flights.
Between this and the Boeing-funded Zunum Aero hybrid-electric airplane, there seems to be a concerted effort on Boeing’s part to bring affordable, short-range air travel into the future.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, average airfare in 2018 out of Sea-Tac Airport currently sits at $331.84. Shorter range, in-state flights run a little lower, ranging between $100 and $200 depending on where your going (as of publishing, it’s $144 to fly into Pasco, WA out of Seattle, and $119 to Spokane).
If Boeing has a way to pull that in-state price even lower with the quieter, more efficient aircraft Zunum is building, then that represents a win-win for travelers. Factor in smaller airports like Everett’s Paine Field opening up to passenger service to major U.S. travel hubs, and the future of travel could end up being affordable for everyone.