From time to time, Elon Musk hints at a Tesla aircraft. As usual he’s aiming high, but what sort of aircraft does he have in mind?
Last August, Elon Musk hinted that a Tesla aircraft is maybe just 3-4 years away. It wasn’t his first such statement. It all depends on battery technology, but that timeline is what he thinks is needed for such a project. This month he came back. First it was on the heels of Airbus’ announcement of their hydrogen power plans. Then again on the anniversary of Concorde’s last flight.
Sigh … there should be a new supersonic jet, this time electric
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 25, 2020
Of course electric GA aircraft are already here, with some bigger projects already taking shape and flying. Flight schools, that put as many flight hours as they can on their airframes, are really keen on the idea – especially in those parts of the world where fuel is expensive.
That’s a key point for many: how far away are we from the point where electrification of aviation makes sense, even if we ignore the environmental aspect? This is NOT an attempt to make light of the latter. But historically, nothing convinces people (and companies) better than the impact to their pockets.
That’s where companies like Tesla (and Nikola) are operating, when it comes to freight transport over land: they study their product and network development, to match their current capabilities in operating electrified (or hydrogen) trucks. The financial world is looking at these developments with interest. When they work en masse, they will shift electrification from being a marketing strategy, to becoming part of the operations of freight, aviation and other company sectors.
Tesla Aircraft Batteries
Electric aircraft already exist today, with more tested regularly. But scaling up requires major developments in batteries. In August, Musk hinted at a Tesla aircraft being feasible if we have batteries with 400 watt hours per kilogram. Preferably 500Wh/kg. Tesla’s batteries in its Model 3 car (introduced in 2018) are at 260Wh/kg.
In September Musk revealed more details on battery technologies that they are working on. They involve crucial improvements in many areas. These include multiple materials, manufacturing, vehicle integration and supply chain management. It’s all quite promising, but the main focus was on cost per watt hour, not reductions in weight.
While nobody will knock on cheaper high-performance batteries, a Tesla aircraft needs lighter batteries. Progress on battery weight wasn’t really expected last month, given the 3-4 year timeline Musk gave in August.
OK But Batteries For What?
But there’s still no real hint on what sort of aircraft Elon Musk has in mind. In a September 2018 interview, he mentioned a supersonic VTOL aircraft. Three days ago he repeated his supersonic aspirations on Twitter.
Musk probably isn’t thinking of Tesla aircraft for electric long-haul travel. That’s because his SpaceX company has lofty long-term goals including intercontinental travel with missiles. And such a concept would be far from an early target in any case.
Even with 400Wh/kg batteries an aircraft would fly happily, but it would need much more work to go supersonic. Musk has made clear he’s against hydrogen technology for cars. We don’t know if that view also translates to his Tesla aircraft plans, especially with Airbus getting on the act.
But from a business sense, it would be safer to assume that his company will aim to diverge existing technologies from cars, into aviation. These could include newer aircraft concepts with smaller airframes in use for commercial travel.
The entrepreneur has already followed through on plenty of ambitious projects, but will we actually see a Tesla aircraft? And what will it look like? All that is safe to assume is that he’s aware of GA electric aircraft developments, and is aiming higher. Or faster. Or both. The 4-year timeline is plenty for other developments to bear fruit.
Picture Credit: Eviation