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Eviation Gains Backing From Billionaire Richard Chandler To Make First Electric Passenger Plane Take Flight

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Many in the aviation industry believe that an electric passenger plane with a useful range and seating capacity is at least a decade away. The Israeli startup Eviation is hoping to prove this year that it can get there a lot sooner.

The company is working feverishly to assemble a prototype of its nine-passenger battery-electric plane by June to display at the Paris air show, and to gain an airworthiness certificate shortly thereafter to begin flight testing in the United States.

The 35-employee company is getting its funding and supply chain squared away. It says it’s secured the roughly $200 million it needs to get through certification, and it announced Wednesday that it will source high-power electric motors from Siemens.

A good chunk of its funding is from Clermont Group, the private investment fund of Singapore-based billionaire Richard Chandler, which acquired notes convertible to a 70% share in Eviation for $76 million, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission dated Jan. 3.

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Eviation is developing a plane targeted at the regional transportation market in North America, believing there’s untapped demand for short-haul flights of 500 miles or less at a lower price than currently possible with the piston and turboprop planes that ply many secondary routes.

Amid a flood of startups trying to build electric urban air taxis that can take off and land vertically, Eviation stand out with its strategy to tack a new propulsion system onto an airframe that isn’t radically different from existing ones, and to serve and expand an existing market, which could give it greater near-term odds of winning regulatory approval.

Washington State’s Zunum Aero is also taking a similar approach, but the Boeing-backed company is planning to use a hybrid gas-electric propulsion system.

Eviation says its plane, dubbed Alice, will be able to cruise at 275 mph with a maximum range of 650 miles, with a half hour of recharging time for every hour in the air. The company claims that the plane’s reduced maintenance demands and the much lower cost of electricity relative to aviation fuel will give it direct operating costs of about $200 per flight hour, at least 50% less than turboprop planes with comparable seating capacity.

“This is a game-changing cost reduction,” CEO Omer Bar-Yohay told Forbes in a telephone interview. He’s betting Alice’s low operating costs will motivate fleet operators of small planes to replace decades-old Cessna Caravans or Beechcraft King Airs.

Eviation debuted a one-third scaled autonomous version at the 2017 Paris Air Show that the company has flown to validate its design. The plane will will weigh 14,000 pounds and measure 60 feet across the wings, larger than comparable conventional aircraft, with a little more than half the weight accounted for by the batteries, which will be distributed throughout the fuselage and wings.

It will have a main pusher propeller behind its V-shaped tail and two smaller propellers at either wingtip that will reduce drag. Bar-Yohay says the weight and the ability the plane will have to adjust thrust propeller by propeller will give the plane a smoother ride.

“You can do yaw corrections or even pitch corrections not by moving control surfaces but by using differential thrust,” says Bar-Yohay, who spent 13 years in the Israel Defense Forces as a paratroop officer.

His co-founder, Aviv Tzidon, is a former fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force and serial entrepreneur who has taken three tech startups public on the Nasdaq.

The plane will be controlled by a fly-by-wire system developed with Honeywell. Siemens will supply electric motors with an output of 260 kilowatts; lithium-ion batteries will be supplied by Kokam of South Korea. The French company Multiplast is producing the composite airframe and is assembling the initial prototype.

Bar-Yohay says Eviation has had extensive discussions with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on requirements for certification, a milestone he hopes to achieve in 2021, with first deliveries in 2022.

While Bar-Yohay acknowledges that there could be a first-mover disadvantage in being the first company to try to certify a commercial electric passenger aircraft, he says it won’t require the rule-writing that will be needed to bring radical new designs like VTOL air taxis to market.

“Our plane behaves like a plane and looks like a plane,” says Bar-Yohay.”For the regulatory bodies we’re probably the aircraft they want to see first.”

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Nonetheless there are a multitude of safety questions that the FAA has never addressed before, warns Ernie Arvai, head of the consultancy AirInsight, including the fire risks of the batteries, charging degradation and power reserves, and the agency could proceed cautiously and potentially painfully slowly for Eviation. “If there’s something that they don’t understand there’s a risk aversion and they won’t push it,” he says.

Arvai anticipates the painstaking certification process, which is expensive even in the best cases, could cost 1-1/2 times the norm for Eviation.

Bar-Yohay says he has a sufficient war chest to make it through to what he calls initial “embryonic” production of 10 to 20 airframes a year, with a total of roughly $200 million in capital raised and loans.

The lion’s share of that appears to be from billionaire Richard Chandler, a native of New Zealand who moved to Singapore in 2006 after shutting down Sovereign Group, an investment firm he co-founded with his brother Christopher. Chandler’s Clermont Group has also invested in MagniX, a Redmond, Wash.-based startup developing an electric propulsion system for aircraft.

An Isle of Man-registered company called Timon Limited also has made a $10 million investment in Eviation, according to an SEC filing. Bar-Yohay declined to disclose the sources of the rest of the company’s funding.

The company filed to deregister its U.S. listing as an over-the-counter stock.

Bar-Yohay says Eviation has firm orders from two small commercial carriers for a “double-digit number” of aircraft, enough to account for the first two years of production.

Eviation may be targeting the right market, says Arvai, and he’s impressed by the plane’s design, but he’s skeptical that the current generation of batteries have a high enough power to weight ratio to allow the company to deliver a product that has competitive operating costs.

Many short-haul planes operate for 11 to 12 hours a day, notes Arvai, with perhaps one 15-minute refueling. If the Eviation Alice will need a half hour of charging for every hour in the air, and it can only fly 8 or 9 hours a day, that would reduce the number of flights it could perform and revenue.

“I think they’re ahead of where the battery technology needs to be,” Arvai says. “We will get there, but I think it’s 2030, not 2022.”  

Bar-Yohay believes batteries are good enough now, and that this is a rare moment when scrappy entrepreneurs can elbow their way into aerospace by leveraging new technologies. “Someday we’ll look back and say, ‘these were the good old days.’ “

-Jeremy Bogaisky; Forbes Staff

Billionaires

Tesla Vehicles Could Soon Become Completely Autonomous As Self-Driving Tech ‘Very Close’, Elon Musk Says

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Tesla vehicles could soon be completely autonomous as CEO Elon Musk said the electric vehicle firm is “very close” to achieving level 5 autonomous driving technology, during a virtual appearance at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai.

KEY FACTS

  • “I’m extremely confident that level 5 or essentially complete autonomy will happen and I think will happen very quickly,” Musk said.
  • He added that he is confident “basic functionality” for level 5 complete autonomy will be achieved this year.
  • The technology will allow vehicles to drive on roads without driver input.
  • Tesla, the world’s highest-valued carmaker after overtaking Toyota last week, already operates an Autopilot system that uses external cameras, radars and sensors, but it is driver assisted and does not make the vehicle autonomous.

KEY BACKGROUND

Tech firms, including Uber and Alphabet-owned Waymo, have pumped billions into developing self-driving cars, a futuristic idea that many had predicted would be ready by this year. But limitations around AI have stalled development of the technology. Last month, Waymo and Volvo announced they were teaming up to develop driverless cars for ride-hailing use.

TANGENT

In February, the National Transportation Safety Board found Tesla’s autopilot driver assistance was likely to blame for a fatal 2018 crash in California, leading to the board calling for more regulation of the technology, and for the company to better educate drivers on its limitations.

ADDITIONAL INFO

The road to completely autonomous driving has five levels: Level 0 describes no automation i.e. everyday cars. Level 1 represents features such as adaptive cruise control, while level 2 describes partial automation features that control speed and steering, such as those seen in Tesla vehicles. Level 3 and 4 represent limited driverless capabilities. Level 5 is the point at which a driverless vehicle can navigate all road conditions without human input, according to True Car.

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Elon Musk, Kim Kardashian Endorse Kanye West Running For President

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After years of hints, Kanye West formally announced he is running for president this year in a challenge to Trump, who he once supported, and Democratic rival Joe Biden, winning support from his friend and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

KEY FACTS

  • Rounding off his Fourth of July, West tweeted on Saturday night: “We must now realize the promise of America by trusting God, unifying our vision and building our future. I am running for president of the United States! #2020VISION.”
  • Musk tweeted in response: “You have my full support!”
  • Wife Kim Kardashian also publicly pledged her support, retweeting West’s statement and adding a U.S. flag emoji.
  • West’s announcement follows years of hints that he would run for office this year which he later postponed to 2024, after publicly declaring at a Fast Company event in 2019: “When I run for president in 2024…We would create so many jobs! I’m not going to run, I’m going to walk.”
  • But the rapper, who recently inked a 10-year deal with Gap through his Yeezy brand, is reportedly yet to file any paperwork to get on state election ballots, while he has missed the deadline for states including Texas, New York, and Indiana.
  • It is not known how serious West’s intentions are this time around, however, he still has time to file as an independent candidate across most states, according to Ballotpedia.
  • West’s declaration was met with skepticism on social media, while some commentators pointed out that it could work out in Trump’s favour.

KEY BACKGROUND

West’s declaration suggests the rapper is looking to cement political ambitions he has expressed throughout Trump’s presidency. West previously forged alliances with Trump, and was pictured in the Oval Office in 2018 wearing a signature Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ cap. He once called the president his “brother” and previously hit back at criticism towards his support for Trump, likening the backlash to racial discrimination. Although he says he didn’t vote in 2016, West later said he “would have voted for Trump”, and earlier this year doubled down, suggesting he would vote for him in November. But that could very well change given Saturday’s announcement.

American rapper and producer Kanye West embraces real estate developer and US President Donald Trump in the White House’s Oval Office, Washington DC, October 11, 2018. West wears a red baseball cap that reads ‘Make America Great Again,’ Trump’s campaign slogan. (Photo by Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)

TANGENT

West and Musk were pictured together on July 1st, with West tweeting: “When you go to your boys [sic] house and you’re both wearing orange.”

Isabel Togoh, Forbes Staff, Business

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Quote Of The Day

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We have grown past the stage of fairy-tale. As women, we have one common front and that is to succeed. We have to take the bull by the horn and make the change happen by ourselves.

– Folorunso Alakija, Billionaire Businesswoman

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