Electric jet start-up could become 'Uber in the sky'

An electric UAV "Orca", made by Eviation, being prepared for static display at the 52nd Paris Air Show in June. Eviation is intent on returning with a full-scale electric aircraft capable of carrying passengers in 2019.
An electric UAV "Orca", made by Eviation, being prepared for static display at the 52nd Paris Air Show in June. Eviation is intent on returning with a full-scale electric aircraft capable of carrying passengers in 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

LAGUNA BEACH (United States) • Eviation Aircraft chief executive Omer Bar-Yohay pictures a day not too far away when summoning a bargain plane ride with a smartphone will be as easy as hailing Uber.

The head of the Israel-based start-up working on a self-piloting, electric aircraft was at WSJD Live, a technology conference hosted by The Wall Street Journal, with a vision of "Uber meeting Tesla in the sky".

Mr Bar-Yohay on Tuesday spoke of a future in which people could take Uber to a regional airport, then use another smartphone app to summon an Eviation plane to whisk them inexpensively to destinations hundreds of kilometres away.

"What would happen if Uber meets Tesla in the sky?" Mr Bar-Yohay asked rhetorically in an interview. "I think it makes super-commuting not so super any more; you just go. That is the vision."

Eviation was at the Paris Air Show earlier this year with a small-scale prototype, and is intent on returning with a full-scale electric aircraft capable of carrying passengers in 2019.

Its co-founders were at the conference to rustle up funding, with a goal of about US$20 million (S$27.1 million).

The start-up founded about two years ago has been paying its way out of pocket, with some help from the Israeli government, going through about US$10 million to date, according to Mr Bar-Yohay.

The new infusion of cash will be used as fuel in a race to be first to market with an electric airplane, this one designed to carry up to nine passengers and two crew members.

"We have been sprinting full-speed for the past two years," Mr Bar-Yohay said. "I don't think it is going to be winner takes all, but it will be winner takes a hell of a lot." In his eyes, the appeal was obvious.

Instead of spending hours in a car travelling hundreds of kilometres, an electric plane summoned on-demand to a regional airport would get passengers to their destinations quickly and inexpensively.

Eviation is out to take advantage of small, typically underutilised regional airports, making them lift-off spots for on-demand flights.

"It needs to cost like a bus ticket," Mr Bar-Yohay said of such a service. "If you build the plane electric, like a Tesla, the cost of operating becomes ridiculously low."

The expected range of the Eviation plane will be about 1,050km.

The vision is to have the aircraft be self-piloting, so it could be summoned by an app or be available as desired for people who pool resources to buy one.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2017, with the headline 'Electric jet start-up could become 'Uber in the sky''. Print Edition | Subscribe