An interview with Mauritz Andersson: "They looked at me as if I was a bit wacky when I started talking about electric planes”
As part of our recently launched book Predicting the Unpredictable – a Nordic Approach to Shaping Future Cities, written by Jonas Gustavsson, President and CEO and Helena Paulsson, Head of Urban Development, we conducted a number of interviews with experts relevant to the book’s subject.
This is an excerpt from the book "Predicting the Unpredictable - a Nordic Approach to Shaping Future Cities".
Mauritz Andersson, has a PhD in and works as Researcher at the Department of Engineering Sciences, Division of Electricity at Uppsala University. He is the academic coordinator for ELISE, Electric Air Transport In Sweden, a Vinnova-financed consortium drawn from the aerospace industry, academia and other stakeholders. Flying cars have long been an unattainable dream for mankind. Practically all depictions of the future seem to take their existence for granted. Now we are coming close. Not by welding wings to our cars, but by making airplanes small and flexible enough to fulfil the same function. Much like helicopters but quieter and at a price equivalent to a taxi ride. This will fundamentally change the transport system and even reconfigure the city itself.
“They looked at me as if I was a bit wacky when I started talking about electric planes around 2012. Back then, there were maybe ten or twenty people at conferences in the United States. Since then, there has been an explosion of interest. Norway has now decided that all domestic flights will be electrified by 2040. I believe that we can do it even quicker.”
Will the energy density of batteries really be sufficient to run an airplane?
“When we talk about electric planes, one can get the impression that it’s simply a matter of placing an electric motor in an already existing aircraft model. In all likelihood that will not be possible, nor is it desirable. Today’s planes are simply too large. But that is answering the wrong question."
"The question we should be asking is: what type of transport do we want to achieve? Today, a battery lasts around 400 kilometres, at a conservative estimate. This will be at least doubled. It should be borne in mind that 40 per cent of all flights within Europe are shorter than 750 kilometres. Electric planes may not take us all the way to Thailand, but they can replace domestic flights and create a flexible, quiet, emission-free means of transport."
"The thing is, electric motors are much simpler constructions than internal combustion engines. An electric propeller has only one moving part. It is much easier to build, requires less maintenance and can be designed with independent drivetrains and separate batteries for increased safety."
"An electric motor is equally efficient no matter its size, while a turbine engine becomes more efficient the bigger it is. This paves the way for smaller planes that have no need whatsoever to resemble today’s planes. The prototypes already developed demonstrate astonishing creativity, some barely look like airplanes at all. The simple design of electric motors means that a great many competitors can test various types of craft, much like during the infancy of flight. One of the current paths of research is vertical takeoff and landing.”
But how does this impact the city? After all, airports are generally located well outside?
“Indeed, we have become accustomed to airports far from city centres. This was necessary due to noise, emissions and the need for long runways. All of that is in the process of changing. As electric planes will be smaller, perhaps carrying only four to eight people, the entire infrastructure will change. The transport system will become more flexible. Instead of airports, we will need urban landing sites. In Stockholm, the closure of Bromma Airport is being discussed. In my opinion, we will find Bromma too far from the city. We will want to land in Vasa Park in central Stockholm or on the roof of a city-centre building, and to fly directly to our destination."
"It will also be possible to fly long haul with electric planes, although a stopover may be necessary at some point. The time that takes will be easily saved on the waiting time at airports, connections at major airports and the fact that at the moment we almost never land anywhere near our eventual destination. On a recent trip to Barcelona i averaged 200 km/h, if you count time spent waiting at Arlanda, transfers and a quick connection at Heathrow. This can easily be matched by a small electric plane, even if it needs an occasional stopover. The greatest impact will therefore not be felt in big cities where residents already have a large airport relatively nearby. Flexibility and driverless taxiplanes will primarily benefit smaller towns. Norway is perfect for this, with short distances but a topography that makes flying a necessity for getting around the country.”
Won’t small electric planes be reserved for the wealthy, like private helicopters?
“No, you won’t need to own an electric plane, it will function as a robot taxi. Our assessment is that, once regulations eventually allow autonomous flight, the price will be on par with what a taxi journey costs today.”
So, when will this happen?
“It’s happening right now. ELISE will have small-scale prototypes in the air this year and by 2021 we plan to be flying a full-scale plane. Electric planes will be in use on scheduled routes in 2030, and within a decade it will be challenging the entire system of large airports and hub airports. This will probably happen in Norway first. Sweden doesn’t appear to be interested, unless our ELISE project manages to accomplish this of course. Sweden should be well placed to take a leading position in the market, given our aerospace industry, prominent universities and good collaboration between academia and the private sector. But this requires a certain level of interest that is thus far lacking.”