Sustainable Energy

Tesla-style electric passenger planes to be developed by Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens

Key Points
  • Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens will work together to develop a hybrid-electric engine
  • The E-Fan X program aims to have a prototype plane in the air within 3 years
  • The long-term aim is to power a regional 100-seat passenger jet
A graphic of the proposed E-Fan X hybrid-electric demonstrator.

Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens have teamed up to develop a passenger plane powered by a hybrid-electric motor.

The aim of the project — dubbed the E-Fan X — is to replace one of four gas turbine engines on a short-haul airliner with the motor for a test flight by 2020. If successful, a second gas turbine motor would then be swapped out.

"We see hybrid-electric propulsion as a compelling technology for the future of aviation," said Paul Eremenko, Airbus' chief technology officer, in a press release Tuesday.

The next big step is for German manufacturer Siemens to develop a two-megawatt motor to take power from a new Rolls-Royce generator. The wattage is comparable to about seven times the peak output from a Tesla Model S.

Airbus has previously estimated that a regional short-haul plane able to carry around 100 people would need a combined power output of about 20 megawatts.

The European aircraft manufacturer said it is building on its small two-seater hybrid-electric plane, the E-Fan Plus, which debuted in summer 2016 at the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh air show in Wisconsin.

Plans to develop that jet for commercial use have been shelved as the ambition for electric flight has now been upped to include short-haul passenger aircraft.

This Airbus infographic breaks down the division of responsibilities between the companies.

The E-Fan X program will see Rolls-Royce develop the gas turbine engine and two-megawatt generator; Siemens will develop the two-megawatt electric motor under the wing; and Airbus will take responsibility for integration of the system, including how it works with flight controls.

The European Commission's environmental goals for the air transport industry by 2050 include a 75 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, a 90 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides and a 65 percent fall in noise pollution.

The three companies said in a joint press release that these ambitions cannot be met by current technologies and that hybrid-electric propulsion is the most promising solution.

Zunum Aero unveils details on its hybrid-electric plane

Zunum Aero, a start-up based in suburban Seattle, believes millions of people will be comfortable flying on the hybrid electric planes it plans to deliver starting in 2022.

The hybrid electric jet will seat up to 12 people, fly up to 700 miles and have operating costs of 8 cents per seat mile, according to the firm behind it.