The Next Electric Vehicles Could Be Planes. They Won’t Take Off Soon.

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Electric vehicles are taking over the automotive world. But can they also take over commercial aviation? It’s a question that doesn’t come up all that often. 

But electrification comes up a lot in other settings. EV behemoth Tesla(ticker: TSLA) hosted its battery-technology day Tuesday evening and outlined plans to cut battery costs by more than 50%. Tesla hopes cheaper batteries, along with other improvements outlined, will dramatically increase penetration of electric cars.

Tesla isn’t alone in that goal. General Motors (GM) says it is committed to an all-electric future. Volkswagen (VOW.Germany) plans to offer electric versions—hybrid or plug in—for all of its models by 2030. 

UBS ran with the theme of electrification in a brief note published Friday. It looked for Boeing (BA) and Airbus (AIR.France) patent applications related to electric planes to get a sense of where commercial aviation is on its path to a lower-emission future.

Patent ApplicationsPatent applications related to electric flightSource: UBS Evidence LabBoeingAirbusSolid stateMotorPropulsionFuel cellHybridDensity050100150200250300350400450500

Boeing and Airbus have a total number of more than 2,000 patent applications between them, and Boeing has a two-to-one advantage. But Airbus investors shouldn’t be unnerved, as the company works with engine maker Rolls-Royce (RR.London) on existing electric and hybrid plane technologies.

Boeing wasn’t immediately available to comment on its current electrification programs. 

The UBS patent-keyword search illustrates the kinds of technologies needed to enable electric flight. Solid-state batteries have more energy per unit weight than today’s technology. Lighter, more-powerful batteries are important for planes. Fuel cells are another way to overcome the weight penalty of batteries. Nikola(NKLA) plans to sell heavy-duty trucks that uses electricity generated by hydrogen fuel cells to avoid the problem of heavy battery weight.

Heavy batteries aren’t a problem for consumers driving tens or hundreds of miles a day, but It’s a big problem as range is extended for commercial transportation or commercial flights. 

Then there are electric motors driving propellers of some kind. That’s another part of a theoretical electric-plane powertrain. 

The shift to electric planes, however, is generations away. Planes can take a decade to design, approve and bring to market and no electric propulsion system—for a commercial jet liner—is on the drawing board. 

Thinking about electric planes is a nice respite for weary aerospace investors. Covid-19 has decimated demand for commercial air travel and hurt stock values. Boeing and Airbus shares are down more than 50% year to date on average. Aerospace supplier stocks Barron’s tracks are down about 40% on average. U.S. airline stocks have fallen about 50% on average.

All the returns are far worse than comparable numbers for the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average. It’s been a rough year in the skies.

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