Edge of Innovation

Future commuting: electric planes, trains and automobiles


Whether the big petroleum companies like it or not, electric vehicles are the future of travel. But how close are we to commuting in electric planes, trains and cars?

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge recently tested the world’s first hybrid-electric aircraft. The hybrid power system in the single-seat motor glider demonstrator is based on a 4-stroke Honda engine (7KW), which works in parallel with a custom-built electric motor/generator (10KW). This is powered by a set of 16 large lithium-polymer battery cells built into the aircraft’s wings.

The hybrid-electric aircraft can reduce fuel consumption by up to 30 per cent

During takeoff and climb, the two engines work together to drive the propeller. Once a cruising altitude is reached, the electric motor can be switched into generator mode to recharge the batteries (another world first) or it can be used to assist the petrol engine, reducing fuel consumption by up to 30 per cent.

The hybrid-electric flights are an important step towards cleaner, lower-carbon air travel in the future. Just as hybrid cars appeared before fully electric vehicles, we’ll eventually see greener, more efficient aeroplanes take to the sky.

electric hybrid aircraft
A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge recently tested the world’s first hybrid-electric aircraft.

Back in 2014, Airbus demonstrated its all-electric E-Fan 2.0 prototype aircraft, which can fly for about 30 minutes. While Boeing recently test flew its ecoDemonstrator 787 with a hybrid fuel mix of 15% green-diesel (brewed from used vegetable oils, waste cooking oil, and waste animal fats) and 85% petroleum jet-fuel.

An all-electric commercial aircraft would fly for less than 10 minutes using current tech

Unfortunately, all-electric commercial aeroplanes are still decades away. “If you were to replace all the engines and all the fuel in an airliner with batteries,” explains Dr Paul Robertson of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, “it would fly for just under 10 minutes.”

As with hybrid vehicles, the limitations of battery technology is holding all-electric transportation back.

Electric trains don’t face the same problem – they typically get their power from overhead power lines or from a third ‘conductor’ rail. A 25 Kv AC overhead system covers two thirds of the UK’s electrified railways, with further electrification planned in the coming years.

One of the next commuter routes to get an upgrade is the Great Western Main Line, which runs from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads and on to Cardiff. This will enable First Great Western to replace its 40 year-old Intercity diesel locomotives with Hitachi-built Super Express Trains, which have more seats, are cheaper to operate and emit 20-35% less carbon per passenger.

Hitrachi Super Express Train
Hitachi-built, electric Super Express Trains will be running on the Great Western Line by 2020.

While the future of road transport might be driverless cars, for now commuters remain very much in control and behind the wheel. Electric cars used to be an oddity, characterised by impractical models like the compact G-Wiz. But UK buyers have been snapping up bigger all-electric and hybrid models like the Toyota Prius, BMW i3, Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi Outlander P-HEV and the Renault Zoe.

Electric cars are improving all the time, both in terms of looks and performance. The popular Tesla Model S can go 0-60 in 3.2 seconds and has a range of up to 285 miles. The forthcoming SUV-style Tesla Model X looks to be even better and will undoubtedly compete against cars like the VW Passat GTE Plug-in and e Audi A3 e-Tron in the years ahead.


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