The Chevy Volt of airplanes, the Volta Volare GT4, is ready to fly
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Seriously: electric airplanes. They’re about to take off. Testing begins this spring on the Volta Volare GT4. A recent story in Popular Science spiked interest in the four-passenger carbon fiber aircraft that isn’t really an electric plane but more of a plug-in hybrid plane, much like the Chevrolet Volt. (The PopSci headline touted “electric airplane” and the story admitted “hybrid drivetrain.”) Whatever it is, the Volta Volare aeronautics company of Portland, Oregon says the plane can travel 300 miles on battery power, then a 1.5-liter gasoline engine engages and extends the plane’s range to 1,000 miles. The company sees the plane being attractive for its low cost of operation and its environmental friendliness. Aviation gasoline (avgas) is typically leaded fuel, which has been gone from motor vehicle fuel since the 1980s. On a 200-mile trip in a comparable four-passenger gas-engine private plane, you’d burn $80 worth of avgas, while the electricity to carry the GT4 200 miles would cost only $20.
The plane is made of carbon fiber with a carbon fiber pusher prop (in back) and a canard design, meaning the big wing is in back, the short wing in front. The GT4 uses an array of 236 off-the-shelf lithium-polymer batteries weighing 900 pounds. The company says the battery pack and 600 hp (peak) electric motor weigh less than the internal combustion engine on a comparable plane, which allowed engineers to add in extra batteries for physical balancing of the plane. There’s also a 23-gallon gas tank. The gas engine kicks in when battery power falls to 25%.
Volta Volare says low maintenance costs will be a big attraction. The gas engine on a private plane needs an annual inspection that could cost several thousand dollars. In comparison, the GT4 could get by with a simple diagnostic checkup by laptop: Just plug in a USB cable to the electric motor. (Give or take the costs of checking the gasoline engine the GT4 has as well as the electric motor.) There hasn’t been much discussion of the plane’s actual list price, but its carbon fiber fuselage can’t be cheap. Its specifications, including a 160-knot cruising speed (184 mph), place it a level higher than the basic Cessna 182 four-passenger private plane that cruises at around 150 mph. Some of the electricity-not-gasoline savings are nice but still dwarfed by the purchase price that is likely to be over $500,000.
Still, if the Volta Volare comes anywhere near the claimed 300-mile range, that’s a pretty impressive feat from a plane running on what is effectively 236 largish laptop batteries. (At almost 4 pounds per battery, each battery is equal to 3-4 typical laptop batteries.)