Jan 17, 2024 - Technology

The auto industry's fight over Tesla chargers is coming to electric aircraft

Illustration of a power strip with lights along the side animating as if it were a landing strip.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Joby Aviation, the Toyota-backed electric air taxi startup, is splitting from the rest of its industry over how to charge the innovative aircraft.

Why it matters: It could mark the beginning of another VHS vs. Betamax debate over charging standards, mirroring the drama that played out recently in the automotive industry — until Tesla won.

  • Joby no doubt hopes it can win over converts as Tesla did.

Driving the news: Joby is collaborating with Atlantic Aviation, an airport services operator, to install its proprietary charging infrastructure at small airports in New York and Southern California, it announced Wednesday.

  • Outfitting general aviation airports with Joby's Global Electric Aviation Charging System (GEACS) will pave the way for the launch of its air taxi service in New York City and Los Angeles as soon as next year, Joby said in a statement.

Catch up quick: Joby late last year released the technical specifications for its charging system, and said it's "working with numerous electric aircraft developers to ensure interoperability."

  • The system incorporates critical cooling technology and is designed for simultaneous recharging of multiple battery packs, which will help with quick turnarounds for air taxis, Eric Allison, Joby's head of product, tells Axios.
  • Plus, it includes an ethernet connection to securely and quickly download data after flights.

Yes, but: The rest of the industry isn't very interested in Joby's standard, which some say features a lot of needless bells and whistles optimized for Joby's aircraft.

  • Instead, most are adopting the Combined Charging Standard (CCS) widely used in electric vehicles today.
  • Joby rival Beta Technologies has already installed its multi-modal CCS-based charging system at 17 locations across the eastern U.S. It plans to install another 55 soon.
  • Other Joby competitors, including Archer Aviation, are lining up to purchase Beta's charging system.

The intrigue: Archer issued its own press release Wednesday, saying it, too, is working with Atlantic Aviation to install Beta's CCS chargers in New York, California and Florida.

In the middle are companies like Atlantic, which supports aircraft operations at more than 100 U.S. airports and says it remains "technology-agnostic."

  • "We are not here to pick a winner. We're here to support a market," Eric Newman, the company's vice president of commercial strategy and sustainability, tells Axios.
  • "Our core business is supporting aviation — in any form," he said, noting that Atlantic can top off today's planes with different kinds of fuel depending on their needs, so it can support more than one type of electric charger, too.

Where it stands: More than a dozen aviation companies signed a recent General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) report endorsing CCS as the best choice for a unified charging standard.

What they're saying: "The adoption of a unified charging standard will help promote electric aviation's development at scale," Pete Bunce, GAMA president and CEO, said in a press release.

  • "Interoperability of chargers and infrastructure is critical to making urban air mobility a reality because it lowers costs for everybody, instead of favoring one player," added Nikhil Goel, Archer's chief commercial officer.
  • "We're excited to work with Atlantic, GAMA, and Beta to help push the industry-endorsed solution for charging."

The other side: Joby says its charging system is superior because it was designed specifically for aviation, not adapted from the auto industry.

  • Plus, notes Joby's Allison, the auto industry is already moving away from CCS, with many carmakers announcing that their future EVs will feature Tesla's charging technology.

Be smart: Automakers switched en masse to Tesla's standard because its Superchargers are already widely available and more reliable than third-party networks.

  • The electric aircraft industry is still in its infancy, and there's no established network of aircraft chargers.

What's next: Future electric aircraft are likely to have larger batteries, which will require charging at power levels beyond CCS' capability, according to GAMA's report.

  • A new technology, Megawatt Charging System (MCS), will enable charging at up to 3 MW per vehicle — but it's still in development.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Beta Technologies has installed chargers at 17 locations, not 14.

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