JUDY WOODRUFF: On a day when Exxon and Royal Dutch/Shell took some hits in court and among their shareholders, it's clear there is increasing pressure to address climate change. Fuel for transportation is a big part of the problem. And airplanes are especially difficult. Miles O'Brien looks at efforts to create electric planes of the future. It is part of a special "NOVA" documentary tonight.
MILES O'BRIEN: Chandler Airport in Fresno, California has been in operation since the Wright brothers era, aviation 1.0. Today, the art deco glory has faded, but Joseph Oldham is using this old, underutilized place to help launch a new age of flight, aviation 3.0.
JOSEPH OLDHAM, New Vision Aviation: This is the third revolution of aviation. The first revolution, of course, was powered flight. The second revolution was jet in the 1940s, early 1950s. Electric propulsion is the third revolution.
MILES O'BRIEN: These are Pipistrel Alpha Electros, the first certified all-electric airplanes in the world. And he was gracious enough to give a fellow pilot the right seat. All right, we're set. Contact, huh?
JOSEPH OLDHAM: Clear.
MILES O'BRIEN: It was as simple as flipping a switch. It was weirdly quiet as we taxied to the runway.
JOSEPH OLDHAM: The noisiest thing on this airplane are the brakes.
MILES O'BRIEN: And watch what happened when we stopped to wait for traffic.
JOSEPH OLDHAM: You just sit here just like an electric car.
MILES O'BRIEN: That just cracks me up.
JOSEPH OLDHAM: Electric propulsion systems are so simple that really there's just nothing that you really need to be that concerned about.
MILES O'BRIEN: Are we flying the future right now?
JOSEPH OLDHAM: We absolutely are.
MILES O'BRIEN: It was a hazy day, the result of some raging wildfires nearby, a reminder of the climate emergency which makes the decarbonization of aviation so urgent. How important do you think that is to think about taking fossil fuels out of aviation over the long run?
JOSEPH OLDHAM: Well, it's huge. It's the only mode of transportation that really has not moved aggressively towards zero emission.
MILES O'BRIEN: Globally, about 15 percent of the human carbon footprint comes from transportation. We see some signs of progress. Electric car sales are rising as prices drop. But aviation? It's one of the hardest transportation problems to solve. Pound for pound, liquid fuel contains 16 times more energy than the best batteries. So, while short hops on smaller planes may be possible, the batteries needed to fly big airliners on long flights would make the plane way too heavy. Yet, all over the world, engineers, entrepreneurs and aviators are trying to meet the challenge. They are experimenting, starting small, creating some flying machines like never seen before.
JOEBEN BEVIRT, Founder, Joby Aviation: Maybe we should step over and see how it is to sit in the aircraft. So...
MILES O'BRIEN: JoeBen Bevirt Founded Joby Aviation in 2009. The aircraft he and his team designed is now in flight testing for FAA certification. It's the current leader in the race to fill the world with electric air taxis. It carries a pilot and four passengers under six tilting motors.
JOEBEN BEVIRT: It provides us an aircraft which is incredibly good at hovering and incredibly good at cruising. That efficiency in cruise is what gets us our range and gets us our speed.
MILES O'BRIEN: He says it can fly 200 miles per hour and has a range of 150 miles.
JOEBEN BEVIRT: In order to have the impact that we want to have, in order to transform the way everyone moves every day, we will need to make millions of these. Our mission is to save a billion people an hour a day.
MILES O'BRIEN: A billion people flying air taxis? How could that be safe? At NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, they're tackling the air traffic control challenge.
MAN: We're tracking a UAM 003 currently.
SANDY LOZITO, NASA's Ames Research Center: Looks good. And the speed is OK.
MILES O'BRIEN: Sandy Lozito is chief of the Aviation Systems Division.
SANDY LOZITO: We do not necessarily expect a centralized air traffic control tower to do it, with individual directives telling the pilots how to come in and out of the vertiport. And so that's a very different operation. There could be much more independence on the part of the pilots and the individual operators as they move in and out of these areas.
MILES O'BRIEN: We live in times that demand action to address the climate emergency. But proponents of electric aviation say their business models do not rely on altruism. They believe they can win in the free market.
JOEBEN BEVIRT: We want to be comparable in the cost to the price of a taxi at launch and bring that cost down to the cost of personal car ownership over the coming years.
MILES O'BRIEN: Those competing in the great electric airplane race are convinced a revolutionary moment like that is in the air. For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Santa Cruz, California.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The future is here. And you can watch "The Great Electric Airplane Race" on PBS' "NOVA" tonight.