In 2000, Toyota introduced the hybrid Prius in the U.S. Sales started slowly—Americans bought just 5,600 of the novel cars that first year and 15,600 the next, a tiny fraction of the Japanese company’s sales. Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who at the time was just about to set up his own battery startup, remembers fellow professors sneering at the Prius as unnecessary. What was needed, they said, was a better combustion engine. That attitude only began to change around 2008, when high gasoline prices led Americans to snap up 158,000 Priuses, and Tesla began selling its first fully electric car, the Roadster.
On Thursday, the University of Michigan launched the first electric aviation battery program at a U.S. university, led by Venkat Viswanathan, a battery expert hired from Carnegie Mellon University. Viswanathan, Chiang and the other professors, investors and industry hands at the event said the moment reminded them of the early days of electric car batteries two decades ago: Then, the Prius persuaded almost no one that batteries could power mass-market automobiles or that the industry would go electric, though just a few years later Chiang’s company, A123 Systems, produced the world’s first commercial lithium-iron-phosphate batteries. Today, these people believe that in two decades or so, many commercial airlines may fly electric planes. “People are pretty quick to come up with reasons why some ideas are cuckoo,” Chiang told me. “I think we should have learned from the electric vehicle experience not to write off electric aviation.”