Years after Boeing committed to using lithium-ion batteries in its 787 Dreamliner, other airplane makers developing advanced new jets have rejected the technology as too risky. As Boeing executives found themselves on the defensive this week at a National Transportation Board inquiry into their choice of batteries, it has become clear that other planemakers are not surprised that the lithium-ion batteries had problems serious enough to cause the grounding of the entire 787 fleet for more than three months.
A whole batch of new airplanes that will be flying soon have rejected lithium-ion batteries in favor of the older and well proven nickel-cadmium technology. These include the 787’s direct competitor, the Airbus A350, which will be making its first flight this summer. (Airbus initially chose lithium-ion batteries but dropped them when Boeing’s problems became clear.) Two other new passenger jets, the 110-130 seat Bombardier C-series, made in Canada, and the 90-seat Japanese Mitsubishi Regional Jet, have also gone with the older, safer option.
“We looked at the technology and decided that lithium-ion batteries were not ready, not stable enough, to be used on our airplane,” Bombardier spokesman Marc Duchesne told The Daily Beast. Mitsubishi president Teruaki Kawai told The New York Times that he regarded lithium-ion batteries as “Too dangerous. The technology isn’t mature enough for a plane like ours.”
Nicad is also the choice for the most advanced corporate jet in the world, the Gulf Stream G650, now coming to market, which, at a price of $64.5 million, is the plushest and fastest, and will surely be the globe-girdling must-have choice for the world’s oligarchs.
This week’s public airing by the NTSB of the way Boeing and the FAA originally reached agreement that it was safe to use the lithium-ion batteries on the 787 revealed that the FAA was extraordinarily passive. Boeing delegated responsibility for testing the batteries to the French aerospace company Thales who, in turn, delegated it to the Japanese battery maker, GS Yuasa. Under questioning, Thales admitted that it had no experience with lithium-ion batteries in airplanes. In effect, Boeing acted as a mailbox, passing on the Japanese test data to the FAA. Astonishingly, the FAA itself did not participate in the tests at any point.
Throughout the hearings, battery manufacturers have invoked proprietary secrecy for not answering some specific questions. An executive of GS Yuasa, for example, looking distinctly uncomfortable under questions from NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman, cited “technological secrecy” as a reason why he could not go into details about how battery cells were configured.
Wednesday’s hearing, and another two weeks ago, demonstrated Hersman’s carefully calibrated effort to bring public scrutiny to the battery problems. While punctilious in explaining that the Board’s inquiry was not an attempt to fix blame, Hersman has shown a broad technical grasp and acuity, pouncing on answers that were evasive or vague, at one point expressing frustration with Boeing’s “obfuscation.” As a result, simply watching the parade of industry executives and regulators face this kind of scrutiny has shown how unused to public accountability they are.
The NTSB’s investigation of the January battery fire onboard a Japan Airlines 787 parked at the gate at Boston is still ongiong, but questioning by board members today honed in on the fact that there were “multiple short circuits” in one of the battery cells. A Boeing lawyer objected to discussing this, not denying that it had happened but saying that the cause of the short circuits remained unproven. Nonetheless, it was apparent from the board’s line of questioning that they want answers to how the possibility of such a failure was not foreseen.
It also became abundantly clear from testimony by both the battery manufacturers and independent experts that the development of these batteries is moving way too fast for regulators to keep up. One industry witness said that the technology was still “very immature.” (Exactly what “mature” means in this context nobody seems to know.)
One of the world’s leading experts on battery technology, Dr. Victor Ettel, said Boeing is still struggling in the shadow of a risk it took 10 years ago. “It was a bad, irresponsible decision by Boeing nearly a decade ago when we knew even less about large lithium-ion that the little we know now. It is an even worse decision to try to defend it now.”
As well as the FAA’s distance from the battery testing, the hearings have drilled down to a worrying question: how do we know that the standards Boeing has met to re-certify the batteries are tough enough? Testimony from industry executives gave no sense of a consensus that they were. There were even arguments about which particular body of experts was qualified to write the standards, and chairman Hersman herself complained about the lack of transparency of the whole process.
All this is happening as Boeing is preparing to get the 787 fleet back in the air after last week’s approval by the FAA of changes made to the installation of the batteries. Boeing admits that the exact cause of the two battery meltdowns that caused the grounding of the fleet has not been nailed and may never be. They and the FAA now assert that if there are future battery failures, the changes meet the ultimate safety test: that no single failure of any airplane system can result in catastrophe.
Whatever happens, Boeing finds itself in a lonely place as a true believer in the technology.