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NOVA: Great Electric Airplane Race

Joby Aviation's vertical takeoff electric aircraft.
Courtesy of WGBH Educational Foundation
Joby Aviation's vertical takeoff electric aircraft.

Stream or tune in Wednesday, May 26, 2021 at 9 p.m. & Sunday, May 30 at 3 p.m. on KPBS TV + May 30 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2 / On demand with PBS Video App

—NOVA Investigates One Of The Toughest Climate Problems Of All—Aviation, And Its Carbon Footprint—

NOVA presents “Great Electric Airplane Race,” a one-hour special that looks at an array of promising new electric aircraft on the horizon and takes viewers for a ride in some impressive prototypes that are already flying. The greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is at the highest level it's been in at least 800,000 years and, globally, about 15% of the human carbon footprint comes from transportation. The race is on to stop the climate emergency. But as more people are paying attention to possible solutions, it’s become clear aviation is one of the fastest-growing and hardest climate challenges of them all. 

You Could Take a Flying Car to Work Someday

On the bright side, all over the world, engineers, entrepreneurs, and aviators are trying to meet the challenge. One of them is environmental engineer Neelakshi Hudda, who is working to measure the quantity and the size of toxic particles created by aircraft that fly in and out of Boston’s Logan Airport.

Viewers are also taken out on a test ride on various electric aircraft, including in the Kitty Hawk Heaviside, a single-seat Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) vehicle. The propellers pivot the thrust from horizontal to vertical — allowing the craft to take off and land on a dime and still fly 180 miles per hour.

NOVA: Great Electric Airplane Race: Preview

NOVA also secured an exclusive glimpse of an electric air taxi from Joby, a company based in Santa Cruz, California, that has been working in secret for years to develop their prototype. The company aims to build millions of eVTOLs — revolutionizing not just aviation, but transportation writ large. The company, reportedly worth 6.6 billion dollars upon going public, seems poised to deliver on the audacious goal. 

Could autonomous, electric air taxis revolutionize city transportation? It’s not an absurd question, and we may already be at the dawn of this revolution. Yet, if electric airplanes are ever to advance beyond small, short-haul craft, significant hurdles of battery weight and energy density will need to be overcome.


NOVA: Cutting our Greenhouse Gas Emissions to Zero

Filmmaker Quotes:

“This film looks at the electrification of aviation in a way that no media has touched on before,” says Producer, Director, and Writer Miles O’Brien. “Electric flight is going to change not just the way we fly, but how we move around in general. As a pilot myself, I was truly amazed at how far along the technology is and how close we may be to electric aviation becoming a broader reality.”

“This film is coming out at the right time, especially as a lot of money and resources are being poured into these electric taxi ideas,” says Producer Will Toubman.

Watch On Your Schedule:

This episode is available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video App, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast, for a limited time.

Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, a benefit for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

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A NOVA production by MOBIAS Media Inc. for GBH Boston. Written, Produced, and Directed by Miles O’Brien. Produced by Will Toubman. Produced and Edited by Brian Truglio. Narrated by Miles O’Brien. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt.