Airbus will not include lithium-ion batteries in its A350 airliner as originally planned, the French company said today, in the first industry-wide consequence of the fires that grounded Boeing's 787 Dreamliner in January. Back then we reported that Airbus executives were keeping open the option of reverting to tried-and-true nickel-cadmium batteries. Today they exercised that option.
Airbus stood by the safety of its original choice, a lithium-ion battery from France's Saft, but implied that it was not prepared to wait as the safety investigations of Boeing's batteries slowly wend their way to a final verdict on what caused the fires.
By acting now, Airbus can hope to swap battery types with relative ease, seeing as it still has 18 months to go before its first scheduled deliveries of the A350. For Boeing, however, such a change, in an airliner already in service, would cost much in time and money, as well as embarrassment.
It may seem strange that the two companies chose lithium-ion batteries, which are known to be as temperamental as racehorses, seeing that the savings in weight over the nickel-cadmium alternative barely amounts to that of a single passenger. But weight may not have been the primary consideration; lithium-ion batteries are still getting better, while the older ones are not; they charge faster; and they supposedly require less maintenance. The last claim has been undermined, though, by reports that the Boeing batteries had problems even before the fires in January.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.