How Bad Are the Dreamliner's Problems? Elon Musk Weighs In

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1) What's wrong with the 787 Dreamliner? No one knows for sure, now that the simplest and most easily correctable problem -- some production defect in the specific batch of batteries involved in two recent incidents -- appears to have been ruled out.

Musk.jpg2) Which means that the problems are by definition worse than they originally appeared. Not necessarily worse in a fundamental-safety or design-defect sense, but worse for Boeing and the airlines in commercial and reputational terms, because it will take longer to be sure what exactly has gone wrong and what it will take to correct the problem.

2A) It is still likely that this will ultimately prove to be one more "glitch" in the roll-out of the 787, rather than a "threat" to its commercial and technological viability. Most new airliners have early problems as they go into service. But no one can be sure that this is in "glitch" category until the problem is fully understood.

2B) This is "one more" glitch for the Dreamliner because of the multi-year delays that arose from Boeing's unusually aggressive outsourcing of the plane's design, as I discussed in China Airborne and as the LA Times exhaustively examined two years ago.

3) Today's most trenchant data point comes from Elon Musk (above), one of the Atlantic's "Brave Thinkers" from two years ago, whom I interviewed at our 'Atlantic Meets Pacific' conference late in 2011. In an email exchange with Zach Rosenberg of Flight Global, Musk says that the lithium-ion batteries in the Dreamliner are "inherently unsafe" in the configuration Boeing has chosen for the plane.

Musk's views have weight. Not simply does he have aerospace credibility, as head of the SpaceX company that has sent successful missions into space. He also is head of Tesla, which uses lithium-ion batteries in its electric cars. [For the record: his SpaceX company also competes with a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture for commercial launch customers.] The Flight Global article lays out his argument in detail. The simplest version of Musk's complaint is that Boeing has concentrated the battery power in too small a number of large cells located too close to one another -- rather than dispersing the power among smaller, more widely separated cells. As Musk put it:

When thermal runaway occurs with a big cell, a proportionately larger amount of energy is released and it is very difficult to prevent that energy from then heating up the neighboring cells and causing a domino effect that results in the entire pack catching fire.

Every day the problem is not isolated and identified makes the story worse for Boeing. Again, it's likely that this will be a containable and correctable issue, but Boeing will be in much better shape when it can say that for sure.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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