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

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.

2) 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.