The age of electric planes may still be years away, but the fight for that market is already heating up.
Wisk Aero, a start-up developing an electric aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane, on Tuesday sued another start-up, Archer Aviation, accusing it of stealing trade secrets and infringing on Wisk’s patents.
The lawsuit brings into public view a dispute between two little-known companies in a business that has become a playground for billionaires. It also entangles giants of aviation and technology. Wisk is a joint venture of Boeing and Kitty Hawk, which is financed by Larry Page, who co-founded Google. Archer’s investors include United Airlines, which is a major Boeing customer and plans to buy up to 200 aircraft from the start-up.
The niche market for electric vehicles and planes has become frenzied in recent months as so-called blank check companies, which have little more than a stock market listing and a pot of cash, have snapped up fledgling businesses with little or no revenue, let alone profits. Investors in the blank-check firms — formally known as special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs — are hoping to acquire businesses that they believe could follow Tesla’s recent trajectory on the stock market. To entice those investors, start-ups like Archer promise top-notch technology and optimistic business plans.
the lawsuit accuses two engineers of downloading thousands of files containing confidential designs and data before leaving Wisk to join Archer. Wisk accused a third engineer of wiping history of his activities from his computer before leaving for Archer.
“Wisk brings this lawsuit to stop a brazen theft of its intellectual property and confidential information and protect the substantial investment of resources and years of hard work and effort of its employees and their vision of the future in urban air transportation,” the lawsuit says.
Archer denied wrongdoing.
“It’s regrettable that Wisk would engage in litigation in an attempt to deflect from the business issues that have caused several of its employees to depart,” Archer said in a statement. “The plaintiff raised these matters over a year ago, and after looking into them thoroughly, we have no reason to believe any proprietary Wisk technology ever made its way to Archer. We intend to defend ourselves vigorously.”
Archer also said it had placed an employee accused in the suit on paid leave “in connection with a government investigation and a search warrant issued to the employee, which we believe are focused on conduct prior to the employee joining the company.” Archer said it and three employees who had worked with the individual had been subpoenaed in that investigation and were cooperating with the authorities.
accused one of its former employees and Uber of stealing trade secrets to gain an advantage in the race to develop autonomous cars. The companies settled the case in 2018, and the former Waymo employee, Anthony Levandowski, a onetime confidant of Mr. Page’s, was sentenced in 2020 to 18 months in prison. Former President Donald J. Trump pardoned Mr. Levandowski in January.
Archer announced its merger in February with a SPAC, Atlas Crest Investment, in a deal that valued the company at $3.8 billion. Wisk said its suspicions were confirmed at that time when Archer released a presentation that contained designs similar to those in a Wisk patent filing.
when announcing the transaction.
“We had 35, 40 people on this — and we attacked this like venture growth would or anybody else,” Mr. Moelis said. “And we did it fast, too.”
A spokeswoman for Moelis declined to comment.
Other companies trying to make electric aircraft include Joby Aviation, which announced a $6.6 billion deal with a SPAC led by the LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman in February, and the German start-up Lilium, which went public last month by merging with a SPAC led by a former General Motors executive, Barry Engle.
according to SPAC Research — more than in all of 2020.
But regulators and some investors say more scrutiny is needed. The Securities and Exchange Commission published two notices last month warning companies considering merging with SPACs to ensure that they are ready for all the legal and regulatory requirements being a public company entails. Many investors known as short sellers, who specialize in betting that share prices of companies are bound to fall, have targeted SPACs like Atlas Crest, which is among the 20 most-shorted SPACs.
The market for electric aircraft is in its infancy but holds huge promise. The prospect of “Jetsons”-like flying vehicles has inched closer to reality in recent years thanks to advances in battery and aircraft design. A high-stakes race to build the first viable electric plane is underway, and some airlines are betting that such vehicles can help them reach their goals of eliminating or offsetting their greenhouse gas emissions.
Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United, said the Archer aircraft were unlikely to be used for commercial flights but were ideal for short trips to and from an airport.
“They’re not only more environmentally friendly, they’re far quieter than a helicopter,” Mr. Kirby said Tuesday during an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. “And, because they have 12 rotors, they’re, I believe, going to ultimately be safer.”
Still, widespread use of electric air taxis is likely years away. Such aircraft may never become more than a luxury used by very rich people because businesses and governments may come up with far cheaper ways to transport people without emissions.
BANGKOK — Nearly three months after Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 crashed into the Java Sea, Indonesian officials announced Wednesday that they had recovered the memory module of the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder by pumping up mud and sand from the seafloor.
The crucial memory unit, which apparently broke loose from the cockpit voice recorder on impact, could reveal the final words of the pilot and co-pilot as the Boeing 737-500 plummeted into the sea on Jan. 9.
The module was recovered Tuesday night and brought to shore Wednesday by a Coast Guard ship. Officials said they believed the module was still functional and that it would take three days to a week to download and read its data.
The aircraft crashed minutes after taking off from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport near Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, killing all 62 people aboard, including six active crew members.
difference in the level of thrust between the plane’s two engines might have contributed to the aircraft rolling over before it plunged into the sea.
A difference in the level of thrust — the force of the engines that propels the aircraft forward — can make planes difficult to control, but it is unclear why that problem may have occurred during the Sriwijaya flight.
Officials hope that the recovered memory module will shed some light on why the pilot and co-pilot were unable to recover control of the plane, which plummeted more than 10,000 feet in less than a minute.
“Without the cockpit voice recorder, it would be very difficult to know the cause in this Sriwijaya 182 case,” Mr. Soerjanto said.
The Sriwijaya aircraft was the third to crash into the Java Sea in just over six years after departing from airports on Java, one of Indonesia’s five main islands.
In December 2014, Air Asia Flight 8501 crashed into the Java Sea off the coast of Borneo with 162 people aboard as it flew from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore. Investigators eventually attributed the disaster to the failure of a key component on the Airbus A320-200 and an improper response by the flight crew.
nose-dived into the Java Sea northeast of Jakarta minutes after taking off for Pangkal Pinang with 189 aboard. Investigators concluded that the anti-stall system malfunctioned on the Boeing 737 Max, a newer model than the Boeing that crashed in January.
The United States and European Union agreed to temporarily suspend tariffs levied on billions of dollars of each others’ aircraft, wine, food and other products as both sides try to find a negotiated settlement to a long-running dispute over the two leading airplane manufacturers.
President Biden and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, agreed in a phone call on Friday to suspend all tariffs imposed in the dispute over subsidies given to Boeing and Airbus for “an initial period of four months,” Ms. von der Leyen said in a statement.
“This is excellent news for businesses and industries on both sides of the Atlantic and a very positive signal for our economic cooperation in the years to come,” she said.
In a statement, the White House said Mr. Biden had “underscored his support for the European Union and his commitment to repair and revitalize the U.S.-E.U. partnership.”
had authorized both the United States and Europe to impose tariffs on each other as part of two parallel disputes, which began almost two decades ago, over subsidies the governments have given to Airbus and Boeing. The E.U. had imposed tariffs on roughly $4 billion of American products, while the United States levied tariffs on $7.5 billion of European goods.
The aircraft dispute is an early test of the Biden administration’s ability to rebuild America’s relationship with Europe, which U.S. officials see as crucial for accomplishing other trade and foreign policy goals.
Former President Donald J. Trump took a more adversarial and aggressive stance toward the bloc. He accused it of cheating the United States on trade and imposed tariffs on European metals, aircraft and other products. He also threatened further tariffs against European automakers.
The Biden administration has said it would restore ties with the E.U., formerly a close ally, as it seeks to form coalitions to take on bigger global problems, like China’s unfair trade practices. And it has committed to pressing Europe for a settlement on the aircraft dispute, as well as other continuing trade spats over metals, digital service taxes and other issues.
temporarily suspend tariffs levied against the United Kingdom, including on Scotch whisky, as part of the dispute for a period of four months.
Monika Pronczuk and Liz Alderman contributed reporting.