June 09, 2007
GM Chooses Electric Vehicle Battery Suppliers
The shift toward electric powered cars is accelerating.
This week, General Motors (GM) announced its selection of battery makers to develop and test battery packs for use in its proposed electric vehicles. The selected battery makers, Compact Power, based in Troy, MI, and Continental Automotive Systems, based in Germany, say that they've overcome the performance and cost limitations that have been an obstacle to electric vehicles in the past.
A123 Systems will be supplying the battery cells which Continental will use to make full batteries for GM.
Pluggable hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) will allow people to recharge from a wall socket and run only on electricity on shorter trips. Though some PHEVs will require running their conventional engines at higher speeds . Then on longer trips the cars will run gasoline engines to recharge their batteries. GM will release 2 different kinds of PHEVs in 2010.
Factory-built, dealer-sold PHEVs are another story. General Motors says both an E-Flex car and a Saturn-branded plug-in, called the Vue Green Line, will be ready by 2010. The Vue, like models on the roads now, will follow a "parallel" design, in which both an electric motor and a gasoline engine drive the wheels, often working in concert. In contrast, the E-Flex cars will be "series" hybrids. Only the electric motor will turn the wheels. Then, once the battery runs low, a small engine — could be gas or diesel, or it could someday be replaced by a hydrogen fuel cell — fires to turn a generator that produces more electricity.
The auto industry expects battery costs for PHEVs and pure electric cars to drop to less than a third of current prices.
According to an industry rule of thumb, every kilowatt-hour of capacity adds about $1000 to the price of a battery. An E-Flex car, for instance, could cost $9000 to $10,000 more than a conventional gasoline-powered version of the vehicle. At least at first.
"If we're talking about 100,000 units or more, cost becomes less of an issue," says Altair head Alan Gotcher. The rough consensus among battery makers is that prices could drop to $5000 within a few years, and eventually dip below $3000.
Some "Peak Oil" doomsters see civilizational collapse in store when world oil production peaks and declines. But the advances in battery car technology makes that scenario unlikely. In 5 years time we will have millions of PHEV and pure electric vehicles. If we hit peak oil 5 years from now then we could shift to making only PHEV and pure electric vehicles. To generate the electricty we can use nuclear, wind, and (unfortunately) coal.
These developments are very interesting. Here in Italy, gasoline price is 1,3 euro /liter (more than double than in USA).
So, italians (and europeans) have a stronger incentive than americans to move from ICE cars to PHEVs.
But, government have a strong incentive to keep people hook to gasoline, because 70% of the price is from taxes.
Do you still advocate almost unlimited government funding for battery research? Or do you think the market is now able to handle the matter?
And in retrospect. How much would you guess such funding would have speeded us up if started ten years ago? Or five?
Oh. BTW. I am delighted by the prospect of Volt and similar vehicles by 2010. I hope GM nails it.
My guess: If we'd started pushing hard 10 years ago with government funding then we'd already have workable cheap batteries for PHEVs and pure electric cars.
Would government funding help now? My guess is it would not have much effect on what happens in the next 3 to 4 years. But government funded research will do more for next gen batteries that go beyond what will be on the market in the next 5 years. I'm thinking nanotech batteries and also nanotech materials for storing hydrogen too.
The funny thing here is that once the market for PHEV and pure electric car batteries becomes enormous only then will there be a substantial lobby for government-funded battery research.
I'm also very happy with the news from GM. There's a niche for 50 mile range electric cars. Lots of 2 car families could easily get by with one of the cars being pure electric as a commuter car for short commutes and for around-town errands. Bump up the range to 100 miles and the market becomes larger still.
Some people park in home garages and have short commutes. They'd have an especially easy time charging up the car a few times a week. But the need to take the time to plug in at the end of the day and then unplug the next morning would get to be a pain.
Mirco, Europeans pay twice as much for fuel, but they put half as many miles on their vehicles as do Americans, so capital intensive solutions like PHEV's are on an even footing on both sides of the Atlantic.
K, I think the current generation of batteries are good enough. Improvements will be nice, but they're no longer crucial. Randall, I agree, a great opportunity was lost 25 years ago on accelerating renewables, and 10-15 years ago for batteries. Now, more help is needed in the form of aggresove. clear and stable energy policies such as higher CAFE and gas taxes.
Randall, I think a neighborhood electric vehicle needs to be mighty cheap - people want versatile vehicles. OTOH, I think plugging in at night is a lot faster and more convenient than filling up at a gas station. Further, I'm sure we'll devise a way to drive into one's garage and simultaneously dock to a battery charger.
Upon further reflection: If global warming due to CO2 emissions is a real problem then I think government funding of electrochemistry still makes sense. We need not just the batteries we'll have 3 or 5 years from now. What we really need are batteries so cheap and with such high capacity that we can build cheap 400-500 mile range pure electric cars.
Similarly, if "Peak Oil" is going to hit we need the big step forward in batteries. But I expect oil shale, oil tar, oil sands, and coal-to-liquid to extend the use of fossil fuels for cars by another 20 years. So I'm not feeling panic at the prospect of running out of liquid fuels.
I guess the best argument I can see for battery research is as a way to save the rain forests. If we do not make electric cars really cheap then we'll use far more biomass fuels and destroy lots of habitat in the process.
Randall, I'm a bit confused I thought that GM had already built a successful electric cars years ago, which was highlighted in that doc. movie, who killed the electric car, whose production seemed to stop because of many reasons, is this correct?
I guess you saw the Opec 'threat' ?
"CITY oil analysts yesterday played down OPEC's shock warning on Tuesday that if the West accelerated its move to biofuels to combat climate change it could send the price of oil "through the roof".
The OPEC warning that it might respond by cutting investment in oil production if it felt its western consumers were stepping up their reliance on biofuels was a contributory factor in a 110-point fall in the FTSE 100 to 6,522.7."
to all: We will never see an end to government funding. The world isn't like that. I was sort of asking Randall if he still felt an almost unlimited government effort was appropriate.
Since resources are finite perhaps batteries are good enough for the market to handle now. And research dollars should shift to fuel cells or solar cells or hydrogen handling or ??.
Randall was right, batteries were the weakest link for decades.
The EV-1 was successful as a vehicle. But it had very limited range, perhaps 120 miles in theory, 70 in practice, and the length of your driveway when the air conditioning was on (joking but only somewhat).
I think GM should have kept it going. They tried the wrong market - trendy people with some technical interest. Those people adopt but they also move on. They should have marketed for retirees, etc. A lot of them seldom or never drive 50 miles. Many have money and the men love technical stuff. They have two cars anyway.
There were other casualties. You still hear few screams from those who had, and loved, Toyota or Honda electrics. Those were withdrawn too.
I'm not sure that increased funding a while back for more battery research would have made much of a difference. The way I see it, the real improvements in battery technology over the last 20 years have come from true commercial R&D, focused on laptops and cellphones. Every improvement led to a direct commercial advantage. What everybody is hoping now for various types of EVs is that this technology will scale up successfully to the size required for vehicles.
I really see the HEV -> PHEV -> EV path as by far the most likely (but still far from certain) if we are to move away from the present IC engine regime. It can evolve gradually without grand infrastructure changes. In North America, maybe people would need a 240VAC "dryer plug" in their garages for quicker charging, but that's about it.
The EV1 with its lead-acid batteries would never have made it as a mass-market car. Sure, they could have sold/leased 2 or 3 times as many as they did (all at a substantial loss) to "enthusiasts", but what would the point have been?
Even now, with the much higher energy density of lithium-ion cells, the cost of the battery pack is the achilles heel of these vehicles. You cannot yet justify this cost by the gas savings. Even if the present improvement trends in cost keep up, it will be a long time before we reach the crossover point.
Curt: I probably didn't explain what I meant about GM and the EV-1. They never gave the impression of trying. The vehicle was what it was, a good first effort. No one expected it to be more.
But GM could have soon made a better one and followed with other models - the Insight and Prius appeared shortly after the EV-1 and they didn't use lead-acid batteries.
When Honda and Toyota lost money they didn't run and hide and concentrate on three ton SUVS for seven years. They kept coming with improved vehicles. True, they dropped pure electric in favor or hybrids but they always were offering and selling innovation.
Things are tough when you are losing money. But starting and stopping is no better for a major corporation. It gives customers and the public and the employees the impression that you stand for nothing, that your company is a vacuum devoid of thought or imagination or toughness. and that your board meetings may be conducted in saloons.
That is what the US car makers did for roughly three decades. My conclusions were: they really did stand for nothing, they were vacuums devoid of thought and imagination and toughness, and the other drinkers in the saloon would have made better decisions.
GM has changed - terror concentrated their thoughts. Ford may get by, I doubt it. Chrysler?
The car companies have known how to build electric cars for a long time. They've always been held back by the cost and weight and life expectancies of batteries.
The NiMH batteries appear to have long enough life expectancies. But the cost and and weight still hold back their use for full electric cars. Lithium batteries still have cost issues and they also have safety issues. But the companies developing lithium batteries for cars think they have the safety issue licked. Time will tell.
Randall, AFAIK NIMH batteries don't have a long life with deep discharge - the Prius carefully stays within a 25% Depth of Discharge.
As best I can tell the A123systems batteries really do have the safety issues licked - it's just an inherently different, better chemistry than laptop li-ion type batteries. Cost is really the remaining issue, and that appears to be good enough, and getting better.
How many electric cars are now running in London because of the congestion tax? Is it really as high as 14,000 which is what "The Economist" article stated?
Did you know that Vancouver, Canada has the world's first licensed electric pickup truck that has a "zero-cost" battery -- runs entirely on discarded batteries that considered dead or unusable. There are *three* battery breakthroughs in this electric pickup truck, as well as a half-dozen workarounds/fixes to the (usual) weak components found on electric cars.
Here's what the Global TV evening newscast aired, from a Youtube download:
Also, check out the EV Album entry for this electric pickup truck, with a Google search for EVALBUM FREEB or WORLD'S FIRST REVIVED BATTERY PICKUP DIARY.
Why bother to revive dead batteries for the electric car? In British Columbia, Canada, 80% of 4-wheeled electric cars are sitting unused because they are TOO EXPENSIVE to run, costing 2X-10X more than gasoline. One member of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association got less than 900 kilometers from his EV battery pack before it needed replacement, at some $1,700 cost. Therefore, it's quite possible that Londoners will be abandoning their electric Reva G-Wiz, Maranello-4, Mega City, Th!nk, cars, too. The "FreeB" in Vancouver runs off cost-free discarded batteries. Would London electric car or electric scooter or electric bike owners like this, too?
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