Facing Up to the Electric Car Challenge

ron-cogan-test-driver-1Electric drive vehicles of all types are increasingly in the news, often led by a near-nonstop focus on Tesla and its Model S, Model X, and planned Model 3 battery electric vehicles. People want electric cars. Some feel they need them, or more accurately, that we all need them. It has been so for quite some time.

I was one of those pushing hard for electric vehicles in the 1990s, driving prototypes on test tracks and limited production models on the highway as I shared their benefits on the pages of Green Car Journal and Motor Trend before that. It was an exciting time filled with hope that battery breakthroughs would come, bringing full-function EVs offering the same driving range as conventional vehicles.

Expectations were high that a public charging infrastructure would expand to make topping off batteries convenient. New ideas like 15-minute rapid charging and battery swap stations would allow drivers of all model EVs the ability to renew on-board energy in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee, enabling them to head back on the road in short order with a full battery charge. Importantly, there was an expectation that EVs would be affordable, both to manufacture and to buy.

If only this unfolded as expected, automakers would commit to developing battery electric vehicles of all types to meet the needs of an emerging market. But things have not unfolded as expected.

California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate drove the electric car surge in the 1990s and it’s a huge influence today. While less refined than electric models we have now, electrics of the 1990s like the Toyota RAV4 EV, Nissan Altra minivan, and Honda EV Plus were quite well engineered. Then there was GM’s EV1. Sleek, sexy, and fun, it provided a daily driving experience unparalleled in the field, something I came to appreciate well during the year I drove an EV1.

The challenge then was the same as now: cost. The EV1 was so costly to build with such massive losses there was no business case for it to continue, and so it ended, as all other electric vehicle programs of the 1990s ended, for the same reason.

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Early on, Volvo had the foresight to challenge the status quo. While evaluating ways to meet California’s impending ZEV mandate, the automaker concluded there was no way to do this realistically with a vehicle powered exclusively by batteries. In 1993, I test drove Volvo’s answer – its high-tech Environmental Concept Car (ECC) that added a high-speed turbine-generator to an electric drivetrain, thus creating what we now call a range-extended electric vehicle (think Chevy Volt). Sadly, the ECC’s high cost turbine-generator meant this innovative car never saw production. But it was at the leading edge of a movement that brought us hybrids and range-extended electric cars. Today, even BMW – a high-profile champion of electrics with its innovative  i3 – understands the importance of offering a range-extended variant with a gas engine-generator for those who prefer the convenience of longer range.

In answer to the chorus of Tesla enthusiasts sure to raise their voices, I am aware that Tesla is committed to all-electric vehicles and the range of the $70,000-$95,000 Model S (before the addition of popular options) is substantially greater than its competitors. The coming Model X electric crossover is expected to be in the same aspirational category as the Model S with a price suitable for premium buyers. The company’s planned Model 3, presumably a vehicle accessible to the masses at a price Tesla says will be about $35,000, is said to be three years away. That’s a good thing since significant battery cost reductions will be required to make this Tesla-for-the-masses electric an affordable reality. Will three years be enough? Achieving battery cost reductions of the magnitude required is no sure bet and, as history has proved, battery technology advances move at their own pace.

One stock analyst recently quoted in a major newspaper article shared that Tesla has the ability to reduce battery costs by nearly half in the coming three to five years. Of course, the backstory is that this ‘ability’ is really but a ‘potential’ based on batteries that do not yet commercially exist. The past 25 years are replete with examples of major government and industry efforts aimed at developing energy-dense, safe, and affordable electric car batteries that deliver the range and cost expectations of auto manufacturers and consumers. Over these years there have been many incremental improvements in battery design and chemistry, a slew of failures, and pending ‘breakthroughs’ that have often been promoted only to have expectations and actual production sidelined for a plethora of  reasons du jour.

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As just one recent example, Panasonic’s 2009 announcement of a lithium-ion battery breakthrough using a silicon alloy cathode was accompanied with a claim it would be manufactured in 2012. Many positive reports on electric vehicles take into account this very ‘breakthrough’ and others like it, with the considerable cost reductions that would follow. Yet, Panasonic did not begin mass production of this battery technology in 2012. According to a Panasonic spokesman, the company’s work on developing high-capacity battery cells using a silicon-based negative electrode is ongoing. Hopefully,  developments like these will lead to the kind of mass production that could bring long-hoped-for battery performance and cost reductions. Perhaps this will come to pass with a mass effort by Tesla through its proposed $5 billion battery ‘Giga Factory,’ and perhaps not. But after 25 years of following battery development I have learned not to count on claims or development, but rather actual production and availability in the real world.

Tesla continues to develop its Supercharger quick-charge network and has potential plans for a battery swap system, both exclusively compatible with its own vehicles. An innovative and expanding infrastructure for battery electrics will be required for their ultimate success and these are very positive moves, although only for those with a Tesla product and not electric vehicle owners as a whole.

Battery electric vehicles priced at levels accessible to everyday buyers will continue to grapple with cost and marketing challenges until a battery breakthrough comes. This is illustrated by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne’s comment earlier this year that the company is losing $14,000 on every one of the Fiat 500e electric cars it sells. Is it so different for other automakers also selling EVs in limited numbers and in constrained geographic locations? Not inconsequentially, to bolster the market battery electric cars will also require continuing federal and state incentives that combined typically total $10,000 or more. Hopefully, innovative thinking and real technology and cost breakthroughs will emerge in the years ahead.

In the meantime, gasoline-electric hybrids and plug-in hybrid models, plus range-extended electric vehicles that combine all-electric drive with an on-board electric generator, are providing functionality for everyone even as battery-only electric cars fight hard to establish their place in the automotive market. Let’s hope that mass-market, nationally-available models like BMW’s innovative i3 electric car change this dynamic sooner than later.

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