• Feb 26th 2007 at 7:43AM
  • 52
The big auto-makers, particularly the US-based companies, take a lot of grief over their environmental policies, rightfully so in many respects. But they also get a bad rap. One of the big topics that crops in the comments here at AutoblogGreen is "How come Auto-Maker X isn't using batteries from Company Y instead of messing around with all this other technology?" There has undoubtedly been a lot of progress on battery technology in the last couple of years. With companies like Tesla and Pheonix announcing new battery powered vehicles that are scheduled to go into production later in 2007, everyone wants to know why General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and all the other big manufacturers aren't doing the same thing. There are lots of reasons for this, none of which are simple.

First, let's start with some background. I've worked in the auto industry for over twenty years, and the last five have been particularly difficult. The auto industry has always been a notoriously tough business to be in. The vast majority of all the car companies and suppliers that have ever existed have either gone belly up or been absorbed into another company. For anyone that wants to build more than a few cars, it's also extremely capital intensive. Tooling up to build thousands or hundreds of thousands of cars a year costs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. And that's before you even hire anyone to actually build the cars. The lead times are long, at least three to four years from concept to production for a totally new car. The increased costs of raw materials, especially metals, as well as energy costs have really put the hurt on everyone recently. Unless a new company is getting government support or market protection, and even if they are, the odds of success are slim.

Continue reading after the jump

Modern cars are enormously complex, and have to be designed to operate in the full gamut of environmental and road conditions. And cost is a huge factor. Unlike aircraft for example, once a customer drives off the lot, the manufacturer has no control over the maintenance and operation of a car. Some are meticulously maintained while others get almost no maintenance. Next time you leave the house, take a look around at the cars around you on the road. Take note of how many cars from the early nineties, eighties and even seventies are still on the road. No matter what you make think of the fit and finish and quality control of American cars (which have admittedly been bad in many cases), you have to admit that in spite of some lemons, the vast majority of cars, from American as well as Asian, and even some European car-makers are remarkably durable, especially when you consider the range of operating conditions. The fact that cars can last more than six months on Michigan roads is truly a testament to the engineering in there.

Car companies have a huge number issues to deal with, including often contradictory government regulations, labor issues and finances. This is a highly competitive industry, and it's important to remember that you typically hear more about things that don't work than things that do. In spite of all the complaints you might hear about cars, the reality is that most of them just work. The percentage that actually have serious issues is usually pretty small. For the past forty years, car-makers have had at least two main required areas of development that in some respects are at odds, safety and efficiency/emissions. Since the mid-sixties companies have had to make huge improvements in both of these and really started to make strides as electronic controls were developed. As new safety equipment and standards have been added, weights have gone up, making it even harder to gain efficiency.



Because of the competitive nature of the auto industry, car-makers generally have to offer much longer warranties than you will find as standard in the consumer electronics world, with three year bumper to bumper warranties as a minimum and some considerably longer. In order for a company to survive financially, they have to make sure that the bulk of their cars can get through the warranty period and beyond without needing major repairs. Cars are generally designed to have a minimum lifespan for major components, of at least 100,000 miles, and this what customers have come to expect. If major components like engines, or transmissions, or batteries wear out at lower mileages than that, customers are very unhappy.

In order to make that happen car-makers spend a lot time and money on durability testing in a wide range of environments from northern Sweden to the deserts of Arizona and the north Africa, to Pikes Peak and beyond. They run vehicles repeatedly through salt baths, cold soaks, heat soaks, maximum speed testing, repeated acceleration, constant speed highway running and urban stop and go. The possibilities of what a driver will do in the real world are almost limitless and the engineers try to anticipate and explore all these limits.

What does any of this have to do with batteries you might ask? Big battery packs that are necessary to propel a full function automobile or truck (not an NEV like the Kurrent or GEM) on a daily basis, need to bee able to withstand the abuse of different driving habits, vibrations from bad roads (or no roads), operating conditions ranging from -40 degrees to 130 degrees, sand, salt, gravel, you name it. Those battery packs are expensive, and nobody is going to want to replace one during the normal lifespan of a car. Electro-chemical batteries don't work well at low temperatures either which means that drivers in cold climates would potentially have much worse range and performance than those in warmer temperatures.

Then there is the issue of safety. Everybody saw the videos last year of exploding laptop batteries. Lithium is highly combustible, and if the battery packs are not assembled very carefully, they can easily short out and catch fire. Then there is the issue of what happens in an accident. Emergency response teams have to able to deal with batteries without being exposed to excessive hazards. Many of the existing battery packs today are made up of hundreds or thousands of small standard cells that are wired together to produce sufficient voltage and capacity to drive a car. Those thousands of solder joints are highly prone to failure. When they fail, the pack can lose capacity, short out, or fail completely depending on the nature of the problem.

Lithium batteries have far more energy density and better power delivery than previous types of cells and all the car-makers know it. The real problem is making sure the battery packs last without catastrophic failure. If a company like Phoenix making a few hundred cars a year has a bad battery design that fails, the company is likely to just go bankrupt, and disappear, with the investors losing their money and a few dozen or hundred workers lose their jobs. When a company like General Motors or Toyota, builds several hundred thousand cars, and encounters a problem like that, costing upwards of $10,000 per vehicle to repair, not to mention the inevitable lawsuits it could conceivably bring down the company, costing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs.

I have confidence that the Tesla Roadster will meet the performance claims made for it when it hits the road later this year, the question that only time can answer, is how robust will it be in the environment that real cars have to deal with. The more interesting program to watch will be the Tesla WhiteStar sedan, which is expected to be built in much higher volumes and lower cost. Other companies have made some big claims too, most notably Phoenix and AltairNano. Whether they can deliver on those claims, remains to be seen. Companies like GM have been burned before on what appeared at the time to be breakthrough technologies and before they take the plunge on batteries, they are going to want to want a much higher degree of confidence in the durability and robustness of the batteries. That's not to say it won't happen, for it surely will. It's just going take some time to refine the construction processes to reach the necessary level of reliability and durability and cost. That will happen over next few years, we just have to be patient.

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  • 52 Comments
      • 7 Months Ago
      Correction to post #44: The folks transferred to EDS from Delco were mostly programmers, not engineers.

      Another observation I forgot about: GM employees were allowed at that time (maybe still are) to purchase 2 vehicles a year at substantially lower than retail price. Typically, the engineers I worked with got a new car every six months, drove it EXTREMELY conservatively (you could tell the GM employees in Kokomo -- they were the ones that slowed to 5mph to cross the railroad tracks in their brand-new TransAms/Corvettes/other GM muscle cars), and sold them for about what they paid, if not slightly more -- getting the use of a new car for little more than the cost of gas and one or two oil changes (plus carrying cost of whatever loan they had). They never experienced first-hand the maintenance requirements of a 165,000-mile Pontiac (as I did). They didn't have any occasion to experience paying $150 for labor to replace an electric window motor worth $15, or $200 to replace a 75-cent dashboard light. Or to have to buy a special tool in order to change a headlamp.

      The typical engineer at GM doesn't have any idea what it's like to drive an out-of-warranty car.
      • 7 Months Ago
      This is a most informative blog.I congratulate the
      author and the commentators.I would like to know if anyone with an engineering or science background could critique the idea of doing away with batteries and instead have cars ride on highways which have the equivalent of a "third rail" ,pantograph,or similar device.In this way,we could electrify the interstate highway,perhaps which strings of nuke powerplants [not in fault zones of course].
      • 7 Months Ago
      Please go to www.velozzi.org or www.velozzi.com They have an amazing team and are building a true hybrid electric vehicle.
      • 8 Years Ago
      As far as I see it, GM has two options: make plug-in hybrids or DIE. Period. EV-1, failure. (I love that car...) Ethanol guzzling SUV's, relatively unsuccesful. Toyota and Hoda already have all teh hybrids. They must make one giant leap forward in order to survive: PHEVs!!!!
      • 8 Years Ago
      Dave,
      There are some pure EVs ready now http://www.autobloggreen.com/2007/02/07/the-top-ten-electric-vehicles-you-can-buy-today-for-the-most-pa/

      but I think that you're talking about should be ready in 3-5 years, the Tesla WhiteStar,
      http://www.autobloggreen.com/search/?q=whitestar
      • 8 Years Ago
      Hasn't anybody here watched, "Who Killed The Electric Car?" Fantastic movie... and I couldn't help but think of the EV1 while I was reading this post... and as far as I'm concerned the automobile industry is in kahoots with big oil (as is every other major body of importance) and the reason we don't have electric cars is because they will NOT release us (the people) from the pumps. Why? Because they're making a killing in the order of 10's of billions a year. Now they're pushing hydrogen fuel cells (a technology that takes more energy to make than it gives back). I will never purchase this technology and I convince all I talk to to do the same. I did not believe your post... I think it was scripted.
      • 8 Years Ago
      I'm disappointed by the article. It poses the same "chicken versus egg" argument that the "right" batteries don't yet exist, so GM can't afford to risk building a 21st century car.

      The EV-1 project from years ago flies in the face of that argument. Its Gen II batteries provided the safety and range required (170 miles/charge, in later versions). GM never widely deployed them, and ultimately dumped the battery development contracts and crushed the EV-1s.

      If anything, the EV-1 and now the Toyota hybrid fleet demonstrate that safe battery packs can and have been created in quantities to sustain a growing market.

      GM needs to stop making excuses for selling duplicative , warmed over 1970s ICE cars, trim its product line and develop simpler, smarter cars and new powertrains for the 21st century. Toyota isn't making these excuses - they are doing these things now.

      • 8 Years Ago
      Your information is not accurate. I will summarize very short and sweet for you. GM EV1 - over 10 years old. over 120miles range. $4500 to replace battery that would last about 100,000 miles (cheaper than an engine and thats 10 year ago prices) virtually zero maintenance and virtually nothing to break. Salable for under 40k and that again was over 10 years ago.

      ITs already done. the technology the batteries (thats why NIMH batteries were invented IIRC) the electronics the car the frame everything it was done it was ON the road.

      KNow what they did ? took back every single one against the wishes of there leases' (thats right they REFUSED to sell any only lease them) it was SO good a product it scared the crap out of them.

      They personally (and I mean personally as in sent a witness from the company) to watch every single one of them be CRUSHED purposely.

      they were offred 1.6 million for a few of them REFUSED crushed them anyway.

      hybrids are a waste. hydrogen is a waiste still confines you to BUYING fuel from someone and it by admission 20-25 years off still before it can even begin to go mainstream.

      I can get a 26 year old diesel volkswagon that will get better mpg than a Prius or a brand new diesel jetta that will also get better mileage than a Prius (at 75mph with the air on 52mpg)

      A prius has a larger enviromental footprint by several orders of magnitude than a HUMMER. (theres a hell of a lot more to impact than fuel economy ie you have to BUILD those things)

      When you buy a prius you send me a message that you care less about the enviroment than a hummer owner and do not even realize it. (sadly neither does the hummer owner)

      Just imagine all of this was not only possible but HAPPENED over 10 years ago (15 I think 1995 sound familiar IIRC) Just imagine what we could do with the exact same tech TODAY with just the improvements that we have made in the last 15 years. you don't need lithium ion batteries sure if they could perfect them they would be great but a 120 mile range is MORE than sufficient for 99% of the commutes in this entire country and that assumes you DO NOT plug in at work!!!!

      IF we could get 120 miles 15 years ago today ???????

      Think about it. Oddly 2 things killed the electric car. #1 is lack of oil sales. the #2 is the strange one. Almost No Maintenance. I will leave you with this. You would be amazed at the amount of a car companies profit that comes AFTER the production and sale of the car. with electric they lose almost all of that since they are virtually maintenance free for life. Wipers tires brakes and with todays led's you would not even have to change bulbs.

      THAT is why we have no electric cars in mass production today. it has NOTHING to do with technological limitations at all EVERY SINGLE tech limitation was eliminated with flying colors in the production of the EV1
      • 8 Years Ago
      I am not in the auto industry, but on first pass I would have to assume that foreign car manufacturers have a similar lead time from planning to production. I'd would also be surprised if those foreign companies didn't have to demonstrate some kind of safety record before being allowed to sell autos in the US. Even after reading this article, I can't help but wonder as to the apparent reason for lack of planning on the part of the US auto makers since the oil embargo of the 1970's to enable electric-based vehicle today, now 30 years later. In other technology circles, 30 years constitues a revolution. I am in general sympathetic to the auto workers' plight, but their masters -- and their masters -- are to blame.
      • 7 Months Ago
      fantastico Mhurd,
      I could understand commenters bashing the plausibility of green cars but AutoBlogGreen's own writers? What exactly is your mission statement?
      Sebastiano please tell us what you guys are all about.
      • 8 Years Ago
      So, you're trying to tell me that all the testing manufacturers already do to cover driving environments is moot because it's a new technology being tested for that exact same environment?

      Safety issues? Gasoline _explodes_, not just catches fire, when sparked!
      • 8 Years Ago
      Your comments about Lithium battery safety don't make sense. The altairnano has proven its safety in various tests from overheating, bullet puncture, freezing and collisions. They all did better then any ICE car which would explode. As for cheap laptop batteries - thats another story.

      Your comments on the fact they cannot do such a venture as easily as small companies also has no basis. GM has built a small company called Saturn completely separate from GM. If something went wrong with Saturn vehicles it would be them who would be affected - not all of GM. Of course now all Saturn parts are interconnected and they are completely integrated in the company.
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