There was a lot of feedback (50 comments at last count) to my column on EV range anxiety, some thoughtful and intelligent, some not. The few who accuse me of being anti-electric vehicles, which I definitely am not, were not. Neither were the two (same guys each time) touting the idiotic conspiracy theory that GM sold its Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery patents to an oil company (Chevron? Exxon?), and then that evil oil company sued Toyota to prevent it from using NiMH batteries to keep them off the market because they might "threaten their oil business." Jeeesh!
On the first count, I LOVE the smooth, silent, seamless, torquey, petroleum-free performance of a good EV. Yet I'm not ready to own one because the vehicles available are still too expensive, too primitive and/or too range-limited to offer a practical, affordable ICE alternative. I devoted nine years of my working life to testing and developing what became GM's EV1 (and other advanced vehicles) in hopes of helping to move that technology to where it could for most people. Hasn't happened yet, but I know a host of folks are working hard on it today.

On the second charge...who makes up such BS? The battery technology that GM offered as an extra-cost option in '99-model EV1s was one of many significant breakthroughs of genius inventor Stan Ovshinsky, who pioneered Ovonic amorphous solar cells in the 1970s and founded Ovonic Battery Company in 1982 to pursue commercial uses for NiHM batteries, most notably to power longer-range (vs. lead-acid) electric vehicles. Ovonic was a supplier to GM. GM never owned patent rights to its batteries. No one ever sold them to an oil company. And no one sued Toyota. (Column continues after the jump).


What did happen, as I recall, was when Japanese battery maker Panasonic started manufacturing vehicle-size NiMH batteries for Toyota, Ovonics strongly believed that Panasonic had ripped off its proprietary technology and violated its patent rights. There was a patent infringement suit and, I believe, a cash settlement. But Panasonic continues to this day to supply significant quantities of NiMH batteries to Toyota, and others, for hybrid vehicles, and Ovonics – now a subsidiary of the larger company Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) – continues to supply NiMH batteries to GM for its growing range of HEVs. Oh, and in 2000, Texaco (aha!) bought a 20 percent interest in ECD Ovonics and set up joint ventures with it to develop regenerative fuel cells, hydrogen storage and NiMH batteries. Evil...or enlightened?

Now, to your (more intelligent) comments and questions, edited for space:

"I thought it was a given that public charging stations will become common," offers commenter BlackbirdHighway. "How hard is it to wire up an electrical socket? All it takes are enough electric vehicles on the road to generate some demand."
"For EV vehicles to really take off, individuals have to have confidence of access to charging," adds commenter Johnny. "It's a bit of a chicken and egg thing, but clearly it's going to come. This IS the solution to the range problem."
"I feel the exact same way about hydrogen," says SteveCT. "If I had a hydrogen car, I'd be terrified to run out of 'gas.' It's not like NASA is going to come and fuel my car, and I don't think AAA has hydrogen tankers yet. A 250 kW charger can top off a battery in under 15 minutes. If we had enough of them spread throughout the country, range anxiety for EVs would make about as much sense as range anxiety for gasoline-powered cars."

Perhaps. But any charging stations better than ultra-slow 110/120-volt public house-current plugs will require substantial investment by electric utilities, car companies, service station owners and/or local, state and federal governments. But nearly all of those today are broke and going broker. And who pays for the power? And will it be profitable for the investor?

I ran these comments past my very knowledgeable friend and EV advocate Garrett Beauregard, who is Vice President of Engineering for Electric Transportation Engineering Corp. "Charging isn't always scalable," he says. "Lithium batteries don't like heat, and that's what gets generated when they're charged. There is a limit on how fast you can charge, whether from the chemistry, physics, technology or cost."

Grid-knowledgeable Chaz offers additional concerns: "Even assuming we could create batteries that go from 0 to 100 Kwh in 15 minutes, we would have to overhaul 3 things:
  1. The charging stations. Most don't have the ability to output that much energy in that little time...nearly 6.7 kwh per minute! ['407kW!' says Beauregard. "Norvik Traction and ETEC built a 300kW charger for Chrysler in the '90's. Really big! A 407kW charger will need a 700A-rated circuit at 480VAC, 3phase...a very serious circuit!'] You could charge in 3 hours with a 240V/50A range outlet, but instead you'll need a 240V/300A outlet (or something higher).
  2. The whole electrical grid: unless those charging stations have micro-fusion reactors attached, that energy has to be ported from somewhere else. The losses we sustain in the grid alone are staggering.
  3. The lack of power: one station might be supported with current levels of power generation, but try 1500 in Manhattan ALONE! Then consider all the stations in Chicago, LA, Boston, in smaller cities and along the highway. We're not talking chump change."
"There are going to be lots of varieties of charging systems: low, medium and high power," Beauregard points out. "Mid-power chargers (like the Magnecharge system) are not all that expensive to install and can give meaningful range while you're at dinner, shopping, at the movies, etc. Still, you're not going cross-country in EVs any time soon."



"Unfortunately, we can't carry a can of volts. Says who?" scoffs commenter fnc. "Let's consider phosphates and a typical streamlined EV: 200Wh/mi in normal EPA driving, 100Wh/kg for phosphates, 8 miles of capacity (with perhaps 7 usable) to take you to a charging station = 35 pounds. Put shoulder straps on a removable segment of the battery pack and a small 120V charger and you're set. And if you slow way down rather than driving a normal EPA cycle, you'll get as much as 15 miles range on that portable pack.

A 35-lb "removable segment of the battery pack"? "It is worth noting," Beauregard notes, "that 1600 Wh (his number for 8 miles of range) is about 6.4 liquid ounces of gasoline; less than a cup. But the issue with what he is proposing is more an interface problem. You would need to have 1600Wh at sufficiently high voltage that it can charge the dead pack.... a lot of relatively low-capacity cells strung in series. My guess is that in order to do that, the gravimetric energy density goes in the can because the active material in the cells will be a substantially smaller percentage of the mass required to contain them. Then you have to be able to transfer all the energy out of the can into the vehicle's pack -- difficult to do with chemical batteries. You'll probably need 2x energy in the can to get 1x energy into the vehicle battery. And don't forget the safety issues of toting around a 300+ volt 'jerry can' battery."
"Why can't the EV driver call a truck with a charger on it," fnc asks, "powered either by a generator or by an extra battery pack? If it's battery-powered, it could even be a rapid charger."

On-demand mobile charging for stranded EV drivers? Maybe. But that also brings up the investment/profitability question. How much would it cost to purchase and equip such a truck? How much would you be willing to pay for a fairly quick emergency charge?



"You're on the button with range anxiety," Beauregard adds. "Don't think there is a way around it. Shai Agassi thinks he has the solution with battery swapping, but I think that is a non-starter in a world where auto designs are jealously guarded and a means of self identification. John Q. Public is going to have to learn that every vehicle doesn't have to be able to go 400 miles in the blink of an eye. Plenty of people will line up for the Nissan EV, and others."

So, while I am very much in favor of, and excited about, widespread usage of electrically-powered vehicles, I believe we all should be realistically aware of, thinking about and working on the many issues remaining before that is likely to happen. More next time.


Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.


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