Editorial: Why the carmakers seem to be dragging their feet on batteries

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.

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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.

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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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