Those of us who love smooth, silent, energy-efficient volt-powered vehicles would love to see them capture a major share of new-car sales ASAP. Only one thing stands in the way:
Lithium-ion batteries appear to be on track to power growing numbers of electric vehicle (EVs) from mainstream makers beginning when Nissan's electric Leaf and Chevrolet's range-extender Volt hit the road later this year. Li-ion carries four times the energy of lead-acid (pbA) and twice what nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) can carry. But li-ion is young and unproven in vehicle-size packs, competing chemistry variations offer different trade-offs, and it's expensive.
The Volt has long been rumored to retail for about $40K, and the Leaf will likely come in at a hair under $30K (now that Nissan has decided it will be sold battery included). The Volt should run about 40 miles on its 16 kWh pack – using just half its stored energy to head off safety issues and preserve its life – before its thrifty IC engine kicks in to keep it going. The Leaf promises "up to" 100 miles from its 24 kWh, depending (as always) on temperature, terrain, time of day, speed and driving style.
The going OEM rate for li-ion packs today is an estiimated $1,000-1,200 per kWh. At the lower end of that range, Volt's pack is a $16K bill and Leaf's $24K -- 80 percent of (my) estimated price for the car. Both companies insist they will not pay anywhere near that much, especially once they're building their own packs, but lop that in half to $500/kWh, and it's still $8K and $12K! Continue reading after the jump.
Range is a non-issue for range-extenders but a real concern for pure electrics. As we learned even with 100-plus-mile NiMH '99 EV1s, real-life range is highly variable, and there will be days when you need more. That leads to "range anxiety" – what if you learn during the day that you have to drive across town due to some emergency?
At-work charging and public stations will ease anxiety as they become more available, but then there's that third battery disadvantage: recharge times measured in hours. The bigger your pack, the further you can go, but the longer it takes to fully charge. Partial charges can keep you going, but you'll need an hour or two depending on the voltage and power. Really fast charging could happen, but will require huge power and careful control to avoid damaging your expensive pack.
So, battery cost, range and recharge time remain three competitive disadvantages that, unfortunately, will combine to limit appeal, and therefore sales, of EVs for some time But don't take it from me. The large and respected Boston Consulting Group, which issued a 2009 research study, "The Comeback of the Electric Car? How Real, How Soon and What Must Happen Next?" offers a comprehensive 2010 follow-up: "Batteries for Electric Cars, Challenges, Opportunities and the Outlook to 2020" (see here, and also this).
How comprehensive? The global management consulting firm, with 67 offices in 39 countries, says this study is "based on a detailed analysis of existing e-car battery research and interviews with more than 50 battery suppliers, auto OEMs, university researchers, start-up battery technology companies and government agencies across Asia, the U.S. and Western Europe" and "draws on extensive work with auto OEMs and suppliers worldwide."
The report says that, while battery costs should fall sharply over the coming decade, they are unlikely to drop enough to spark widespread adoption of fully electric vehicles. So the $250/kWh long-term target that automakers have used for future planning is not likely to be achieved by 2020 without a "major breakthrough in battery chemistry that substantially increases the energy a battery can store without significantly increasing the cost of either battery materials or the manufacturing process." And it points out that while li-ion batteries used in consumer electronics currently cost between $250 and 400/kWh, "consumer batteries are simpler than car batteries and must meet significantly less demanding requirements, especially regarding safety and lifespan."
BCG projects three scenarios for EV penetration in the U.S., Western Europe, Japan and China: a reasonable "base," a more pessimistic "low" and a more optimistic "high." Yet even under the latter, it sees combustion engines continuing to dominate through the coming decade. The base projection for the U.S. sees just two percent pure EVs and three percent range extenders, along with one percent CNG, six percent diesel, 26 percent gas/electric hybrid and 62 percent gas-powered vehicles. The "high" scenario raises both pure EV and REEV U.S. penetrations to a still-modest five percent.
Beyond costs, the report cites three other key challenges: energy storage capacity, charging time and infrastructure needs. "In view of the need for a pervasive infrastructure for charging or swapping batteries," it concludes, "the adoption of fully electric vehicles in 2020 may be limited to specific applications such as commercial fleets, commuter cars and cars that are confined to a prescribed range of use."
On the positive side, however, it optimistically projects steady growth for electric cars and batteries, including mild and full hybrids, plug-in hybrids, range extender and pure EVs. Of the roughly 14 million electric cars forecast to be sold in 2020 in those four major markets, it says that some 26 percent will have electric or hybrid powertrains. That breaks down to 1.5 million pure electric, an equal number of range extender EVs and about 11 million hybrids.
BCG also estimates the "time to break even" on the total cost of ownership (TCO) for EVs and REEVs in these four major markets, both with and without government incentives. Surveys show that 55 percent of consumers would want to break even in three years or less, and that could happen for pure electrics with substantial incentives but would take 15 years without. For more expensive REEVs, make that five years with and 19 without incentives.
Those 2020 projections for North America are based on six modeled values: $100/barrel oil; $400/kWh battery cost; 150 Wh/kg energy density; 13,673 annual miles; no added gas tax; and no incentives. What would it take to achieve a three-year break-even? BCG says any one of the following would do it: $375/barrel oil; $215/kWh batteries; 290 Wh/kg energy density; >40K annual miles; a 210 percent incremental gas tax; or a $7,700 incentive.
None of those seems likely. Still, I can envision any number of combinations between BCG's modeled values and those extreme projections that could get it done. How about $150 oil, 200Wh/kg batteries at $300/kWh, 15K annual miles, a 50 percent added gas tax and a modest $1,500 tax incentive, for example? Let's slap those numbers in and turn the crank.
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.