Driving Electric Cars: Are We There Yet?

February 13, 2010/Best price on Cars


Every year at the Detroit Auto Show I approach auto executives with my question: “How are batteries coming?” The usual reply is, “Not there yet.” Then why bother?
Because hybrids and pure electric vehicles help raise an auto company’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy, which the government says must reach 35.5 mpg by the year 2016.
So far the only pure electric car on the road, the Tesla Roadster, costs over $100,000. The new 2011 Nissan Leaf, an electric plug-in car, is to go on sale in certain areas of the country in late 2010, but not where it’s cold. Yet every car company is promising some kind of electric vehicle, soon.
A new study by The Boston Consulting Group echoes what I hear from some auto execs: Not there yet.
The lithium-ion chemistries to be used in car batteries need constant monitoring and balancing to control the chemical release of energy, prevent fire and protect the battery’s life span. And batteries age faster in extreme cold and heat. Carmakers, in order to compensate for things like extreme temperatures, might put a heavier, more expensive battery in their vehicles than needed, which gets expensive.
How expensive? The lithium batteries used in the coming 2011 Chevrolet Volt have a 40-mile range. I have learned, on good authority, they cost close to $10,000. Nissan talks about a 100-mile range for its Leaf, but indicates it will lease the batteries separately because of their cost.
The Boston Group talks of a range between 160 and 190 miles before recharging, but clearly that depends on how many batteries get used.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

What we are beginning to hear is that gasoline, for all its problems is a lot more energy dense than any battery — 100 times more dense. It takes almost 10 hours to charge a 15-kWh battery good enough to last for a range of about 40 miles by plugging into a standard 120-volt outlet. Fast charging methods can reduce this time significantly to two hours and maybe even to 20 minutes, but those charging systems cost more, need more cooling systems and may wear out faster.
The expectation is that costs will go down as volumes increase, but so many of the costs involved in battery production are not volume dependent like labor and availability of raw materials.
BCR reports that without a major breakthrough in technology, wholly electric cars may be limited to commercial fleets and cars that are confined to a prescribed range of use, such as to school and back.
Range-extender vehicles, which feature a gas engine, too, like the coming Chevy Volt, have the potential for a greater market.
A battery consortium has set a cost target of $250 per kWh. With 90 kWh hours needed in a Leaf, for example, that battery would cost $2,250. Right now most automakers pay $1,000-$1,200 per kWh.
BCG expects about 14 million cars will have electric or hybrid powertrains by 2020. A battery pack would then cost around $6,000. But most of those 14 million (predicted, remember) will be hybrids — about 11 million. An estimated 1.5 million are projected to be full electric powered vehicles. Then BCG estimates the cost for infrastructure (plug-in spots) at $20 billion worldwide, with about 40 percent of that in the U.S. — Kate McLeod, Motor Matters

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2010

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