A recent rebuttal by General Motors to an article in The Wall Street Journal cites the often-used comparison between electric cars and electronics.
“Remember when mobile phones fit in a brief case, weighed 40 pounds and were affordable only to the wealthy?” wrote Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America. “Now, cell phones fit in your hand, have desktop-like computing power and sell by the thousands every day.”
Reuss goes on to make the case that electric vehicles are in a similar position because they, too, are in the early stages of development.
Our question is, does GM honestly believe this logic? Does GM think we’ll see 2X improvements in electric cars every two years, as we did with integrated circuits?
As we’ve said before, the problem with this kind of logic is that it’s fundamentally misleading. Consumers, lawmakers and journalists hear this comparison, believe it, and then report it as if it’s fact.
But it isn’t. There’s a vast difference between semiconductor chips and electric car batteries. A half-century ago, the semiconductor industry found its ideal material – silicon. Then it perfected silicon manufacturing techniques, effectively doubling the number of transistors on a chip every two years. And when a few ambitious engineers tried to find a better alternative to silicon, they failed miserably. Even the great Seymour Cray met his technological Waterloo when he tried to switch from silicon to gallium arsenide.
Now compare that to the EV industry. In the past 20 years alone, we’ve seen the battery of choice shift from lead-acid to advanced lead-acid to sodium-sulfur to nickel-iron to zinc-air to nickel-metal hydride to lithium polymer to lithium-ion, to name a few. Undoubtedly, there will be more.
And since we’ve “settled” on lithium-ion, has its energy density doubled every two years? To be sure, it has improved. In 1998, Design News reported that the lithium-ion batteries in Nissan’s Altra EV had an energy density of 90 Wh/kg. When the Nissan Leaf EV comes out next month, its batteries will have reached 140 Wh/kg over a 12-year period. That’s good, but hardly an electronics-type of improvement. If the energy density of electric car batteries was doubling every two years, then today’s number would be closer to 5,000 Wh/kg.
The problem is, massive improvements in electronic technology have spoiled us. Today, it seems we expect all technologies to improve on the electronics industry’s meteoric trajectory. And that’s just not going to happen.
“We’ve all been spoiled and deeply confused by the IT model,” noted Bill Gates recently, while comparing battery development to chip development. “Exponential improvement – that is rare.” Gates knows – he’s funding five battery start-ups, and has freely admitted that such comparisons aren’t valid
GM must know this, too. So why on earth is its North American president publicly comparing electric cars to cell phones?