Makers of electric vehicles are beginning to talk publicly about the next big step: building an affordable long-range car.
Recently, a GM executive hinted that it has set a goal of creating a $30,000 electric car with a 200-mile range. In June, Tesla chairman Elon Musk similarly said that his company is hoping to build a “smaller version of the Model S at about half the price.” That would amount to an EV with a 200-mile range and a price tag between $35,000 and $40,000.
The national media, of course, are giddy about this. If you type electric car, GM, Tesla, and 200 into Google, you’ll quickly be overwhelmed with articles. Many see it as a Tesla-versus-GM story. Never mind the fact that the two automakers don’t feel that way. The stories have seized national attention.
Unfortunately, though, history suggests that building such vehicles isn’t easy. For years, battery makers have told us they’re on the cusp of a major breakthrough, only to have the claims exceed the reality. In 1993, for example, the late president of Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) wrote in The New York Times that ECD’s battery “permits a range of 250 to 300 miles, lasts a car’s lifetime, has the power to accelerate the sportiest automotive models, recharges in 15 minutes, uses environmentally safe materials, is easily manufactured, and has a cost in production that allows a car’s operation at one-third a gasoline’s engine.” ECD’s nickel-metal hydride battery was very successful, but 20 years later, it still hasn’t come close to those projections.
It’s almost too easy to scroll through newspaper archives and find similar statements going back to the early 90s -- zinc batteries that would allow a 300-mile recharge in six hours and lithium-polymer cells that would give a small car a range of 375 miles. There are many, many more.
This isn’t to say that it can’t be done. It can. The price of batteries will eventually drop and gasoline costs will slowly rise. Plug-in hybrids will grow more popular. Then, when battery costs reach the critical point, large swaths of consumers will graduate from plug-ins to pure electrics.
No one knows, however, when that mainstream vision will really take hold. That’s because the acceptance equation depends on a lot of variable forces -- gasoline prices, battery costs, battery energy density, and improvements in competing technologies, such as internal combustion engines.
The complexity of that calculation is why General Motors has smartly declined to say when, or even if, such a car will be available. Other automakers, presumably working toward the same goal, haven’t uttered a peep about it. Even Elon Musk has said, “There’s definitely a significant improvement in technology needed to have a compelling, affordable electric car.”
The fact is, the problem hasn’t changed. Battery development is still the scientific equivalent of quicksand -- it looks simple, but it has been known to swallow companies whole.
Casting this as a GM-versus-Tesla race won’t change that. It’s still a technology story. The $30,000, 200-mile electric car will be dependent on the battery.
The race to develop it is a marathon, not a sprint.