If you’ve charted the course of the electric car market over many years, then you know that we’ve always been two years away from a metamorphosis … or five years … or more.
Lately, though, there’s been good reason for advocates to hope that the battery-powered vehicle’s time has come. Excitement is building around BMW’s “i” series of pure electric cars. Audi is planning to roll out a battery-powered car with a 300-mile range in 2015. Sales of pure electrics -- Tesla’s Model S being a prime example -- continue to grow year-on-year.
But an unanswered question still looms: Can battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) be a real force in the auto industry? Can their technology trickle down to the mainstream?
Unfortunately, current numbers provide little proof that’s happening. Despite scores of Internet articles celebrating percentage gains, the totals are, in reality, disappointing. In the first six months of 2014, about 25,000 BEVs were sold in the US. That may sound like an impressive figure, until you realize that those 25,000 represent just three tenths of 1% of the roughly 8 million vehicles sold in the US during that period.
”The overall numbers are still small,” Subhash Dhar, chairman and CEO of Energy Power Systems and co-inventor of the nickel-metal hydride battery chemistry, tells Design News. “I don’t foresee BEVs having a penetration equal to that of the Prius at any point in the near future.”
You could quibble with the details of his assessment. Maybe it will land a point or two above the Prius, maybe a point or two below. But is this what the electric car revolution has come to -- a few percent of the overall?
Unfortunately, the problems of the pure electric car are the same as ever, and can still be boiled down to a single word: battery. Not enough range, too much cost, long recharge times. It could be argued that the Nissan Leaf is making inroads on that front -- after all, it has posted 16 straight months of record sales. But its sales figures of 2,500 per month represent a tiny fraction of the 500,000 per year that Nissan predicted back in 2010.
The truth is, many automakers still see the battery as a big question mark. When we spoke to GM’s director of electric powertrain engineering, Larry Nitz, late last year, he floated the idea of battery-electric vehicles being peddled as second cars. But, he added, that can’t happen today. “As we see it, the battery has to be smaller, lighter, and cheaper in order for the vision of an electric second car to take hold,” he told us.
The cost issues are starting to be resolved at the luxury end of the market, where buyers with more disposable income are willing to pay for cars with expensive battery packs. But the sales figures in that part of the market are small. The practice of technology trickle-down, long a mainstay of the automotive industry, isn’t guaranteed to work with today’s batteries, Dhar says.
”There’s not much here to trickle down,” he explains. “We need to increase the size of the ‘tank’ from 220 Wh/kg to about 440 Wh/kg or even 500 Wh/kg. Then, by the time it trickles down, it might make sense.”
The beacon of light on the horizon is Tesla’s Gigafactory. Although the concept is unproven, its implicit assumption is dead-on: Mainstream buyers can’t afford $85,000 cars.
Dhar, who was instrumental in the development of the battery for GM’s groundbreaking EV1, believes that the price of a 30-kWh battery needs to hit $5,000. That means pack costs must drop to about $160/kWh, a figure that is still not in sight.
“It will happen,” Dhar told us. “But it’s not clear that it will happen any time in the next 10 years.”
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