At a recent social gathering, a lawyer told me the “truth” about electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
“A friend of mine knows someone at Google and he said that General Motors could build great electric cars right now if it wanted to,” he said. “The battery technology is ready. The problem is GM is in bed with the oil companies.”
Ah, yes, the old auto-industry-in-bed-with-the-oil-companies conspiracy theory. Twenty years ago, we kept hearing about the 200-mile-per-gal carburetor. Now, it's the killer battery.
The amazing thing about this bit of technological folklore is it lives on, even among engineers. Over the past 10 years, I've received countless e-mails from readers who are convinced there's a battery in a basement (usually at GM), wrapped in oily rags, hidden on a shelf somewhere. The battery is a veritable powerhouse, capable of propelling a truck for 400 miles on a 15-min recharge. But the evil scientists at GM are rubbing their hands together and twitching with delight while they take payoffs from the oil companies for hiding it. It's reminiscent of the final scene in the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in which the government hides the Ark of the Covenant in a non-descript wooden crate in an unnamed warehouse somewhere.
It is, of course, a great yarn. And it lives on because so many people at cocktail parties believe it and nod their heads knowingly. GM, after all, must be in bed with the oil companies, as well as with J. Edgar Hoover and Darth Vader.
In the stories, it's funny how the blame almost always falls at the doorstep of GM. It rarely, if ever, gets attributed to Honda, Toyota or Nissan — all of which built and abandoned electric cars in the late 1990s. It's also interesting to note Google has emerged as a savior in this area, probably because it serves as an embodiment of the future, while GM is seen as a relic of an oil-thirsty past.
I know many of our readers will be consumed by anger when they read this, but there is no such battery in a basement. Not even at GM. The truth is, a lot of very bright electrochemists have been working on the EV battery for a long time and they still haven't come close to the 400-mile, 15-min recharge battery.
Recently, we published a story on the . If you're a conspiracy theorist, you probably didn't like it. We interviewed experts in electrochemistry at Argonne National Lab., Cal-Berkeley and elsewhere. Their collective conclusion: Building a plug-in hybrid battery (not even a pure EV battery) is difficult enough.
Elton Cairns, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Berkeley and a former battery researcher in NASA's Gemini program, put it best. “If you ask, 'Technically, can we do it by 2010?' The answer is yes,” he says. “But is the battery affordable by consumers? The answer is no.”
And that's for a 40-mile plug-in hybrid battery.
Virtually everyone in our group of experts agreed that with enough hard work, an affordable 40-mile lithium-ion battery pack is within sight. None know of a 400- or 500-mile battery with a 15-min recharge time. Most said the path to such technology is long, torturous and unpredictable.
But the truth is complicated. Boring, too.
Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to cite mythical conspiracies than it is to build that magic battery.