5, 1998 Design News
ANNUAL AUTO ISSUE
Out of juice! Nation's charge toward
electric cars stalls
After spending more than
a billion dollars to develop battery-powered cars that
most consumers don't want, automotive engineers admit
they don't have a clue when those cars will be practical
or economically competitive. This exclusive Design News
report tells why.
Charles J. Murray, Senior Regional
Orlando, FL--Dreams of an electric-car revolution
any time soon are dead. Despite more than four decades
of development effort, the most critical component--the
battery--is nowhere near ready. And, automakers don't
expect it to be by the end of the century.
Nor in 2010.
And probably not in 2020.
That's the consensus of engineers, industry analysts,
and others interviewed in an eight-month Design News
investigation into the state of electric vehicle battery
technology. While executives at The Big Three and elsewhere
still publicly express optimism, many engineers admit
privately that they are now concentrating on the development
of hybrid vehicles that use internal combustion engines
to power electric drivetrains.
The toughest technical challenges stalling development
of battery technology: energy density--the amount of
energy engineers can squeeze into a battery pack--and
The toughest political challenge: overcoming government
ignorance of technology, and lack of commitment to its
Objective research shows little hope for solving these
problems soon. A Delphi study published by Argonne National
Laboratory predicts moderate energy density increases
for EV batteries during the next 20 years--not enough
to make a serious difference. "The outlook for
pure electrics is not rosy," explains Anant Vyas,
research engineer for Argonne National Laboratory's
Center for Transportation Research.
Similarly, a separate Delphi study conducted by the
University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive
Transportation forecasts that the number of so-called
"pure" (not hybrid) electrics will inch from
essentially 0% in 1997 to 2% in the year 2007. Privately,
many automotive engineers consider even these dismal
numbers to be optimistic.
Meanwhile, automakers are paying exorbitant sums for
the EV batteries they use in the current generation
of electric vehicles. Ford engineers say the company
pays more than $30,000 for the nickel-metal-hydride
battery pack for the Ranger EV, which it sells to the
consumer for $32,795. Reports from GM indicate the cost
of the battery pack for the EV1 is about $45,000 per
unit. The vehicle sells for $33,995.
Nissan makes them look cheap. According to one source,
the cost of the lithium-ion battery for the Altra is
$600,000 per vehicle. While Nissan claims that figure
is vastly inflated, the company did acknowledge in a
December press conference that the per-unit cost is
more than $100,000.
Experts are quick to point out that such figures are
based on extraordinarily low volumes. But they also
warn that the road to lower cost is a long one that
will require patience on the part of automakers.
For reasons such as these, some automotive engineers
have begun losing faith. They look at the cost, range,
recharge time, and the dismal sales figures, and wonder
aloud how higher volumes will ever be achieved. "Would
you drive around in a car that offered 50-mile range?"
asks one high-ranking EV engineer. "The people
who buy electric vehicles have too much money."
Another puts it more succinctly: "The people who
buy these vehicles must be wackos."
How can the country that put men on the moon be so
confounded by the development of a battery? The answer:
NASA engineers never needed to satisfy the pocketbook
of the American consumer. "When we landed men on
the moon, we didn't have to do it for $100 per kilowatt-hour,"
explains Donald R. Sadoway, a professor of materials
science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and a nationally recognized battery expert.
"It's (battery development) the scientific equivalent
of quicksand, deceptively simple, yet enormously complex."
Energy density. Despite four decades
of trying, engineers have yet to find the right mix
of chemical, electrochemical, material science, and
manufacturing technology to boost energy density sufficiently.
Average energy density in today's EV batteries is about
70W-hr/kg (one W-hr/kg is roughly one mile of range
in a four-passenger sedan). Automakers say that providing
far-greater driving ranges will require years of basic
research by battery makers to find new alloys for cathodes
and anodes. Merely cutting the weight of mechanical
components--thereby enabling a vehicle to pack more
batteries on board--is not enough.
So far, each new breakthrough has run into a major
snag. If the battery's materials are reactive enough
to produce high energy, they often suffer from corrosion,
material instability, or unwanted reactions.
Low production volumes account
for part of the high-cost of EVs today. But
even higher volumes won't eliminate all the
Cost control. Battery cost is far
more critical for autos than it is for, say, laptop
computers or cell phones. Laptop computer owners, for
example, typically pay $5,000-$10,000 per kilowatt-hour
for a battery. Cell phone users pay approximately $1,000
per kilowatt-hour. Automakers say they need to offer
their customers $100-per-kilowatt-hour batteries.
They're not even close. The best long-term EV batteries
now cost $10,000 to $20,000 per kilowatt-hour. Getting
to the $100-per-kilowatt-hour level, automakers say,
will require battery makers to invest in basic research
in electrochemistry and material science. Then they
must raise the production volume, and do the necessary
manufacturing engineering studies to lower the cost
even more. But, despite claims to the contrary, all
of that cost cannot be removed merely by raising
Failure to solve these problems is among the reasons
that public acceptance of EVs is low. General Motors
has delivered just 432 EV1s since introducing them two
years ago. And the numbers for other EVs are similarly
puny (see chart on p. 99). After two years of effort,
the world's biggest automakers have combined to sell
or lease less than 1,500 electric vehicles.
Short-term thinking. Despite the obvious
need for long-term research to build a future for electric
vehicles, automakers say government agencies are forcing
them down a path that actually hurts the long-term
chances for electric vehicle battery technology. Federal
agencies threaten states with cutoffs of highway funds
if they don't clean their air. So, instead of encouraging
work on long-term technologies that might actually be
competitive, state agencies have forced investment in
short-term fixes--and threaten heavy fines when automakers
"Despite everyone's best efforts, our progress
in batteries isn't where we'd like it to be," notes
Marty D. Friedman, strategy and planning manager for
alternate fuel vehicles at Ford Motor Co. "You
just can't wish technology into existence, and you can't
regulate it into existence, either."
Conflicting views. Overwhelming evidence
to the contrary, some are still supremely confident
of the technology's ultimate success. Among them: politicians
and environmentalists, many of whom discount the engineering
challenges. "If they developed and marketed these
the way they market sport utility vehicles, electric
vehicles would have no problem in New York," a
New York-based environmentalist told The Wall Street
Journal last December.
Similarly, battery makers have been unflinchingly optimistic.
"The genie is out of the bottle and no one can
put him back in," notes Subhash Dhar, president
and chief operating officer of Ovonic Battery Co. "The
electric vehicle will be an everyday transportation
vehicle, if not in 1999 or 2000, then certainly by 2001."
Automakers, however, see it differently. Many automotive
engineers believe that battery manufacturers have repeatedly
overstated their forecasts. And knowledgeable observers
agree that such practices are commonplace. "If
the battery maker doesn't promise to meet the automakers'
goals, however ridiculous they may be, then they don't
get any money," notes Elton Cairns, professor of
chemical engineering at the University of California-Berkeley
and a developer of EV batteries for GM in the 1960s.
"So it becomes a sort of liars' contest. Whoever
tells the most credible lie gets the money."
Disappointing history. So what happened
to the bouncy optimism of the late 1980s? Reality checked
in, bringing with it a string of disappointments in
After a half-century hiatus, engineers resurrected
EV battery technology in the 1960s, then stepped up
the pace during the oil embargo of the 1970s. Since
that time, suppliers have touted the potential of a
long list of different solutions, including: zinc-air;
lithium-sulfur; zinc-nickel oxide; sodium-sulfur; nickel-iron
and lead-acid, among others. Most solutions have dropped
out of the picture, for reasons ranging from temperature
problems to cycle life shortcomings.
The new crop of batteries, however, has also disappointed
automakers. Predictions of battery packs that would
provide 300 miles of range and 15-minute recharge times
haven't materialized, despite more than $260 million
in funding from the United Sta