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 cost.
The toughest political challenge: overcoming government ignorance of technology, and lack of commitment to its own programs.
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 lithiumion 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.
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 production volume.
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 fall short.
"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 battery technology.
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 States Advanced Battery Consortium.
Those disappointments have been largely lost on officials in California, New York, and Massachusetts, however. All three states have hatched zero-emission vehicle programs, which force automakers to build and sell electric vehicles in their states. Their initial goal called for 2% of all vehicles sold in those states during 1998 to be powered by electricity. The states backed off that goal, however, when it grew obvious that it wasn't possible. Their new goal: 10% by 2003.
The result of such well-intentioned regulations is that automakers end up carrying the economic load. Meanwhile, battery makers continue to promise solutions. "Our market is always tomorrow," notes Mike McCabe, alternate fuel vehicle marketing manager for Ford Motor Co. "But tomorrow never seems to arrive."
Broken promises. Nevertheless, automakers continue to prepare for tomorrow--mainly because they are forced to comply with zero-emission vehicle regulations. In doing so, they hoped for federal and state government support--in the form of vehicle purchases.
That, however, has not happened. In fact, some contend that government regulations have given automakers false hope. Policies such as EPACT (the Energy Policy Act of 1992) called for federal fleets to boost their percentages of alternate fuel vehicles (though not necessarily EVs). Big Three automakers say they invested heavily in EV technology in the belief that such regulations would spur federal agencies to buy their early vehicles. "Many companies built their businesses around what they considered to be serious environmental measures that would most certainly be lived up to by government agencies," notes J. Robert Thompson, director of manufacturing for advanced technology vehicles at General Motors.
Government fleets, however, have been little help. Of the 585,000 vehicles in the federal fleet, only about 200 are electric. EV leases at the state level have been similarly insignificant. California has 37; Massachusetts has zero. (Massachusetts and New York told Design News that they planned to buy EVs in fiscal 1998, however.)
Government agencies say that they simply can't afford to dish out the money required for an electric vehicle. "The cost differential between an electric and a conventional vehicle is $22,000," notes Denise Lenar of the U.S. General Services Administration fleet management. "An electric pickup is $34,000 or $35,000, while a conventional Ford Ranger or S-10 costs us $12,000 or $13,000."
Ironically, government agencies, at least in California, could have prevented the problem if they had listened to advice from consultants in the first place. A detailed, 94-page report prepared by Charles River Associates and DRI/McGraw-Hill warned that such mandates would hurt the California economy and would not cut air pollution. Although the report was presented to California legislators, they still passed the mandates.
Lack of government support for their own regulations has led some automakers to conclude that they, the automakers, must shoulder the economic burden. Such companies as General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, and Nissan have expended tremendous amounts of capital in development of EVs. General Motors' investment is said to be reaching $1 billion. Ford executives will say only that they've spent "more than $100 million" for the sale of, thus far, 76 Ford Ranger EVs.
Volume the key. Battery manufacturers see it differently. They point to improvements during the past five years, including progress in range and charging time. They point to more advanced technologies on the horizon, such as lithium polymer and lithium ion, which will add further to the range. "Over the last six or seven years, the technology has been improved to the point where it has become an economic viability," notes Dhar of Ovonic Battery Co.
Clearly, battery manufacturers believe that they are close to launching a revolution in the auto industry. That's why so many companies have joined the race to develop a battery pack for electric vehicles. Sony Corporation, for example, worked jointly with Nissan to develop a lithium ion battery. Ovonic Battery Co. and Panasonic EV Energy Co., Ltd. have designed nickel-metal hydride units. 3M and Hydro-Quebec are working on a lithium polymer pack. A raft of other firms is also developing units using a range of materials, including: advanced lead-acid; nickel-iron; zinc-air; nickel and sodium chloride; and a "co-extruded composite matrix," among others.
Most of those companies expect to achieve huge increases in energy density. It's not uncommon to hear battery manufacturers talk about energy densities of 200 W-hr/kg, which is about three times the average energy density that's available today.
Still, there's a considerable difference between the beliefs of battery makers and independent researchers. Independent research efforts, such as Argonne's, have forecast only moderate improvements in energy density.
If battery makers are correct in their optimism, however, it would undoubtedly make EVs more attractive to consumers. The question is, can they do it for a reasonable cost? Battery makers say that this is a chicken-or-egg question. If they have the production volume, they could do it, they say. Production volume would provide economies of scale for both materials and components. Ovonic Battery, for example, currently buys a vendor's foam and uses it as a battery substrate. At current volumes, the foam costs about eight times as much as it would at volumes of 100,000 batteries per year. Similarly, terminals, cans, and covers used in the battery would cost a fraction of what they cost now.
Automation of components would also be a cost benefit, they say. "On our prototype line, it might take 18 steps to produce a single component," Dhar says. "On our pilot line, it could be the opposite: We might produce 18 components in one step." The result of such changes would be a huge cost reduction.
Among automotive engineers, however, such talk means little. Yes, they say, larger volumes would cut costs. But they don't believe they can find buyers for the current crop of electric vehicles. "Who are the 100,000 soldiers who will sacrifice themselves to drive EV prices down?" asked one engineer in a typical comment. "Willing consumers aren't out there."
Long-term solutions. The logic for lithium batteries is similar. Some experts have expressed particularly high hopes for the lithium-polymer battery. Those high hopes stem from the fact that 3M is involved. Along with the Montreal-based utility company, Hydro-Quebec, 3M is developing new battery designs and manufacturing processes. But the key is the thin film that the battery employs: Thin-film polymer would allow for high-volume production techniques that could drive the battery's cost to levels acceptable within the automotive community. In the past, such projects have served as the cornerstone of 3M's success: Scotch Magic Tape and Post-It Notes, for example, come from such thin-film research and processes.
"A few of the layers within this battery are thin-film materials that can be manufactured in volume," notes Doug Kuller, program manager for the lithium-polymer battery at 3M. "But they must be made in miles, or even millions of miles, for this battery to succeed."
Many experts believe that investment in lithium technologies is the best long-term bet if EVs are ever to become competitive. "The industry has been looking at the near-term because the 1998 sales requirements have forced them to," says MIT's Sadoway, who is also developing a lithium battery. "So they looked at low-risk technologies that were as close to off-the-shelf as possible. As a result, certain high-risk technologies have not been explored. So maybe it's time to open the gates and take a look at new ideas that might take a little longer."
Hybrid bridge. For the near term, many experts believe that the hybrid electric vehicle could serve as a bridge technology, enabling battery development to continue. The hybrid, which uses an internal combustion engine to charge the batteries for an electric drivetrain, provides more of the conveniences to which consumers have grown accustomed. "The electric vehicle with real potential today is the hybrid," notes David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "It has very low emissions and it eliminates the range and energy-density problems."
Automakers also find the hybrid more appealing because they have incentive to build them. Today, automakers pay millions of dollars in penalties if their fleets don't meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. With hybrids averaging 60 mpg or more, their CAFE averages would go up, thus lowering their penalties.
Even battery manufacturers see merit in the hybrid idea. "We're confident that we will see substantial quantities of hybrids by the turn of the century," says Robert Stempel, chairman of Ovonic Battery, and formerly GM chairman. "And once people realize, 'Gee, I'm drivingan electric vehicle,' they might want to do it all the time. Then we might see the transition to pure electrics."
If that's so, it would give battery makers another opportunity, albeit in a slightly different niche. For hybrids, batteries would have to be redesigned. Because the batteries would be continually recharged by the engine, specific power would replace energy density (and range) as the key design issue.
What's more, recent developments in electric drivetrain technology could make the case for hybrids even stronger. New electric drivetrains offer costs comparable to conventional automatic transmissions, thus enabling hybrid vehicles to compete economically. "Right now, it looks like the auto industry's best bet," Cole says.
Continuing research. For now, however, looming legislation still calls for zero emission vehicles in California, Massachusetts, and New York. Thus, the hybrid, which burns gasoline, doesn't qualify.
For that reason, something else must be done. Battery makers still believe that legislation is the only driving force, and many industry analysts agree. "It costs a lot of money to put out a new product in an untested market," notes Cairns of UC-Berkeley. "Why would any automotive company in their right mind decide to do that? The only thing that would make them do it is legislation."
While legislation could help garner development funds for further research, however, most agree that the 2003 policies in California, New York, and Massachusetts aren't the answer. Such policies ignore the fact that automakers typically take three or more years to develop new products. What's more, electric vehicles require new manufacturing facilities, which, in many cases, don't exist now. For automakers to be successful by 2003, as the states want them to be, they would have to start their efforts now. Problem is, no one has a competitive battery now.
The fact is, the battery proponents have had their chance. Most are loathe to admit it, but automakers worked on EV batteries during the 1960s as an offshoot of the U.S. space programs, and during the oil embargo of the '70s, and through the '80s and '90s. Despite repeated promises to the contrary, their results, the evidence shows, have been abysmal.
That's not to say that competitive battery-powered electric vehicles are an impossibility. Future generations may one day drive them. But the road to such achievements is a long, hard one. "Deep-level understanding of batteries is still in its infancy," says Sadoway of MIT. "Batteries appear to be very simple, but there are multiple levels of complexity there."
Most important, such complex technologies cannot be forced by anxious politicians or well-intentioned environmentalists. Many in the automotive community agree that research should continue, and that hybrids or other technologies should be used as a bridge to success.
But most also agree that the research should take place in the lab, not on the dealership lot. "You can mandate that someone build the vehicles," notes Barbara Richardson, research scientist at the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "But there is no mandate that says anyone has to buy them."
Today's EV lineup: Major effort, minuscule return
Most big automakers have a "pure" (not a hybrid) electric vehicle for sale. Here's a lineup of the major models, along with their battery technologies, driving ranges, and prices.
Chrysler EPIC Electric Minivan
Battery type: Advanced lead-acid
Driving range: 68 miles (combined city and highway)
Price: Not available
Ford Ranger EV Pickup
Battery type: Lead-acid (changing to nickel-metal hydride)
Driving range: 58 miles (Federal Urban Driving Schedule)
General Motors EV1
Battery type: Lead-acid (changing to nickel-metal hydride)
Driving range: City 70 miles; Highway 90 miles
General Motors S-10 Electric Pickup
Battery type: Lead-acid
Driving range: City 40 miles; Highway 45 miles
Honda EV Plus
Battery type: Nickel-metal hydride
Driving range: 60-80 "real world miles"
Price: Not available
Nissan Altra EV
Battery type: Lithium-ion
Driving range: 120 miles
Price: Not available
Battery type: Nickel-metal hydride
Driving range: 118 miles
The leading contenders
Although automakers are considering many battery technologies for use in electric vehicles, they have focused on three prime contenders. Those are: lead-acid; nickel-metal hydride; and lithium-based batteries. (The latter two are leading contenders).Nickel-metal hydride: the new kidon the blockNickel-metal hydride operates by moving hydrogen ions between a nickel-metal hydride cathode and a nickel hydroxide anode. During discharge, hydrogen moves from cathode to anode. During charging, ions move in the opposite direction. Prior to Ovonic's efforts, battery manufacturers long knew about nickel-metal hydride's potential advantages, but were unable to capitalize on them. The reason: Nickel-metal hydride's electrodes were notorious for corroding and disintegrating. Engineers solved that problem, however, by alloying several elements which would have ordinarily been unsuitable for battery use. But by combining such elements as vanadium, titanium, zirconium, and nickel chromium, they produced a synthetic material with sufficient bonding strength to resist the corrosive environment of a battery. The ability to engineer the battery in that way is critical to the success of nickel-metal hydride. "We can engineer it for high energy density in a pure electric vehicle or for high specific power in a hybrid," notes Robert Stempel, chairman of Ovonic Battery, Troy, MI.
Lithium-ion or lithium polymer: the future
For electric vehicle manufacturers, the future is lithium--either lithium-ion or lithium-polymer batteries. Nissan was the first to use the technology in a production vehicle when it incorporated a lithium-ion battery in its Altra EV. Altra's battery, jointly developed by Nissan and Sony, offers the highest energy density of any battery available in a production EV. At 90 W-hr/kg, it reportedly provides the Altra with a 120-mile driving range. Like all lithium batteries, lithium-ion works by dissolving lithium ions, and transporting them between the anode and cathode. It distinguishes itself, however, in its use of materials: Its anode is made of lithium cobalt dioxide and its cathode, a non-graphitizing carbon. During operation, lithium ions move through a liquid electrolyte that contains a thin, microporous membrane. In contrast, lithium-polymer employs a very thin polymer, a polyethylene oxide, which serves as the electrolyte. Lithium ions move between a lithium foil anode and metal oxide, actually passing through the solid conductive polymer. The battery, made by 3M and Hydro-Quebec, offers lighter weight because it eliminates the use of the traditional electrolyte bath. As a result, automakers can choose between lowering the vehicle's weight or improving the driving range by adding more batteries.
Not enough energy to power a market
For battery makers, range is still the issue. If a battery enables a vehicle to drive 100, 150 miles, or better yet, 200 miles without a recharge, it puts the vehicle in a better position to compete with the internal combustion engine. The problem, as the graph shows, is gasoline has more than 100 times the energy density of today's best battery technology. Even though only about one quarter of this is actually available to power a car, batteries aren't even close. So how can battery makers raise energy density? In two ways. The first way is to improve the chemistry. In Ovonic's nickel-metal hydride battery, for example, engineers modify the material composition of the electrodes. By doing so, they change the amount of energy that can be stored at the individual electrodes. The company's batteries currently store about 1.5% hydrogen by weight at the electrodes. By changing the composition, they plan to boost that to about 5% or 6%. To make it happen, they plan to use 11 or 12 elements in the negative electrode, which currently employs eight. The positive electrode, a multi-component alloy of nickel hydroxide, would also change. "By changing the structure, you can improve the specific power, which is a function of kinetics," notes Subhash Dhar, president and chief operating officer of Ovonic Battery. "Or you can change the energy, which is a function of storage sites." The other way to improve energy density is to reduce density. Battery makers accomplish that by going after the obvious: enclosures; electronics; bus bars, electrolytes; or any material that's considered non-active. By lowering the density of the battery, they therefore boost the energy density. "Basically, you'd like a battery with no wasted weight or volume," notes Doug Kuller, program manager for the lithium-polymer battery at 3M. "No battery manufacturer ever comes close to the theoretical density of the material. So there's always room for improvement."
Decades of development
Electric vehicle proponents often argue that the electric car battery is too frequently compared to the venerable internal combustion engine. Such comparisons are unfair, they say, because the internal combustion engine is more than 100 years old, while electric car batteries are a mere three of four years old. Not true. Electric cars and trucks first appeared in the late 1880s, but gave way to gasoline-powered autos by the 1920s. The U.S. space program resurrected electric vehicle research in the 1960s, and it has continued ever since.
Late 1880s: Electric cars, trucks, and buses first appear.
1920-1960:Lead-acid battery work continues for use inindustrial vehicles, but not for cars and trucks.
1960s:Space programs lead to research in zinc-air and lithium-sulfur EV batteries.
1970s: Oil embargo causes automakers to study sodium-sulfur and zinc-nickel oxide batteries. GM builds prototype electric Chevette and Chevrolet LUV truck.
1980s:Sodium-sulfur and nickel-iron emerge as prime EV candidates.
1990s:U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium is formed. Nine different models of EVs are introduced in the U.S.
How committed is the federal government to its own environmental policies? Of the 585,000 vehicles in the federal fleet, just 200 are electric. Commitment to alternate fuel vehicles--such as compressed natural gas, methanol, electrics, and others--has been only slightly better. Even there, however, the government has failed to keep up with its own policies. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPACT) called for the acquisition of approximately 8,500 alternate fuel vehicles in the federal fleet during 1997. The fleet acquired about 7,500. In 1998, the fleet is expected to fall another 1,500 vehicles short. What would happen to automakers who similarly fall short of a mandate? They would face fines of $5,000 to $10,000 per vehicle. If they don't meet the 2003 mandates, those penalties could exceed $200 million.
Where are they?
"The basic technology of the nickel-iron battery system is sound. Now the challenge is to develop an effective powertrainsystem." --Eaton Corp., 1987
Although some work continues on nickel-iron, it doesn't hold the prominent position it did ten years ago. Chrysler, which once held high hopes for nickel-iron, has designated nickel-metal hydride as its future battery for the EPIC minivan.
"Sodium-sulfur is the only one that seems to have the potential for making a range of over 100 miles...''--Ford Motor Co., 1987
Ford Motor Co. and ABB dumped millions of dollars of research money into sodium-sulfur. But concerns over high operating temperatures (over 5,008F) have all but eliminated work in this area.