A great, reminder, Chuck, that great innovation requires patience and long, laborious work. In our fast-moving, immediate gratification society, we tend to forget that. We look at how fast technologies have come on board (cell phones, smart phones, the Internet) and expect that everything follows the same rapid-fire trajectory. Some things, as you well said, can't be rushed.
It sounds like the venture capital industry needs educating on how different the development of some technologies--like batteries--are from the typical curves for semiconductors. Or maybe the funding sources just need to be constructed in a different way for funding such slower, longer-cycle technology development. The semiconductor R&D model, and for that matter, its manufacturing model, are not always transferrable to other tech sectors, such as batteries or vision and optics.
I agree, Ann. The investment focus should be on applied research and even basic research, rather than on car companies that are making incremental improvements. Incremental improvements might help with plug-in hybrids, but they will limit the acceptance of pure electric cars to early adopters.
Yes, the softening of the EV market isn't helping, Rob. Recently, car reviewers have seemed shocked when they've looked at the prices of the most recent EVs. Toyota's RAV4 EV came in at $50,000; Ford's Focus came in just under $40,000 and the tiny Mitsubishi i-MiEV clocked in at $31,125, base price. A Wall Street Journal reviewer who admits he's wanted an electric car for a decade seemed dumbfounded by the price of the RAV4 EV, writing, "I can't imagine more than a handful of people willing to spend twice the cost of a gasoline-powered RAV4 to have an electric version." The problem is, everyone's waiting for EVs to follow the path of PC technology, and it isn't happening.
I don't think that we necessarily need a breakthrough in new materials for a better battery. I think what the EV industry really needs is a battery manufacturing breakthrough to make current battery technology cheaper. If we could just make our current Lithium Ion technolgy 50% cheaper that would go a long way in lowering the price of electric vehicles. While electric cars would of course benefit from smaller and lighter batteries with higher energy density, what we have today is good enough if it could be manufactured more affordably.
Energy storage is just basic physics. If we can find just the right material and process, it will be like a magical genie that's released to serve our bidding. Which is why there is an almost religeous component to the desire to have an electric car (with the necessary energy storage). Reality is less rosey: eventually it might happen (if someone makes the right discovery), or maybe not.
Last week I just pulled an old model train power supply from the attic and discovered that the diode used to rectify the AC to DC was not silicon but the old selenium type. Seems unrelated, except that this reminds me of the history of semiconductor development which seems apropos.
Back in the day, electronics were all based on vacuum tubes. These were hot, large, didn't scale smaller well, and wasted lots of power. At least they were better than the mechanical devices used before tubes. Everybody searched high and low for a better device for decades (sound familiar?). The only available solid state devices in wide use were whisker diodes (handmade, they were not very good signal diodes and certainly couldn't be used for power) and selenium diodes (better for power, but they were very leaky and not as good as vaccuum tubes).
It took the discovery of that magical combination of silicon doped with impurities that can be, for all intents and purposes, printed to create a REAL alternative to tubes. It would seem battery development is going down EXACTLY the same path as semiconductors. Moore's law won't apply until that magical discovery is made.
A further note on the vehicle prices, these are typically "sold-at-a-loss prices".
We really don't know what it costs to actually make these cars, much less what it would take to make them profitably at those prices. We are not even close to being able to make EVs profitably at competitve prices with conventional vehicles.
This is a big point Volt fans often miss. Yes, you got a neat piece of technology and a cool little car for $32-35K. GM lost money on it and the Govt subsidized both the technology and your purchase. It is not a matter of getting the price down from $40k, they still need to get the cost down below $40k. Way below. The cost of producing an EV needs to get low enough to make them profitable in the $30k or below range.
That is a long way off. Toyota knows cost on commercially successful battery volumes pretty well by now. They estimate $500/mile of range.
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