Yes, Electric Cars Still Need an Innovative Battery

Charles Murray

May 18, 2015

3 Min Read
Yes, Electric Cars Still Need an Innovative Battery

Why aren't electric car sales better? The answer, it seems, can't be repeated often enough: it's the battery; it's the battery; it's the battery.

Automotive engineers know this, of course. So do materials scientists. But consumers look in awe at the accomplishments of Tesla Motors and wonder why its electric success can't trickle down to mid- and entry-level cars.

General Motors recently blamed lack of demand. Plug In America cited lack of awareness and vehicle availability. "Some dealers are less enthusiastic about making the additional investment required to support PEVs," the organization wrote in a report released in April.

Both are right. Demand on the low end of the market is weak. Vehicle availability and awareness are poor.

The question is, why? The answer: it's still the battery.


A recent study by stated the obvious: People with higher incomes purchase battery electric cars. The study showed that buyers of the Ford Focus EV had an average household income of $199,000 a year, whereas the buyers of the gas-burning Focus averaged $77,000 a year. Similarly, buyers of the Fiat 500e electric car earned $145,000, while gas-burning Fiat 500 owners came in at $73,000.

In an interview with USA Today, TrueCar president John Krafcik suggested that the affluent buyers were more bargain conscious, and therefore wanted a car with lower operating costs. Left out of the explanation was the fact that the more affluent owners can afford to buy a relatively expensive second or third car that offers less utility. Less affluent owners can't do that. If they can afford a second vehicle, it's a beater.

In the next few years, economies of scale will push electric vehicle technology forward. Batteries will get cheaper; car prices will drop, volumes will grow. Overall penetration of battery electrics will rise -- maybe to 5%, maybe even 10%.

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But if you're looking for an explosion of sales -- one that makes us wave goodbye to oil -- then good luck. Economies of scale won't do that. For that, we need the so-called "God battery" -- 300 miles of range, $100/kWh.

That's a tall order, of course. We know this because we've heard about countless new battery chemistries over the past 25 years, from sodium-sulfur to nickel-iron to nickel-metal hydride to advanced lead-acid to lithium-ion to lithium-air to lithium-sulfur to aluminum-air and on and on. We're still waiting. Apparently, it's harder than it looks.

When I began writing about electric cars in 1988, I hadn't heard of the Internet. I didn't own a cell phone. Those technologies, however, have roared past electric cars in terms of consumer acceptance over the past 27 years.

We can blame all kinds of factors -- availability, awareness, conspiracies, promotional efforts, consumer ignorance. There's some truth behind all of those. But while we were arguing over those truths, mobile phone subscriptions grew to seven billion. Worldwide Internet users jumped to more than six billion.

Great technologies make challenges like those seem small.

The electric car still needs a great battery.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

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About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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