When Will Electric Cars Reach the Tipping Point?

The battery is still the wild card for future electric vehicles.

Charles Murray

January 6, 2014

2 Min Read
When Will Electric Cars Reach the Tipping Point?

Some day, there could be a shiny new battery-powered car in your garage, ready to tote the family hundreds of miles before needing a high-voltage recharge. Or maybe not.

Experts, asked recently by Design News to describe the state of electric cars in 2025, were in agreement on only one point: No one knows. Next-generation electric vehicles might travel 300 miles between charges and cost just a few thousand dollars more than their gasoline-burning counterparts. Or they might serve as low-cost, short-range second cars. Or they might find their niche in the luxury end of the market, where the extra cost of the battery won’t matter as much.

“The battery is the still the wild card,” Thilo Koslowski, distinguished analyst for Gartner Inc., told us. “We believe that by 2030, about 15 percent of all vehicles will be battery-electric. But that assumes a steady advancement in battery technology.”

At the company’s new battery lab, GM engineers hope to double the energy density of lithium-ion chemistries.

Indeed, steady advancement is critical. And by “steady,” experts mean more energy and less cost. Today’s batteries, they say, still cost too much and offer too little when compared to gasoline. “Cost is key, key, key,” Larry Nitz, GM’s director of hybrid and electric powertrain engineering, told Design News. “Battery-electric vehicles just aren’t there yet. We haven’t yet gotten the cost and range to the point where they’re appropriate for the mainstream.”

The road to 2025
The big question, though, is whether the auto industry will reach that tipping point anytime soon. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk believes it will. In 2012, Musk declared that half of all new cars on the road would be fully electric in 12 to 15 years. “I actually feel quite safe in that bet,” he said. “That’s a bet I will put money on.”

In 2013, Musk supported his forecast by announcing that Tesla will roll out a “compelling, affordable electric car” that will sell for about half the price of its Model S by the end of 2016. Musk did not detail how Tesla plans to accomplish that. (Tesla declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Most industry analysts consider Musk’s viewpoint optimistic. In 2012, Navigant Consulting predicted that about 1 percent of new cars on the road would be fully electric by 2020, while Lux Research said it would be “less than a percent.” Boosting that figure to 50 percent by 2025 is a stretch, they said.

“If you think about it, 2025 is not that many product lifecycles away from where we are now,” John Newman of McKinsey & Co, told us. “Engineers are already sourcing their 2018 vehicles. Seven years past that is not a huge amount of time.”

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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