2022: When Electric Cars Achieve Parity

By Bill Moore

Posted: 16 Mar 2012

Last year, General Motor's Chevrolet division sold some 1 million Cruzes. During the same period, it sold less than 7,000 Volts, built on virtually the same platform. In fact, when engineers were testing the Voltec extended range electric drive system for the Volt, they used the Cruze as their test 'mule.' I know, because I got to drive one.

A dear friend and colleague of mine is convinced that the reason Chevy sold so many more Cruzes than its electrified sibling is because the company used the Volt as part of an elaborate 'bate and switch' strategy to get buyers into the show room to see this winder car with its $40,000+ price tag and then get them into the nearly identical Cruze; the big difference being the Cruze is totally dependent on gasoline, the Volt isn't, at least for the first 25-40 miles range. Those miles will be on electric power where the cost is roughly equivalent to less than a $1 a gallon.

A Cruze tricked out with all the bells and whistles comparable to those found on the Volt will set you back about $23,000 or so, while its electric hybrid kin could easily be double that number. So, the question is, Was it sticker shock that got those buyers into the Cruze rather than the Volt? Maybe, but it would be hard to quantify, I suspect.

Still, survey after survey shows that price does matter with a majority of car buyers. We may have champagne tastes, but we have to live on beer budgets.

Which brings me to President Obama's announcement last week in Mount Holly, North Carolina at the Daimler truck plant. During that appearance, he announced the Department of Energy's "EV Everywhere Challenge," the goal of which is to "make electric vehicles more affordable and convenient to own and drive than today’s gasoline-powered vehicles within the next 10 years."

Presumably, according to the U.S. Energy Department's press release the day of the President's announcement, March 7, 2012, this would be accomplished by a "Department-wide initiative, which will bring together DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Program, the Office of Science, and ARPA-E" along with academia, research labs and private industry, which will "set technical goals for cutting costs for the batteries and electric drivetrain systems, including motors and power electronics, reducing the vehicle weights while maintaining safety, and increasing fast-charge rates."

Simply put, the Challenge is seeking to eliminate both the price and largely the operational differences between the two technologies -- ICE vs EV -- which is slowing the acceptance of electric vehicles today. It envisions you walking into a dealer showroom in 2022 and the Volt generation III selling for no more than the Cruze sitting next to it.

Is that realistic? Certainly, and it might actually come sooner than expected, starting with the biggest cost item of all, the battery pack.

During the recent ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, a DoE grantee, Envia Systems, announced they had developed a battery that could cut the cost in half; accounts varied from $150 down to $125 per kilowatt hour of energy storage, while delivering a battery with 2.5 times the energy density than the best lithium batteries today.

In layman's language that means you could reduce the size and weight of the battery pack in the Volt, LEAF, i, Coda, Focus, Karma, Model S… any electric car by 2.5 times and still deliver the same range. Or, conversely, you could keep the same sized enclosure and give a 100 mile EV, 250 miles of range.

Additionally, if I read the announcement correctly, the cost of that energy would be half what it is today, which puts it in the range of anywhere from $500 to as low as $125 a kilowatt. The 16kWh, 400 pound battery in the Volt would now weigh just 160 pounds (72.5kg) and cost, maybe, $2,000, at least for the cells, if not the entire pack with its Battery Management System electronics and temperature control system.

The next item on the DoE wish list is the electric drivetrain. How do you wring the costs out of the motor and controls that propel the car? The glib answer is volume and yes, that will certainly be a significant factor, but such motors and controls are resource-intensive, requiring not only vast amounts of copper and assorted alloys, but rare earth elements, none of which are getting any cheaper as demand rises and companies scramble to find alternatives. We learned this week that Toyota engineers are working on electric drive systems that require little if any REEs, but will they require other materials equally in demand or in short supply?

One way to solve the drivetrain cost issue is to make them smaller and you can do that by reducing the weight of the car through the use of lightweight steel, greater use of aluminum, and the wider introduction and integration of plastic and carbon fiber composites. BMW's soon-to-launch i-Series electric car line will be the first to make extensive use of carbon fiber, reducing the weight of the vehicle and the size of the propulsion system. It also happens to be stronger, pound-per-pound than steel, so the car will be, in theory, safer.

The third item is rapid charging. This involves three key developments: battery chemistries that can handle the large current flows without degrading the lifespan of the cell, affordable fast chargers, and, maybe the biggest challenge of all, a supporting grid that can handle the current and voltage demands.

On the first count, Altair Nano has demonstrated a chemistry not only can handle the necessary flow of current to enable a 10 minute fast charge but do so, allegedly, through thousands of cycles. The Nissan Renault alliance recently announced they were working on cutting the price of fast chargers to a fraction of their present cost, showing a prototype unit at the recent Geneva car show that would cost only $4000, maybe a tenth the price of earlier fast chargers

Charging an electric car at 3kW overnight using 110V or 240V doesn't necessarily cause any significant strains on the power grid, utilities assure us. But charging an EV to full charge in 30 minutes requires industrial grade electric power and that does impact the grid, especially since it would likely occur during peak hours, not off-peak. That is probably the biggest and most expensive challenge of all. Here the DoE's Sunshot Challenge could be an important element because solar electric power generation just happens to peak, generally speaking, as energy demand on the grid peaks. If we could somehow set a national goal that for every kilowatt hour of electric car battery that's produced, we offset it by a comparable amount of solar electric power, we could avoid any potential power crunches; and we'd gradually, over time, clean up the grid, while making it less vulnerable to disruption, accidental or otherwise. It would be expensive, for sure, but remember the U.S. puts $2 billion a day on its imported oil credit card. That bill is strangling our economy and costing the American people jobs, lots and lots of them.

Of course, at the moment, EV Everywhere and Sunshot are more rhetoric than reality, but the costs of solar are coming down, as is the cost of battery technology. Still, we need a credible blueprint and funding (both public and private), as well as proactive policy to help move either and both from the realm of good intentions to the real world of rooftops and showrooms.

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