Killer Battery Eludes Electric Car Makers

While electric vehicles will continue to generate hype at the North American International Auto Show, today’s battery technology will keep the so-called EVs a niche product for years to come.

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford charges the Ford Focus EV during the vehicle's reveal in early 2011.
Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford charges the Ford Focus EV during the vehicle's reveal in early 2011.

“I’m a skeptic about EVs,” says Greg Payne, VP of portfolio management with Toronto-based Greenchip Financial, a firm specializing in sustainable investment. “You’re talking about a premium product.”

The industry-standard lithium ion battery has plateaued in terms of capacity, and Payne says new technologies to stretch that capacity don’t look promising for the near term.

“Rapid charging is years away,” he says, and plans to swap out batteries at a service station along your commute is “not going to work” since no battery or car manufacturer can agree on a single format of battery.

While new EV models from FordMotor , Tesla , Mitsubishi and others are rolling into showrooms this year, expect EVs to remain a niche product for the next several years, says analyst John Gartner of clean tech research boutique Pike Research.

“We’ve scaled back our sales forecasts,” says Gartner. “It’s still looking like it’s not going to crack 1 percent [of total vehicles sales] until 2015.”

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Current battery technology will drag on EV market growth, since the cars have a higher sales price and more limited range on a single “tank” of fuel than a typical mass market, gas-powered vehicle, and government tax breaks for car buyers are under threat.

Of course, that's not to say that manufacturers are not busy working on potential breakthroughs in the lab, says one battery maker.

A123 Systems’ CEO David Vieau says component substitution with newer materials currently in development promise “50 percent improvement in density of a battery cell,” effectively doubling the range of the vehicle.

That would boost the range of Ford’s 2012 Focus EV from 100 miles to 200 miles, well within the requirements of the average car trip to work or the mall.

Zinc-air technologies to replace lithium ion could triple the energy density of the battery system within the decade, allowing for smaller batteries or a wider range.

“A few years ago the question was ‘do they work?’” says Vieau on the state of the battery business today. “Now it’s ‘how much do they cost?’”

“In the next four to five years, we’ll see the price of batteries come down dramatically,” he predicts.

While Pike’s Gartner cautions that battery development will more likely be “evolution not revolution” for the next decade, his firm’s third quarter 2011 estimate is that the “electrified vehicles” market will still grow 19.5 percent annually between 2011 and 2017, compared to 3.7 percent for the overall vehicle market.

The report adds that the EV market alone will grow 48.4 percent annually, although Gartner points out that that kind of jump is typical of segments “in their infancy.”

No matter what improvements happen in battery technologies in the coming years, one green vehicle trend touted in the early 2000s is now considered dead: the offering of drive train options across popular selling vehicle platforms.

This means buyers could choose from a gas, diesel, natural gas, EV or hybrid Ford F-150, for example, just like choosing other paint schemes or seat configurations.

A123’s Vieau says the technology requirements beyond the battery packs is simply too different, and would likely need to be done on a different assembly line.

And despite the bad headlines in 2011 concerning the crash test performance of the Chevy Volt’s battery pack, analysts say that will have limited impact on battery production and implementation.

In recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, Volt battery packs — made by South Korean firm LG Chem — were found to catch fire, but only weeks after the crash.

“It’s definitely a negative reflection on the industry,” says Pike’s Gartner about the battery fires. “But it’s kind of an anomaly in that it was an artificial (circumstance).”

While A123’s Vieau wouldn’t comment on the Volt issue, he added his firm will be providing the battery system for GM’s newest EV, the 2013 Chevy Spark, and for 20 other transportation clients.

Despite his skepticism of EVs, Greenchip’s Payne agrees that issues like the Volt’s are “noise around the edges” in the lifespan of new technologies.

Improving battery technology itself goes beyond EVs anyway, he adds, pointing out that while batteries drive up the price of EVs and therefore “exposure to economic conditions,” the rising price of gasoline could push more drivers to extend fuel efficiency with battery technology, like with hybrids.

“That’s an area where you could get more growth,” he says about a future battery technology’s market share.