Anand Jetha: Slow Progress in Battery Technology Will Hold Back Electric Cars

Link to Anand Jetha’s LinkedIn Homepage

I am delighted to host another student guest post by Anand Jetha, the 3d of this semester.

The battery is the biggest obstacle in technological progress, and ultimately the barrier for the all-electric vehicle to become a major participant in the automotive market.

Every day it seems there is a new gadget that rolls out doing something amazing, something innovative. Phones get lighter, thinner, and more powerful. Laptops are built thinner than our hands. Google has cars driving themselves. Tesla provides cars that drive themselves from your garage to the curb at any time you choose, and have all your comfort settings including temperature and radio adjusted. But the thing powering that ready to go car at the curb and the cell phone in your hands has barley changed in eight years. Processing power doubles every two years according to Moore’s law, but today’s battery cannot even hold 30% more power than a battery from 2007. This means each year your electric car battery can only hold 3% more power. That’s nowhere near the 50% per year growth we see in the processing power of that self-driving electric car.

But how can that be? We have so many more electronics using battery power today including laptops, fitness trackers, smart watches, phones, Xbox/PS4 controllers, electric razors, and many more. The demand for batteries is growing significantly so why isn’t the innovation following? The problem has to do with the limits of mass when it comes to the lithium in the batteries. They just can’t be squeezed any closer together.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Porsche Unveils Prototype Battery-Driven Sports Car” highlights the new desires for auto companies to build all electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. The article talks about Porsche’s new “Mission E” car as well as Audi’s “e-torn Quattro” and BMW’s “i8” which all push for fully electric performance cars. They claim that the driving experience is all that still matters, not the fuel. All three are getting amazing press coverage as they keep improving the efficiency of all-electric vehicles. The problem is even with this new focus for EV, they make up less than 1% of all vehicles in the United States.

That low market share starts to make sense once the limiting factor of the battery is accounted. The most expensive part of the electric cars is the battery that powers them. They add a significant cost to making the car. Take for example the Ford Focus ST, which is their highest tier gas model that sells for $24,425. Now add a battery to it and make it a plug-in hybrid and the costs shoots up to $29,170. And that is just a hybrid, which has a smaller battery than an all-electric vehicle. After the cost comes the problem of charging the current batteries.  I can pull up to a gas station and fill my car in about 10 minutes. If I want to charge my Tesla at my house after paying to have a special charger installed, would take about 5 hours for a full charge. Our current batteries are very difficult to charge quickly. Now comes the issue of the size of the battery. The tesla gets at best 270 miles of range before I need to stop and charge for another 5 hours. Other than my interest in limiting my carbon footprint, I have no desire in driving a battery powered car that will force me to change my lifestyle.

Sure, the all-electric car is getting all kinds of converge but remember that their current market share is less than 1% in the US.  The only way automakers will be able to sell these cars as something other than status symbols is if they magically create improvements in the power source.