SemaConnect Blog

April 20, 2015

Two-hundred is the magic number: The imminent arrival of next-generation battery could finally slay EV ‘range anxiety’

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It is a number that is the holy grail of electric motoring – 200 miles of emission-free travel on a single charge. The distance from New York to Washington; from Miami to Orlando; or from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The stride-length that marks out the pleasures of road-tripping across the USA. But unless you’re the cash-flush owner of a Tesla Model S, it’s a number likely banished from the ‘distance-to-empty’ metric on your dashboard.

Of course, that shouldn’t really be a barrier to EV ownership. Not when over 99% of the nation’s car journeys are less than 70 miles, a distance most mid-range EV models can cover with consummate ease. The thing is though – that last one-percent really does matter. Drivers may only occasionally need to push beyond one-hundred-mile mark on any one trip, but the ability to do so conveniently – wherever and whenever you choose – is a powerful part of the appeal of owning your own car.

Give me more range, now

That’s true even among EV owners. A survey last year by the Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE) showed that Nissan Leaf drivers would like to see the range of their non-polluting motors trebled to 200 miles. It is a shortfall that many believe is hindering EVs from achieving mass adoption. The good news, however, is that the quest to deliver on that much-desired number is really beginning to hot up. In fact, you could take the flurry of recent announcements on extended-range models as heralding the era of the ‘battery wars’.

The spur to innovation in battery technology has been the emergence of upstart Tesla. Following on from its success in the high-end of the EV market, the Californian car-maker is looking to push its famously long-range (but expensive) EVs down into the mid-range market, with the Model 3. Reducing battery cost is critical to Tesla’s goal of mass market dominance.

Sliding towards the price-performance sweet-spot

That is why Tesla has jumped so eagerly into the role of battery manufacturer, partnering with Panasonic to construct a ‘gigafactory in the Nevada desert. The company is hoping that improved lithium-ion battery technology, coupled to manufacturing batteries on a larger scale than ever before, will bring the EV battery sliding down the price-performance curve – and into the electric car of the every-man.

But the established automakers are not sitting on their hands. And standing behind many of them is a growing giant of the battery-tech world – Korea’s LG Chem. It already furnishes its lithium-ion cells to 13 of the top 20 global car-builders. Like Tesla and Panasonic, though, LG Chem believes it is evolution, not revolution, that will deliver on the 200-mile battery.

Enter the pouch

Chief executive of LG Chem, Prabhakar Patil, told the WSJ back in August that its new batteries are formed from flexible lithium-ion pouches. They are making use of an improved chemistry to increase their energy density, while better battery management is knocking prices back. These batteries would enable a new generation of low-cost, long-range vehicles within the next 2 years, he said.

Now GM has joined the fray with their plans for the Chevy Bolt, promising a 200-mile roaming successor to the Volt. Many believe that the battery technology to deliver on that promise will come from LG Chem. Then there are plans from Ford and Nissan to bring their own two-century-topping models to market by 2018.

Push and pull

This is the date that all of these eager grail-seekers have in mind, as they surge forward on their quest for the 200-mile battery. The year 2018 is when a fistful of populous U. S. states will ramp up requirements on manufacturers for the provisioning of zero-emissions vehicles – and when federal rules on emissions are being tightened.

So between the push of regulation and the shining lure of mass-market dominance, the next chapter in the saga of the electric car is undoubtedly approaching fast. What remains to be seen is who will be lifting the long-sought-after chalice – and who will be cast down as also-rans. Time to turn the page.

Martin Leggett is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc – a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies– including cutting-edge clean energy startups and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times.

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