Electric and hybrid cars: One size will not fit all

Electrification will come in many shapes and sizes as the auto industry looks for ways to improve fuel efficiency and to lower the cost of batteries by finding a secondary use in grid storage.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

Battery-powered vehicles will come in a range of electric and hybrid models in coming years, rather than come in one or two configurations.

The Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) yesterday hosted a teleconference where battery company executives predicted how auto electrification will take hold and how the industry will tackle the cost of batteries.

Hybrid cars are now a familiar sight in the U.S. and many consumers are already aware of the battery-electric Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, which uses a gas engine to run a generator that charges its batteries. Automakers are investing in plug-in vehicles, relying largely on lithium ion batteries, in large part to meet fleet fuel economy mandates.

As electrification spreads in transportation, automakers will develop different configurations of electric vehicles, such as plug-in hybrids which have a bigger battery than today's traditional hybrids, they said.

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Consumers could, for example, choose between a plug-in hybrid with a 20-mile or 40-mile electric range. Another type is a "microhybrid," which uses start-stop technology where a very small rechargeable battery helps move the car and is used to power electric systems when a car is idle.

"As these vehicles come online, the fact that you can choose the type that fits your specific needs will lead to greater adoption," said Andy Chu, vice president of marketing and communications at lithium ion battery company A123 Systems. "Different regions or countries may gravitate to one architecture or another."

Battery storage could also be used with an engine that runs on biofuels or in conjunction with a fuel cell, added Brian Wynne, the president of the EDTA.

All-electric cars are less expensive to own and operate than internal combustion engine-only vehicles because the fuel (electricity) costs less and maintenance is expected to be cheaper. Also, the instant torque supplied by electric motors, rather than the changing gears of gas engines, makes for a good driving experience, Wynne said.

Environmentally, hybrid cars have lower carbon emissions than gasoline vehicles, although a traditional hybrid car has slightly lower carbon emissions than a plug-in hybrid charged from coal-derived electricity, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study released last week.

What about cost?
The U.S. battery industry has grown substantially just over the past year because of government-led efforts, including the Advanced Battery Consortium and the stimulus program, to bulk up domestic production of auto-grade batteries.

Higher-scale manufacturing and incremental improvements in the technology are expected to drive down the cost of auto battery packs significantly in the next five to ten years.

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But even with a steep decrease in battery pack costs, batteries will remain very expensive and represent several thousand dollars in component costs, according to experts such as the Boston Consulting Group. Power electronics are also a significant cost in electric vehicles

To sidestep the persistently high cost of batteries, battery companies are seeking to develop alternative business models which would squeeze more financial value from batteries, said Charles Gassenheimer, the CEO of Ener1, whose subsidiary makes lithium ion batteries for the Think City and Volvo C30.

After seven to ten years, lithium ion batteries will operate at about 80 percent of their original capacity, which will lower a car's driving range. But even after its life in a vehicle, a battery would still be suitable for grid storage.

Gassenheimer expects that new business models will emerge where a consumer will lease a battery for three to five years for $100 to $150 a month. At the end of that time, when the battery still has plenty of capacity for grid storage, it could be repurposed and sold to utilities.

"The economic model for how you buy a car will be very different two years from now," he said. "To make this a real home run for consumers, we have got to get to a model that more appropriately allocates the cost of the battery."

Companies are now starting to explore ventures to repurpose auto batteries for a second life. Battery recycling to recuperate valuable materials in them, such as lithium, copper, and aluminum, is starting as well.

Real-world data
Beyond the business aspects of bringing electrification to transportation, auto and battery makers are also concerned about customers' experience with plug-in vehicles and how much consumers are willing to pay to lower their oil consumption.

Fleet buyers are good candidates to purchase alternative-fuel vehicles because they tend to have predictable routes and will consider the operating costs. Consumers, meanwhile, typically focus on the purchase price over ongoing costs.

There are also differences in the way electric vehicles work. The heating system in an electric car takes up about 6 kilowatts an hour, which is a significant draw on a battery which could be sized at 24 kilowatt-hours for an all-electric car. Also, batteries will not perform as well in very hot or very cold temperatures.

Fast charging systems, which operate at 480 volts, are designed to charge most of an electric car's battery in about 15 minutes. But the trade-off is that fast-charging will decrease the life of the battery, said A123 Systems' Chu, and will likely be more expensive than slow charging.

Most importantly, 2011 will be the year where consumers will start using plug-in vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Think City, and others. That will give the auto industry more insight into consumers' experience and battery makers a better idea how durable batteries are in real-world situations.

"Education around electric and hybrid vehicles is still progressing...Rather than putting test data out or trying to verify how batteries will perform in the lab, we will be putting product on the road," said Mark Wagner, vice president of government relations at battery maker Johnson Controls. "It's a heck of a lot easier to measure the performance of a car than a battery."