Before electric cars take off a breakthrough in battery technology is required, according to a research report from Lux Research. According to that company, the primacy of lithium-ion batteries will soon be threatened by next-generation battery technology, but automobile use may be the last field to get better batteries because automakers are so sensitive to reliability.
Lithium-ion gained primacy because of energy density advantages over older technologies like lead-acid or nickel-metal-hydride. Both have been used in electric vehicles in the past. Increased energy density allows lithium-ion based cars to have a lighter and smaller battery pack for the same range. Any component for automotive use requires stringent reliability and safety testing, causing automakers to have long qualification periods before adopting any new component.
Therefore advanced batteries should show up first in consumer electronics devices where the feature will be to provide a longer talk time on a cell phone.
Another non-automotive growth area that many battery manufacturers are working on is grid energy storage systems. Such systems are gigantic battery packs providing smart grid services to shore up the electricity grid stability when demand is high.
What technology will take the lead? According to Lux Research it is Solid State Battery technology. By 2020 the complex manufacturing processes for that technology will be solved, and it will surge past Lithium-Ion by 2030. Toyota recently unveiled they may skip over lithium-ion based electric cars and wait for solid state batteries in the 2020 time frame.
Lithium-Sulfur batteries will make strong progress, as will improved lithium-ion chemistries, but neither will be able to compete with Solid State.
The automakers are most assuredly researching advanced battery technologies. Several General Motors executives have been speaking fairly openly about advanced battery systems that will make an affordable 200 mile range electric car plausible within a couple years. They have a significant battery research laboratory in China, and are reportedly working with Envia Systems who is designing lithium-ion technology improvements.
When battery technology improvements show up in consumer electronics the result is longer talk time. When it shows up in an electric car the result is either a lighter/smaller battery pack, or one with a longer driving range.
Reports of this sort always have an unintended side effect that is the truism: The demand for "perfect" is the enemy of the "good". The promise that future electric cars will be far more attractive than today's can lead prospective electric car buyers to put off their purchase. By putting off purchasing an electric cars, the car companies get a signal that perhaps nobody wants electric cars when instead they're waiting for the perfect one. The solution for consumers may be to lease electric cars, rather than buy them, as a way to insulate yourself against the rapidly changing battery technology.
In the meantime, research firm Frost and Sullivan suggested a couple months ago that Plug-in Hybrid vehicles would be showing strong adoption over the short term because of the pragmatic choice to have a gasoline range extender. That study noted battery technology improvements would mean that, in the long run, there would be a switch-over to all electric cars.
Source: Lux Research