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That big battery breakthrough EV lovers talk about isn't happening at Tesla

In analyzing the Gigafactory plans, it's clear the CEO Elon Musk has no plans to improve the batteries themselves. So the big "breakthrough" in battery tech that EV enthusiasts always claim is coming anytime now? Well..

One thing we commonly hear from the "electric vehicles are the only future" crowd is the mantra that battery technology is going to get more energy dense, lighter, and cheaper because the next big breakthrough is just around the corner. To read EV blogs and forums, you'd think that every small find in the lab is the key to the next piece of battery excellence. Yet the biggest name in electric vehicles doesn't seem to think that this is the case.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, has been talking a lot about the company's plans for Gigafactories to build battery packs for its vehicles as well as to sell to small grid suppliers for storage solutions. Reading between the lines of Musk's statements, though, seems to indicate that the most-recognized proponent of electric vehicles doesn't think batteries are going to change much over the next few decades.

Any day now, we're expecting Tesla Motors to announce the location (or locations) of their first Gigafactory and give a time frame for its ground breaking and construction. At this point, it's likely to be in one of three or four U.S. states and, according to Musk's plans, will be capable of producing about 50 gigawatt hours of batteries per year at a cost of about $5 billion to build the facility. Musk says that those batteries will power about half a million vehicles with a few batteries left over to supply renewable energy storage needs in the emerging solar and wind power small grid and perhaps even consumer markets.

Yet in all the talk and announcements made about that factory, not once has Musk said that batteries would become exponentially better than they are now. In fact, his math seems to say that he has no expectations of the batteries improving by more than a couple of percentage points in terms of energy density and EV range payoff. The base version of the third-generation Tesla, which will be the company's affordably-priced, "everyman" car, will have a range of roughly 200 miles using a battery pack that is 20 percent smaller than the current Model S base offering. Doing the math shows that this means the pack is not expected to be more energy dense; the numbers being used are with current battery tech.

Some could see this as mere conservative thinking from a CEO who doesn't want to jump the gun on future possibilities and potentially lose out when predictions fail to become reality. Were this anyone but Musk, that might be the case. But Elon is well-known for his far-thinking, far-out ideas and for being unafraid to air them in public.

Musk's only real prediction on the battery front has been that costs for Tesla will drop by 30% when they're making them themselves and in large quantities. Some have questioned this math, of course, but economies of scale could prove him to be correct or at least very close. It's arguable that Tesla currently has the lowest cost per kWh in the automotive lithium-ion industry, which would explain why other automakers contract with them to create batteries for limited-build vehicles like the RAV4 EV. The widely-cited "$400 per kWh" assumption by the press is probably based purely on the cost difference between battery offerings in the Model S, which is arbitrary. We won't dive into this argument, but a Green Car Reports piece written last year dissected it well (see link below).

What's important to our discussion is that nowhere in that mention of cost reduction did Musk mention anything about increased density through technology breakthroughs. His mention of the subject focused entirely on economies of scale, direct purchases from raw materials suppliers to cut out middle men, and improved supply chain efficiency.

Most of the battery breakthroughs taking place in the lab recently have been either impossible to reproduce at scale or are breakthroughs in cost reductions and manufacturing rather than energy density. Even if a mad scientist somewhere out there were to come out tomorrow with a breakthrough battery that doubled energy density and was manufacture-ready, it would be decades before any real-world CEO would embrace the technology for use in automotive until the tech had been thoroughly and exhaustively tested. The general consensus among battery experts, chemists, and automotive engineers is that batteries for vehicles are improving, but only at a steady, very slow pace.

Instead, the foremost proponent of electric vehicles is clearly predicting that batteries will largely remain the same, which means that if an EV is to truly replace a gasoline equivalent vehicle on all fronts (size, capability, range, etc), it won't be because batteries suddenly get better. This further proves predictions of EVs being a fraction of the overall market for the foreseeable future. Much to the chagrin of the EVangelist, I'm sure.

Image from Wikimedia

Green Car Reports reference


Rob Stark (not verified)    July 6, 2014 - 2:50AM

Elon Musk Stated goals

2017 at least 30% reduction in price.
2020 at least 40% reduction in price once GF is fully operational.

At this point electric powertrains reach cost parity with ICE powertrains or get very close.
With added cost to meet 2025 Federal CAFE and European Carbon limit standards cost for ICE powertrains will likely exceed EV powertrain cost. No magical exponentially better battery technology required.

At the most recent shareholders meeting Elon Musk said he has become more optimistic about reaching these battery cost goals.

Elon has mentioned a new battery chemistry but he has not released details as these are likely Panasonic patents not Tesla ones. Expect linear not exponential gains, reaching those price reduction targets would be almost impossible without some increase in energy density. JB Straubel and Elon Musk have stated they expect Lithium Ion to dominate for ~10 years then be replaced by something else. They do not expect lithium ion to dominate for decades. They believe Tesla GF will be easily upgradeable to any new chemistry on the horizon.

Every EV blog I read mentions new press releases of new advanced batteries that are exponentially better but have a skeptical attitude. Poopooing EV fans for being gung ho about radical advanced battery technology is striking down straw men.

Weapon (not verified)    July 6, 2014 - 1:04PM

You are half right and half wrong. Yes breakthroughs don't happen often, even when they do, by the time they are commercially viable they end up seeming much less of a break through as the older tech closed the gap. But here is a few things to note that people seem to miss. First of all, batteries are not improving at a slow pace, the issue comes up is people put batteries side by side with computers and other such tech. Compared to CPU processors, yes batteries are improving at a slow pace. But if you put it in context of everything else, batteries are improving at a fairly fast pace. A lot of people are too obsessed with a breakthrough, but the reality is a breakthrough is not needed. With incremental improvements we can have cars on batteries going 500 miles on 1 charge that can be recharged in 10 minutes. Without any need for a breakthrough. The biggest thing holding back EVs is not that though, it is the cost. And this is what Musk is tackling, to bring down the cost so that eventually that 500 miles EV will be affordable. For now though he is starting with affordable 200-300 mile EV (Tesla said there will be options for larger batteries from 200 miles on the Gen 3)

Aaron Turpen    July 6, 2014 - 2:22PM

The reality, Rob, is that most ICE engines in small and medium cars are already meeting or very close to meeting 2025 carbon standards. The gasoline engine, in particular, has seen several big changes recently that have pushed it forward. The price reduction targets you're talking about (40%) would NOT put the battery pack on par with an ICE, but it would make it close enough. Then the trouble becomes weight, which is not being reduced here.

Peter (not verified)    July 7, 2014 - 9:28AM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

Let's not forget the fuel cost savings, way lower maintenance fees and potential subsidies. With the 40% battery price drop, the EV's retail price would be very close to those of gas cars. Factor in a few thousand $ per year in the savings I mentioned above and there's not even a competition on the cost basis. No breakthroughs necessary, just a steady progress (it is true that batteries do not follow Moore's law but even though they improve at a swifter pace than gasoline cars' efficiency).

This further proves predictions of EVs disrupting the overall market in the foreseeable future (to reword your conclusion).

John Goreham    July 7, 2014 - 10:39AM

In reply to by Peter (not verified)

Tesla has the highest maintenance costs of any EV, and they are much higher than almost all of the luxury /premium vehicles that it competes with. Sure, you can just not do what Tesla recommends, and sure, if you come in with a problem when the car is young they might (might) do the maintenance at no cost - so do other premium brands. The difference is that with companies like BMW the maintenance is included in the cost of the vehicle through the whole lease, or about the time the first owner typically keeps the vehicle. With Tesla you have to add maintenance on to the cost of the vehicle. Please feel free to visit the Tesla maintenance price page here:

mike w (not verified)    July 6, 2014 - 4:55PM

Getting the energy density up/weight down would be great but it seems to me that getting the cost down is more important. Most people are price sensitive so cost is more important. There are always going to be people who refuse to buy a BEV because it can't refuel/recharge in 5 minutes and then the people who don't have access to off street parking may not see BEVs as practical for them.

Aaron Turpen    July 7, 2014 - 12:15PM

In reply to by mike w (not verified)

Think of it like this, Mike. Most buyers are cost-conscious. In the lowest end of the market, cars are selling for around $15k and getting 40 mpg. To make a car equivalent to that using current technology would mean making a Versa/Fit-sized car that weighs more than double the norm now and would require more than a 40% reduction in battery cost to match that low price tag. Heavier cars mean more wear and tear on components, roadways, etc. It also adds safety issues and more. On the other end of the spectrum are medium-duty vehicles and offroading, both of which will also require major rethinking by Tesla and potential battery questions for safety, range and weight issues.

Leo Kerr (not verified)    July 10, 2014 - 11:22AM

Sometimes one can't see the forest for the trees. The next big breakthrough is already underway - it is the reduction in price of the current battery technology. Simple as that. "This further proves predictions of EVs being a fraction of the overall market for the foreseeable future" - what is the foreseeable future - 10 years? 20 years? Like it or not EVs will be displacing ICE vehicles more and more for a host of reasons other than pure battery density - public health, environmental urgency, climate change dynamics, increasing costs of oil and the strategic reasons of energy security.

Aaron Turpen    July 10, 2014 - 4:40PM

In reply to by Leo Kerr (not verified)

Experts are saying that battery-electrics will be roughly 50% or less in 2050. Further, your last sentence is bogus. The U.S. is now the world's top oil producer. The climate change debate will continue raging because so far, no one has satisfactorily answered questions of how much human emissions actually play into the change we're seeing, which is far below the projected changes by experts given over the last 20+ years because, we're finding, models were fundamentally and seriously flawed from the get-go and still seem to be just as questionable now. Further, we don't get "energy security" when we move to EVs simply because we cannot produce the power, nor deliver it if the EV becomes a half or full replacement for ICE. Not without very significant updates to our grid as well as some big steps forward in solar, wind, and other electricity production. All on a time scale that is fast in relation to the normally glacial pace that infrastructure tends to upgrade with.

mulp (not verified)    July 13, 2014 - 5:16PM

If Musk is able to cut his battery costs by 30% for Tesla Motors and Solar City, Musk will have a big advantage over competitors, either lower prices to take market share or higher profits or both. That will force competitors to react, perhaps by building their own GFs or demanding existing battery suppliers cut their prices and increase supplies.

Every new battery factory built will mean new refinements to battery making get incorporated based on experience with older factories. The pressure to innovate and the opportunity to roll out innovations increases the most when manufacturing capacity is expanding rapidly.

Joe (not verified)    July 30, 2014 - 8:34AM

'There is no expected breakthrough in battery tech... etc etc.'
7/30/14- Stanford battery breakthrough promises to triple or quadruple battery energy density by using lithium anodes.

Ah, so funny....

Marc Mullen (not verified)    February 1, 2023 - 1:09AM

Wow! This article didn't age well and it's only 8 years old!

Now, GM is apparently switching from their own highly hyped "Ultium" platform to the battery format Tesla developed 4 years ago, the 4680 cell. I guess GM does not care about the advantages of Ultium they have been touting for years now, lower cost, more energy density, more versatile packaging, faster charging, etc. Now they want the inferior solution Tesla developed before they announced Ultium. It makes it look like GM doesn't know diddly squat about EV batteries! But they are learning!