What Americans Want
In a recent issue of The Economist, you will find that Americans reportedly want 3 things in their electric car:
- Relief from any range anxiety by providing more mileage per charge in an EV battery.
- Short charging times because we are all in a hurry.
- A price that is the same or less than what you pay and get, with an equivalent vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.
At the heart of these desires, however, is the problem of building not just a better---but a far better battery. A “Superbattery” if you will.
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An EV Battery Research Race is On
The Economist reports in an article titled “The Race to Build a Superbattery,” that the core technological foundation of today’s EV battery is the well-known traditional lithium-ion (Li-ion) technology.
To build an even better battery, researchers worldwide are looking at solid-state versions of the Li-ion battery that will hold more charge, in less space, for longer periods, and be safe.
Toyota is credited with early solid-state battery research beginning in 2012 and has claimed to have made significant progress and will start manufacturing solid-state batteries for its EVs as early as 2027 with the promise of a range twice that of current EVs and recharge times of around 10 minutes.
Therefore, the first two of the three “wants” EV shoppers desire in their EVs appear to be covered.
However, other competitors such as Nissan, BMW, and Volkswagen are making similar claims and promises supported by partnerships with battery developers and manufacturing plants to give them the edge in being among the first…if not THE first.
Hence the title of The Economist article. And when it comes to automotive races---as the saying goes---“If you are not first, you are last.”
---“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”
However, claims are one thing, and a practical if not sustainable product is another.
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The State of Battery Charge Research
The biggest problem with creating a superbattery is not just finding a safe and efficient electrolyte for the transfer of ions and electrons between anodes and cathodes that is the heartbeat of a battery cell—it’s also a matter of how efficiently that heart beats.
Liquid electrolytes in a battery cell work best but can burn uncontrollably and/or explode. Solid electrolytes are much less volatile, and can pack more charge per space, and broaden the range of material possibilities toward creating a superbattery.
However, from a performance standpoint that includes the life of a battery, a liquid electrolyte still performs better when it comes to the conductivity of ions and electrons during both charging and discharging cycles, which is referred to as “the conductivity problem.” Solving the conductivity problem is their 2nd biggest challenge in the race toward making a better battery using solid-state tech.
Their bigger challenge is that of time.
Other Versions of Solid-State Batteries
The Economist points out that who the winner will be in the battery race is not yet clear due to other runners have entered the race and are quickly developing other versions of solid-state batteries.
One serious contender is a Chinese firm called “Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) that is working on an in-between version of Li-ion and solid-state with a semi-solid “condensed” version with claims of a high level of safety with large-charge storage.
As a comparison example The Economist lists that:
- A high-performing Li-ion EV battery tops out at around 300 watt-hours per kilogram (wh/kg).
- A Chinese semi-solid condensed battery stores up to 500 wh/kg.
- A totally solid solid-state battery promises the possibility of reaching 600 wh/kg or more. But remains to be seen.
Other contenders are focusing not on just the electrolyte conductivity problem, but also on the materials-side of building a battery including other components of the typical cell such as the anode and cathode that can be made with either expensive (rare earth metals) or inexpensive (common carbons or salts) or some blend of both. This is an important focal point in the race because it could bring the price of EVs down to the same or less than what you pay and get with an equivalent vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.
In short, the 3rd of the “wants” EV shoppers desire in an electric vehicle.
Wants versus Needs
A provocative example provided by The Economist is one company called “QuantumScape” using a novel proprietary ceramic materials/process that could be a significant improvement over the other contenders in the race. But more importantly, it may also show where EV owners and EV battery researchers have it all wrong regarding the race for a better battery.
According to The Economist article, the QuantumScape battery is reputed to provide not just the potential for longer range and a faster charging time, but also has an extended battery cycle life that could mean you will never have to replace the battery in your EV within the first 250,000 miles!
“…QuantumScape says its battery will also have an extended “cycle life”. This is a measure of how many times it can be charged and discharged before the battery’s capacity degrades to below 90% and its performance level starts to fall. The QuantumScape battery should be good for at least 800 cycles, says Dr Holme (a co-founder of the company). So, if each charge provided only an average range of around 500km, it would still give an EV a lifetime range of some 400,000km—which is good for any vehicle.”
If the QuantumScape battery comes to fruition and is the only battery you will ever need during the ownership of your vehicle, that makes EVs competitive with how long Americans on average hang onto their gasoline-powered vehicles (8 years). In fact, this not only negates the 3rd “want” but reveals what is actually a “need” that has not been addressed sufficiently.
“Wants” and “Needs” are two different (but often overlapping) things that are often mistaken as being the same. Basically, “wants” are the nice-to-have things that are not crucial to your immediate survival. Whereas “needs” are those inconvenient things you need to survive on a daily basis.
For example, you may want World Peace, but what you really need is a better relationship with your spouse in order to survive day-by-day.
American Consumers Will Determine Who Will Win the EV Battery Race
While The Economist article makes very good points about the important factors in building a superbattery, possibly the most important factor on who will win the EV battery race will not be solely in the Research and Development, nor in the availability of materials (although it is an important sub-factor), but in what I would like to dub as “The 4th Want” that Americans desire in their electric car: It has to be right now or very close to it. In other words---immediate gratification.
Rightly or wrongly, this consumer “want” is what drives EV development and therefore the battery race. Unfortunately, it appears to be a race headed in the wrong direction.
The Economist reports one prediction source within the industry that the first semi-solid solid-state batteries should appear in cars in 2025-2026. The all-solid solid-state battery versions developed by Toyota and other makers will appear in 2028 due largely to, “…Japan, Toyota, Nissan and Honda have already joined with Panasonic and GS Yuasa, a pair of battery-makers, to form a consortium to develop solid-state batteries.”
While the expected availability of the first 250,000-mile EV battery is not apparent, news reports state potential prototypes from QuantumScape are already in the hands of some automakers.
WHEN such a potential game changing QuantumScape EV battery will make it into commercially produced EVs is likely to be AFTER “The Race” leaving the company with a “healthiest runner” or “special mention” ribbon. After all, when it comes to timing, sometimes it is true that if you are not first…then you are last. At least in the minds of the car consumer.
Once again: “If you are not first, you are last.” ---“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
However, the distinction of being 1st might not last.
When Being First is Not Best
In a Harvard Business Review article from 2005 titled “The Half-Truth of First-Mover Advantage” the writers challenge the notion of “ If you are not first, you are last” in that there are exceptions to the notion as a rule. Especially when it comes to technology and how disruptive it can be and what effect it has on society:
“Some technologies, such as computer processors, evolve in a series of incremental improvements; others evolve disruptively, creating a break from the norm, as was the case when digital photography began to displace film. The faster or more disruptive the evolution of technology, the greater the challenge for any one company to control it. Even in product markets dominated by firms with large R&D budgets, new entrants and other competitors tend to drive technological progress.”
In other words, the whole “build a better battery” by going solid-state through multiple (and likely similar) R&D programs appears to be that only incremental changes are to be expected. But, when you have an R&D program that is working on a battery to last the consumers’ lifetime of their vehicle, THAT is a disruptive gamechanger which will likely modify the “wants” of EV owners into the “needs” of society---i.e., no one wants (or can afford) to pay for a replacement EV battery every 3-4 years that can cost up to 40% of the price of the EV when it was new.
A New Course for the Race
A warning to the reader, the remainder of the article does not necessarily reflect the opinion(s) of The Economist article, but my personal musings. So, you are forewarned.
A potential new course is that rather than face formidable obstacles in the path of the race such as battery size, vehicle mass, lack of infrastructure (both in charging stations and manufacturing), rare metal scarcity, costs, and old guys like me who hate change…why not take what already exists and works, and take the race down an alternate route?
In other words, if the EV consumer really wants/needs range anxiety relief, short charging times, pricing comparable to what ICE vehicles cost pre-pandemic, and have it all very soon if not by the time the new 2025 models arrive, would not a Solar-Assisted Hybrid vehicle make the most sense and solve all 4 wants/needs?!
Yes, it has been tried and done---with some small success. However, if a portion of the money, time, and effort of the EV battery race was re-introduced into a more-realistic goal like a solar-assisted Hybrid, wouldn’t everyone get what they want…if not really need?
It’s something to think about while watching this recent informative YouTube video below narrated by one mechanic who knows something about cars and his explanations of what EV consumers want is not likely to happen within their lifetimes.
Will the rise of EVs kill the value of your next combustion car? | Auto Expert John Cadogan
For additional EV-related articles, here are three for your consideration:
- A Collapsible Spare Tire Solution for EVs Without Spare Tires
- Electric Vehicle Summer Tire Recommendations
- Toyota Hybrid Owner Experience with an Aftermarket Hybrid Battery
Timothy Boyer is a Torque News automotive reporter based in Cincinnati. Experienced with early car restorations, he regularly restores older vehicles with engine modifications for improved performance. Follow Tim on Twitter at @TimBoyerWrites for daily new and used vehicle news.
Image Source: Pixabay