What will bring electric cars into popular fold

By Allen Penticoff 

When I wrote my column about the Acura NSX, I was using the Nov. 2016 issue of Car and Driver Magazine as a source for the information about this unique hybrid car. In the same issue, really in the same report on the NSX, there were some sidebar reports on the state of electrification of the modern automobile.

Car and Driver magazine, like the auto industry in general, see that electric vehicles are the future. However, the main stumbling blocks are still the cost of the batteries and access to high-speed charging.

First, the target is to have lithium-ion batteries that cost $150 per kWh of storage capacity. This is the price level where electric power can be cost-competitive with internal combustion engine vehicles.

Right now your standard engine and transmission package is about $4,000 to $7,000 of the price of a vehicle. That cost is expected to rise another $1,000 to $2,000 as transmissions and engines become more complex to meet stricter emissions and mileage standards.

At present, lithium-ion battery packs capable of 200 miles of range need to store 50 kWh of power. Chevy Bolt’s 60 kWh battery pack costs $215 per kWh or $12,900. Obviously, more costly than even $9,000 for the latest engine technology. But if that 60 kWh battery pack is $150 per kWh, now it is down to $9,000 for the batteries and $1,500 to $2,000 for the electric motor and transmission. So now we are in the ballpark for cost equivalency. With reduced maintenance costs of electric vehicles, they soon break even with conventionally fueled vehicles.

There are no big changes in lithium-ion battery technology looming on the horizon that will bring the cost down. Streamlined mass production, such as in a Tesla Gigafactory is what will bring down the cost. On one hand, these factories are already needed — Tesla’s new smaller, cheaper Model 3 car is expected to use up the entire world lithium-ion battery manufacturing capacity.

Charging infrastructure needs to be standardized and more readily available to make EVs truly competitive with internal combustion power. Presently there are three different charge plug/ports. The U.S. and European auto manufacturers use the “Combined Charging System” which has a 50 kWh charge rate. The Asian car builders use the “CHAdeMO” plug of 50 kWh as well, while Tesla has it’s own that includes 135 kWh supercharging.

Experts believe the manufacturers are going to have to make a decision on which plug will be standard so we don’t have the Betamax vs. VHS problem ongoing. At least adapters can be contrived to make up the difference between plug styles. So far our own Volt has found public plugs to work without an adapter – although there are presently only 1061 such places for the Combined Charging System versus 1919 for the CHAdeMO style and 2010 for the Tesla plug.

In addition to the issue of plug connections, high-speed 150 kWh charging needs to be very available so that those 50-60 kWh battery packs can be recharged on cross-country trips in 30 minutes or so. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Energy formed a partnership last summer to explore having a coast to coast network of charging stations with charge rates as high as 350 kWh.

Now we’re talking convenient long distance electric travel. At about the same time this network comes to fruition – our vehicles will be highly autonomous as well – changing radically the American Road Trip. R.

Mr. Green Car will be hosting an open discussion program on future transportation at the upcoming Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyles Fair in Oregon on August 19. See you there.

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