EV vehicle technology promises much, but new or disruptive technologies usually face take-up challengies - and EV batteries performance and cost are at the heart of EV issues

EV vehicle technology promises much, but new or disruptive technologies usually face take-up challengies - and EV batteries' performance and cost are at the heart of EV issues

At a recent 'EV Battery Tech 2010' conference held in London, the proceedings  looked beyond prospects for electric vehicles themselves to consider issues associated specifically with batteries. These included their technology, cost, ease of manufacturing, raw material supply and recycling. Ian Henry was there to report for just-auto.  This is the first of a two-part article (part two to be published on Monday, May 24).

Everyone who presented at the conference was confident that pure EV and hybrid vehicle growth would grow and grow, with a dizzying range of forecast and figures provided by most speakers.  It was difficult to get a clear idea of even a consensus view from the welter of statistics which came our way.  In a sense, this is not surprising – the market for EVs and hybrid vehicles of various formats is still evolving and given the lack of standardisation in terms of battery sizes, fixings, charging systems and the like, plus the undeveloped state of the infrastructure for changing or recharging batteries away from base, a lack of definitive insight in this area is actually not surprising. 

One thing which we were told which definitely surprised me was that – according to consultants Roland Berger – there could actually be excess capacity for EV battery manufacture during the current decade.  It would seem that battery producers were overestimating the rate of growth in battery demand – the suggestion would appear to be that conventional powertrain improvements and consumer uncertainty could slow the take up of these vehicles, especially full battery EVs.

The VM’s view and approach

Selected from the VMs. highlights, for me, were:

  • PSA confirming that it would start manufacture of its own EV, the Peugeot BB1 from 2012, with a Citroen model from 2013.  These were described as direct competitors to the Smart and Toyota iQ, except in EV format.
  • Renault-Nissan  clarifying its launch plans for its battery plants and EVs; on the battery side this will involve five battery plants in Japan, USA, UK, Portugal and France, capable of making over 400,000 batteries a year, half of these in Europe.  Renault also made it clear that it is expecting the EV market to take off rapidly from 2015 – by when it expects government subsidies for EV purchases to be much reduced or even to have stopped; in the view of Jerome Perrin of Renault, if governments continue to subsidise EV sales at the rates currently proposed, government finances would be in even more of a mess than they are now – the critical issue therefore for Renault is how to cut the cost of EV batteries.
  • Jaguar Land Rover spoke about its plans for its range of extended EVs, essentially plug-in hybrids, supported by Ricardo, Zytek, Lotus and the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board; these include a Jaguar sedan which will be able to travel 30 miles in plug-in electric mode and a Range Rover model with a slightly lower range.
  • Ford explained its three-pronged approach, with full battery EVs, plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids.  Unlike Renault which is focusing entirely on pure EVs, Ford will have feet in all three camps, as explained below.

Ford’s multi-technology approach will accelerate from 2010 onwards. Since the middle of the previous decade, in North America primarily, Ford has been selling a hybrid SUV (the Escape) and two hybrid sedans (the Fusion and Mercury Milan); these will be renewed and continue through to at least the end of the current decade.  2010 however sees the start of a global approach to EVs at Ford; first up is the electric Transit Connect small van, followed by the electric version of the new Ford Focus.  These fully electric vehicles will be complemented in around 2012 with a plug-in hybrid EV C-segment vehicle, almost certainly on the Focus platform.

Whereas Renault is betting on the market switching to full battery EVs, Ford reckons hybrids will remain the most significant technology.  In this regard, by 2020 Ford expects EVs and hybrids to total just under 4.5m vehicles in the USA and around 4.2m in Europe; however, full battery EVs will, in Ford’s projections, represent only 0.5m vehicles per year in the USA and 0.7m vehicles per year in Europe; the rest will be hybrids, and in north America mostly conventional hybrids, not even plug-in hybrids.   In Europe, it projects a more even split between conventional hybrids and plug-in hybrids.  In absolute numbers terms, intriguingly, Ford projects China will be a bigger pure EV market than both Europe and the US by 2020, having a pure EV volume of 0.8m units per year.

These projections and others shown to the conference suggest that most VMs will be largely focused on hybrids rather than pure EVs through the current decade.  There would appear to be a number of reasons for this – first (although this was not discussed at the conference), the VMs themselves have substantial investment in and commitment to conventional powertrains (to which hybrid technology can be added if required); the emissions performance of conventional powertrains is improving all the time and will undoubtedly be able to help VMs meet tougher emission targets, even without hybrid technology. 

While hybrids in various forms will undoubtedly grow, full EV growth will be stymied by two specific factors: the cost of the battery itself and the lack of clarity regarding the development of infrastructure to charge or replace batteries which both combine to limit consumers’ acceptance of this new technology.

While Renault is backing the Better Place model for full EVs (http://www.betterplace.com/), other VMs have yet to commit; and while they wait, governments have yet to confirm their widespread infrastructure plans for supporting pure EV use in general. Discussions with the VMs and technology suppliers at the conference confirmed, anecdotally, that user concerns regarding the lack of an infrastructure for re-charging will limit pure EV take-up.  In a sense this is a classic chicken and egg situation, but in reality it would seem that the infrastructure is going to have to be put in place first for battery changing and charging – and then mass take-up of pure EVs could well follow.  It seems most unlikely to happen the other way around.

Cutting battery costs is essential

Cutting EV costs is a challenge and until manufacturing volumes ramp up significantly, scale benefits cannot be brought to bear; even with close to half a million EV batteries in their plans for the middle of the decade, Renault-Nissan told the conference that the cost of the battery to the end-customer will almost certainly be prohibitive.  So, as well as looking for ways to shave cost throughout the manufacturing process, Renault-Nissan (along with most other VMs it seems certain) will lease the batteries to EV car buyers.

Leasing batteries will be a significant solution

Leasing batteries while buying the car may seem an odd concept to consumers, as the car could well be worthless without the battery; what if you had bought the car but were unable to keep up the payments on the battery lease?  Would you lose the car as well or would you actually end up with an effectively worthless asset?  This question was not addressed in the conference, but it seems to be an important question which the industry needs to consider.  Consumers may baulk at the idea of buying a vehicle on which they do not own a crucial element.

Leasing batteries will also help – or force – the VMs to refine their long term strategy for batteries.  The current thinking is that they will adopt the 4R approach, ie re-use, re-sell, refurbish and recycle the batteries; re-use will involve switching the car batteries to the power generation and storage industry, with the batteries being refurbished and parts re-used along the way.

...To be continued (the second part of this article will be published on just-auto on Monday, May 24)