2007 Electric Car Progress Report
By EV World
Tantalizingly close, but not quite ready for prime time. That's the conclusion of the latest Independent Expert Panel report to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) on the "Status and Prospects for Zero Emission Vehicle Technology."
For the last decade, California has relied on experts to advise it on the progress of electric car technology in all its manifestations, from battery-only EVs called "Full Performance Battery Electric Vehicles" or FPBEVs in the report to hydrogen-fueled vehicles, including those that burn it directly in an internal combustion engine (H2ICVs) and those that rely on fuel cells (FCEVs).
And with each report there has been progress; certainly not a pace that regulators and environmentalists would wish to see, but progress, nonetheless. And the 2007 report doesn't break that pattern. It sees slow, but steady progress in battery and fuel cell development, but hurdles remain, both technologically and economically.
That assessment is already being challenged by electric car advocates who see its conclusions still unduly supportive of hydrogen fuel cell technology, but having reviewed the 13-page executive summary, that appraisal seems unwarranted. In summarizing the findings of the panel, which included not only evaluations of three key "candidate" technologies: energy storage, hydrogen storage and fuel cells but also interviews with and questionnaires to battery and automobile manufacturers, they concluded that...
... at this time no fuel cell developer has achieved the necessary requirements for automotive fuel cell commercialization.
Further, on the question of hydrogen storage, they observe.
Storing sufficient hydrogen on a vehicle to power it for adequate distance, safely, and at reasonable cost, without an excessive weight penalty has been and remains a serious challenge for the automobile industry and its suppliers.
...Unlike other major technologies being pursued in support of ZEVs, hydrogen storage technologies have advanced relatively little in recent years.
So, be it battery energy density or hydrogen storage capacity and the resultant impact each has on vehicle performance and range, in particular, ZEV's continue to be perceived, at least by manufacturers and CARB's expert panel as having limited immediate utility and therefore commercial prospects when compared to fossil fuel alternatives.
But all the news isn't bad. When discussing nickel metal hydride high power batteries used in today's gasoline-electric hybrids, the panel sees this technology as being "mature" and that they see the cost coming down steadily as unit volume increases. Today, auto makers like Ford and Toyota and Honda pay between $2000 and $4000 for their NiMH battery packs, but CARB's panel -- on consultation with manufacturers -- see that dropping to between $1300 and $2500 in volumes of a million units or more.
But high power NiMH batteries are engineered specifically for the needs of today's gas-electric hybrids like the Prius, not FPBEVs or plug-in hybrids [PHEV], which would travel further on electric power, requiring more energy storage. For PHEVs you need a class of NiMH battery that offers both power and energy density. The panel reported that while such a battery would cost, in volume, between $800-$1200 and give the owner an electric only range of 10-20 miles, their research turned up no efforts among manufacturers to develop such a battery, even though the added cost would more than pay for itself in terms of fuels savings over the life of the vehicle.
The third class of NiMH battery, the one that has been used for years with surprising durable in vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 EV, is the high energy version. Here the executive summary states...
It is the conclusion of the Panel, however, that energy density is fundamentally limited and marginal for FPBEV applications, and costs remain as high as or higher than in 2000 and are unlikely to decline. High energy NiMH technology for possible FPBEV applications has not advanced in recent years.
Electric car advocates, many of whom have practical, day-to-day experience with this type of battery, argue that we don't have to wait on advances in fuel cells, hydrogen storage or lithium ion chemistry. The Panasonic batteries in their RAV4 EVs clearly demonstrate that we can make use of this battery today, but because, some allege, the patents are held by the unit of a major oil company, it is being deliberately kept off the market. A more likely explanation is that the demand for nickel for use in high-strength steel in China and elsewhere is putting the squeeze on nickel prices and not oil company greed.
The panel report is much more encouraged by the progress in lithium chemistry development, stating in the summary, "Li ion batteries are making impressive technical progress worldwide especially with regard to calendar life and cycle life and safety, the areas of special concern for automotive applications. Promising new materials and chemistries are expanding the capabilities and prospects of all Li ion technologies."
High power lithium ion batteries are "close to commercialization" for hybrid vehicle applications, the panel reports.
Importantly, for HEV applications Li Ion batteries have potentially lower cost than NiMH because they promise to deliver the required power with smaller capacities and lower specific cost.
According to EV World sources, the next generation of Prius, due out probably now in 2009, will use lithium ion instead of NiMH, packing more punch into a lighter, smaller package than is possible with its current battery.
But the report is less confident of Li ion technology being developed for PHEV applications, seeing the projected cost of $3500-4000 in mass production being above the cost of fuel savings (assuming, presumably, the absence of carbon taxes or peak oil, either of which could drive the price of gasoline, along with everything else, much higher).
And what about Li ion in FPBEVs? Again, the panel's projections aren't promising. They conclude...
...that battery cost remains high even in mass production, (probably near the levels projected in 2000), well in excess of expected lifetime fuel cost savings.
The Panel also looked at ZEBRA (sodium nickel chloride) battery and saw them as "likely to remain the lowest-cost advanced battery because of low materials costs and can be ordered now from its Swiss manufacturer in quantities of 1000s, with rapid expansion of production possible if demand develops."
However, the Panel has not seen any automobile manufacturer interest in the battery, probably due to a combination of limited power density and the implications of high temperature operation.
Th!nk Nordic is reported to be planning to use the ZEBRA battery when it resumes production of its "City" electric car this year. First hand reports to EV World indicate the battery will deliver 100km (62mi) of range per charge at highway speeds. And the battery has proven durability in excess of a decade.
After visiting battery and auto manufacturers and polling them on their views and future electric drive vehicle plans, the Panel reported that the focus is on reducing the cost and expanding production of well-understood and proven NiMH batteries for conventional hybrids, but there are no plans to develop them for FPBEVs. The manufacturers also consider PHEV's too immature in terms of their battery specifications to include them in their current planning efforts.
The same largely applies to lithium ion battery producers: the growing HEV market appears mature enough to warrant capital investment, while FPBEVs and PHEVs aren't seriously being considered. The exceptions to this generalization would appear to be Mitsubishi, Subaru and Nissan, all of whom have claimed over the last year to be developing Lithium ion batteries for FPBEVs. Also, Miles Motors and, presumably Bricklin, are working with Chinese Li ion manufacturers to supply batteries for their electric car programs.
And, of course, General Motor's debut of the Volt and its contracts with JCS and Cobasys/A123 would suggest that the Panel was premature in its conclusions or manufacturers weren't entirely forthcoming in what they revealed to the Panel. The report adds what is clearly a last minute addendum to their report by noting, "the prospects of PHEVs also were judged negatively by most major automobile manufacturers until recently. However, several manufacturers are now active in modeling, designing and evaluating various PHEV architectures and technologies..."
Hydrogen fuel cell systems are equally beset by technical hurdles, the Panel summarizes, with this important caveat...
The Panel remains cautiously optimistic regarding the prospects for fuel cell system commercialization. There are still large technical barriers to be solved but these might well be overcome over the next 5-10 years through massive efforts underway at the major fuel cell and automobile manufacturers.
Looking at all of the available energy sources and mobility applications, the Panel envisioned ZEVs developing through three distinct stages: demonstration (100s of vehicles annually), pre-commercialization (1000s annually) and mass commercialization (100,000s annually). The chart below is reproduced from the executive summary and illustrates their time line projections.
In perhaps the most upbeat assessment of the report, the Panel foresees that PHEVs with "modest" energy storage capacity -- presumably under 20 miles -- "will be derived from HEVs and will proliferate rapidly, stimulating further development and cost reduction of energy batteries (as opposed to the current focus on power batteries) and leading to commercially viable PHEVs and, in the longer term, FPBEVs.
(City electric cars or CEVs) "will become commercially viable in Japan and Europe in the not too distant future due to lower hurdles for BEVs to overcome." Further, it is the Panel's view that CEVs will find it slower going in North America, because of range and freeway driving limitations. Fuel cell vehicle commercialization faces even more daunting cost and infrastructure challenges, but concludes the executive summary:
As a long term ZEV outcome, the Panel can envision plug-in hybrid FCEVs, powered by sustainable electricity for shorter trips and sustainable hydrogen for longer trips.
Assuming the Panel's analysis is correct, convergence of battery and hydrogen fuel cell technology will be the ultimate outcome, just as both Ford and GM are now envisioning through their plug-in, hydrogen fuel cell Edge and Volt, respectively. Getting there won't be easy and timing will be critical as geology, geopolitics and Gaia also converge to compel us to take the next exit off the petroleum highway, the one marked "EV World".
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