Smart Move II
Conclusion of interview with Compact Power, Inc. CEO Prabhakar Patil.
By Bill Moore
To Part One
Prabhakar Patil (pronounced "pra-BAH-kar pa-til") believes there is more to an electric car battery than just the cells. The integration and system engineering is equally important, which is why Compact Power, Inc.'s (CPI) parent company, LG Chem in Korea saw the value to funding the company's start-up and move from Colorado to Detroit. It is the combination of LG Chem's lithium polymer flat pouch cells and CPI's integration skills, along with hard data, said Patil, that convinced GM to award the company one of two contracts to develop prototype battery packs for the Volt electric car program.
In this, the second half of our interview, CPI's President and CEO talks at greater length about the company's participation in the Volt project. I encourage you to listen to our discussion using either of the two MP3 players above or by downloading the file to your computer for transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device.
IN BRIEF: Interview Part Two Synopsis
Patil believes it was the combination of battery chemistry and packaging, along with CPI's growing expertise in both battery management and auto manufacturing discipline, the latter largely acquired by hiring skilled engineers after relocating to the Detroit area, that gave GM the confidence to entrust CPI with the challenge of demonstrating a prototype plug-in hybrid battery. When Patil joined the company in 2005, three of the original five employees came from Colorado. CPI is now at some 20 employees and is expected to add another 10 by year's end, so the bulk of its talent is from the Detroit area, many with strong automotive engineering background.
Of the lithium polymer packs that CPI is developing for GM, some will go into demonstration vehicles and others will be subjected to rigorous bench testing. What isn't clear to Patil is if GM, which has awarded an identical contract to Continental in Germany based on A123 cells, plans select a single manufacturer based on the results of its tests or will wish to utilize more than one in order to meet production volumes.
In his view, GM is very serious about getting to production with its grid-charged electric car program because one of the stipulations of the Detroit giant is that CPI be able to go into series production by the end of 2010. Underscoring this is GM's own self-imposed deadline that by mid-2008, it must make a decision on how to proceed with its Volt program based on the results of its evaluation of CPI and Continental/A123 battery technology. Also, the level of detail in GM's design specifications also tells Patil, who was the chief engineer on Ford's Escape Hybrid program from 1998 until 2003, that the Volt project is a legitimate production vehicle effort.
Besides the GM Volt battery contract, CPI also has a contract with the US Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC) to develop a lithium ion battery pack that would go in a conventional hybrid similar to the Prius or Escape. They recently responded to a new RFP from the USABC for a plug-in hybrid battery pack. CPI is also working with a company developing a two-wheeled vehicle and with separate firm on an application for large trucks.
Thermal management of the battery pack is the biggest challenge on the Volt project because the package is so compact and energy-dense compared to what is found in conventional hybrids. Because of inherently superior thermal characteristics of the LG Chem pouch design, managing the temperature of the battery system is still challenging, but less so than with cylindrical cell-based packs.
CPI is cognizant of need for their battery system to operate over a wide range of environmental conditions from cold to hot climates and is working to make their packs as robust as possible.
Patil is confident that it will be possible to someday soon built an affordable, 40-mile electric-only range, plug-in hybrid based on his five years as the chief engineer on the Ford Escape Hybrid program. His critical caveat, however, is that to make the vehicle affordable to people, he anticipates that some type of marketing initiative will be developed to unbundle the cost of the battery pack from the car and offer it separately in some type of lease arrangement. This will allow customers to more fairly compare the respective values of a plug-in versus other vehicle options. He also sees the price of fuel continuing to rise, which only further improves the value proposition of a PHEV over time.
On the issue of warranty liability, Patil sees this as a very complex issue that is only now starting to be discussed and involves agreements on operational conditions to which the battery pack is subjected, including mechanical, thermal and electronic control parameters. The over-arching concern will be to make sure the car owner is protected.
CPI made it clear to GM that mass production of large quantities of electric hybrid battery packs will not be an issue. Its parent, LG Chem manufactures 30,000 million lithium ion batteries a month in Korea and there is already a production line "coming up to speed" to produce the large format, lithium polymer packs CPI is using for in its part of the Volt program.