Giving EVs the SAFT
By Josh Landess
As scientists, researchers and engineers continue their quest for the hydrogen holy grail, a vocal minority of scientists and layman, alike, still think batteries can play an important role in providing the motoring public with clean, sustainable, functional transportation for the majority of our commuting needs.
Josh Landess recently cornered a quartet of senior executives from SAFT to get their perspective on the role of batteries in transportation in Europe. The French-based battery maker is currently the world's leading supplier of batteries for pure electric vehicles. Here is Part One of their discussion.
Nickel Cadmium Traction Batteries
EVW: A lot of us were fans of the EV1 and the Nickel Metal Hydride batteries in that car. I’m wondering what is happening in France with that technology. Are there EVs for sale or for lease in France based on NiMH? And since Lithium Batteries are such a hot topic here right now, what about that technology? I know you’re going to be presenting on the topic of Lithium batteries here at EVS20.
Philippe: Ok. Well let’s start with NiCd first because we’re still selling a lot of NiCd batteries to the car industry for EVs. It’s a lot. It’s less than it was a couple of years back, but it’s still a considerable number of batteries compared with the other countries.
Now in terms of Nickel Metal Hydride there is today no project, per se, from the automotive industry for new electric vehicles with Nickel Metal Hydride.
EVW: When you say you’re selling NiCds to the car industry, are any particular companies making EVs based on those batteries?
Philippe: PSA [Peugeot Citroen] and Renault.
EVW: And are those vehicles doing well? Are they in demand in France or other countries in Europe?
Philippe: There is a demand - not only in France. There is some demand in Spain, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, U.K. It’s not a large amount of business of course if you compare with the conventional car industries, but there is still some demand from fleets, from local communities and so on that are willing to try these EVs instead of the noisy and polluting diesel engines you have on the street. You have a lot of pedestrian streets in European cities, and for cleaning and maintaining those things and implementing [community programs] ...they’re using a lot of electric vehicles.
EVW: You must have a pretty good system in place for recycling of the NiCds.
Philippe: Yes, they are all recycled. There is a system where we give a certificate to the person who has the EV, whether it is a private person or a fleet partcipant. For each battery back, we give a certificate that the battery has been collected, recycled, and we recover and reuse all the NiCd batteries to make new batteries. We reuse the Nickel and plastic. [They] are reused for the plastic industry, for the steel industry,[...].
EVW: Why do you think the Nickel Metal Hydride hasn’t materialized in ongoing car production? Too expensive? Is it 'inherently' too expensive?
Philippe: Well, there is a price issue of course because we all know that Nickel Metal Hydride would be a little bit more expensive than NiCds due to the [material]. This is true for EVs; it is true for other types of batteries including portables. This is a fact so we can’t deny that.
Now I think most of the problem comes from the time that governments – not only the French government – they're not pushing EVs that much. A couple of years back, there were a number of discussions to increase taxes on conventional engines and to increase the usage of electric vehicles. That seems to have disappeared a little bit.
Jill: France has just announced a new clean urban transport program. It's just been announced literally now. There’s lots of money available for all sorts of clean transport and we’re still waiting to see how that materializes.
Philippe: Yes, for "clean" transports. That means not only the small electric vehicles – and that’s maybe the second part of the conversation – [but also] public transports: buses, trams, trolleys, where we have a couple of contacts right now, and we hope to have some projects.
Jill: But it’s a political market. It has to be related to government will, and I think in France they’ve let it, a little bit, die out, and now it’s the new [hot] policy, so they’ve decided to try and re-invigorate this market. So, we’re waiting to see exactly how we can benefit from this.
Philippe: It’s complex because, well,... First, to build a car you need a couple of years of experience. You don’t launch that stuff and have a product six months later, ok?
Second, [if] the French government was doing a number of incentives, that was not followed by the other European governments, which is also a problem. We don’t want to be limited to [a single] market. Even if France seems to be a large market, we would like to have more European markets. [The idea would be], (and you can imagine how much it’s complicated at different political levels) that if the French government decides a long term policy, whatever it is, this needs to be followed by [a] number of other countries, to have exactly the same or very similar rules in terms of public transport, whether it is private EVs or public transportation.
The Need For Demand From Car Companies
EVW: Here in California we used The Think City with the SAFT NiCds. Some of the leasors I’ve spoke to are delighted with the vehicle and they’re desperate to hang onto them. The vehicles are being taken away forcibly (in effect) because the law mandates they be sent back to Europe. I guess I’m not so much asking a question as expressing something on behalf of this small group of people. Some would say: "We need an electric car". There is no such thing as a highway-capable or maybe even city-capable electric vehicle available to American consumers. Nothing. It’s not so much that I expect you to be able to do something about it, but I want to make you aware of it. It’s a complete shutout.
Philippe: I think it’s an interesting comment because I think we all agree with you, but of course we at SAFT are miniscule compared with the car companies, the Fords, the GMs and the others including Peugeot Citroen and Renault, and it’s very difficult. It is totally impossible that we promote our product if there is not a car, which is [available] on the market.
EVW: That’s a point I’ve heard other people make. If there’s no demand from the car companies the battery makers can’t do anything. I see you’re nodding approval.
Jill: And legislation here has not helped at all. [...] Plug-In Hybrids?
EVW: What did you think of my question at media night regarding plug in capability? Essentially I’m looking for any Plug-In-able highway-capable car, Hybrid or pure EV, anywhere available to American consumers. There’s no such thing right now. Of the six panelists at Media Night, none indicated interest. The Toyota Representative commented that they had no plans to make a Plug-In-Hybrid, but they didn’t deny that somebody else might find it to be a good idea. The Ford Representative emphasized in his response that they had done extensive studies on PIHEV and the size of the battery pack for a Hybrid with extensive EV-only range made it prohibitively expensive.
Philippe: You are talking about EVs or hybrids?
EVW: The question ended up going towards hybrids because there are already hybrids on the road, and all that is really needed now is to make them plug-in-able. Do you have any product or plans [with] a manufacturer that specifically would want to make a grid chargeable hybrid?
Philippe: A difficult question.
First, yes. We are ready. We are willing to do it.
Now if you want us to tell you what is the program or whatever program we could have with a car company, this would be covered by confidential agreements that we can’t release anything. You know how the car companies are. It’s exactly the same with the conventional engines, conventional models. They want to monitor what goes to the press. So, yes, we have worked, and we can work again, for something on hybrids.
EVW: And, specifically, if it was towards a Plug-In-Hybrid, that would be possible?
Philippe: Yes. That’s not a problem. For us [the issue is] what is the specification from the car company, and [whether?] the car company is negotiating with the [inaudible].
EVW: People are excited here now about Lithium batteries. There’s the tzero out in the parking lot. 300-mile range on 6,000+ (LG) Lithium Ion batteries. Is that the direction you’re going to go in now? If Nickel Metal Hydride hasn’t done it, are you just going to move on to Lithium, or is it not that clear?
Philippe: It’s not very clear.
Lithium has some unique features in terms of weight and volume, but there [are] some interesting [costings] of these technologies provided you are doing a large volume.
Now the Lithium we’re talking about, we at SAFT, is very different from the Lithium you have on the portable phones, on your [digital audio recorder] most probably, or computers, because those batteries you have on the market are capable to do 300, 500 cycles. We are targeting 3,000 cycles. So there is a huge difference between the technology that SAFT is talking about and maybe some others are talking about in the commercial Lithium.
Then, if you have this point understood, the next question is: Who is doing the investment for a manufacturing of those batteries, on which program? And that starts to be a little bit more complicated because we don’t want to do that necessarily for one car company. And one car company doesn't want to do that for just one type of product and one supplier, which we understand. So it’s a little bit complicated.
[...] It’s maybe too soon to say ....Lithium can do a number of things.
EVW: Are there any severe drawbacks remaining? When they first had Lithium batteries for computers, there were some questions about fire. Now that seems solved. Is that solved for traction battieries?
Philippe: Well, yes, it’s solved. There are rules to follow to have a safe battery.
Francois: [I would say so], that the batteries work at the system level, and the programs will continue today are developing or improving [increasingly] safe cells. So: from the system safety to the single cell safety: we are on that [path] today. We can today supply safe battery systems, and in the future will include that, [from] the cost standpoint and the technical standpoint, where the safety is met at a certain cost, which may be not accessible to large mass production quantities.
So safety is not today a concern; it is not a problem. The concern is two-fold I would say, (and I concur with Phillippe’s statement):
First is the capital expenditure concern, more than the cost of the battery system. The cost of a battery system is related to quantities, and we know from the [inaudible] we add that meets large quantities, the cost of the battery will be acceptable to the market.
Now remains the problem of investment. Today this is a new industry. It’s not building with the portable stuff. It’s new technologies and we have to build. And when I say 'we', the Battery Industry has to build these industrial capabilities.
Who is going to pay for this equipment? ... We’re dealing with [inaudible] of millions of dollars of investments. SAFT alone, due to many things, can’t do that by itself. And, as you said Phillippe, each carmaker individually is still reluctant to invest such a quantity of money for one model, two models, when the market and regulations are still very uncertain.
So, carmakers request as well a good long-term visibility of the political bodies – regulations - to be certain. They request to be assured that the investment they're going to do today for cars that are going to be put in the market in five eight years will [meet] the market. And the market is very related to regulations. It’s true in the U.S.; it’s true as well in Europe.
Renault and Nissan
EVW: You are not Renault employees, but I have to ask a question about Renault, especially because there is virtually no news of French automakers or French electric vehicle efforts here in the U.S. When Renault took a stake in Nissan I was very hopeful that that would be a backdoor way to get some electric vehicles into the U.S., because even though Renault doesn’t have any cars here they have a relationship with Nissan. [Maybe, I thought, they could rebadge a Renault EV as a Nissan, or install Renault EV equipment in a crash-tested Nissan body and sell it here]. Have you seen evidence of their relationship with Nissan? Did they work with them on hybrid electric vehicles at all?
Philippe: I think there is a lot of relationship between Renault and Nissan on various subjects including electrics and hybrids. Now, I don’t know what are their policies, but obviously when Renault took over Nissan they had some other problems that needed to be solved first, which is [to say] maybe their core business, rather than taking resources they might have [and using them] on those fancy EVs and hybrids. Now, things seem to be running much smoother than they were, but on your question, no, we don’t see anything tangible that says that they’re going to do something together on the U.S. market.
Jill: The fact that Renault is not here [at EVS20], that they let Nissan come, shows to us that they are not intending to come into the US market. It’s the Nissan market.
Getting back to the Lithium questions: How do your batteries perform in cold weather? The reason I ask is that I was told that the tzero would not work, with its particular type of Lithium Ion batteries, in 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s going to be too cold. So, is that solved as well? Somebody else was telling me that their company's Lithium batteries are fine in the cold weather.
Philippe: "Fine?" Well they can say in colder weather: If you do not operate them at high rates, they would be "fine". I don’t know exactly the status and the details, but it’s true that we have improved Lithium a lot, and maybe the conference tomorrow would help you to understand what we have done in terms of [inaudible] for Lithium, but it is true that it is not as good as, for instance, NiCd.
EVW: In cold weather?
Philippe: In cold weather, yes. It’s clear. We don’t go as low as we can go with Nickel Cadmium. But of course, with NiCd, we have a technology which is now 70 years old. But we’re still learning [with Lithium]. We’re receiving a lot of help from various people on various projects to improve on various subjects. In some of our existing markets we have some R+D funds to improve the performance of Lithium at very cold temps.
NiCd or NiMH or Li-Ion?
EVW: In hybrid applications do you favor NiCd or NiMH or Lithium? Is there a preference you recommend to a customer?
Philippe: It depends on what you’re talking about. Your question is very general so I will reply very generally.
Today we are supplying NiCd batteries for hybrid buses, ok? We are not building that many, but we are happy to have those, but those are for buses. Now we’re working on Nickel Metal Hydride for buses or trolleys or trams, but also we’re still working on some NiCd because there is a cost issue with some of the customers. They prefer to buy a cheaper battery than a battery with a new technology that would bring a lot of advantages in terms of weight and volume. If that was not their need then they would go for [NiCd] first, ok? [ed. note: He said NiCd here, but he may have meant NiMH?]
Now we are also working with Nickel Metal Hydride for hybrid systems, any kind of hybrid systems, that goes from a car to maybe a tram, which is a 40 or a 60 ton vehicle, and we’re still working on Lithium.
Francois: I would say that we have the ability to provide Nickel Metal Hydride or Lithium Ion depending on the specifications of our customers. The thing is when you look at the projects and the requests we’re getting today they are more oriented towards Lithium Ion than Nickel Metal Hydride. That’s the market as it looks today.
So, as far as SAFT, we are able to answer any kinds of needs. It’s true that today Lithium Ion seems to be the preferred technology for new platforms as far as hybrid platforms or high-powered battery systems.
EVW: Any particular reason?
Francois: I would say life duration is probably one. [ed. Note: "life duration" is used to connote "battery life span"... in French apparently: "duree de vie"]
Francois: Range. Life duration is important, range is important. I would say that today the request is between 10 and 15 years life duration. We’ve put up a good result that shows that we probably will meet this target, which is not so true for Nickel Metal Hydride. For sure the cost is different, but as far as we see the common factors today, the life cycle cost of the battery is as important, I would say, as the initial cost of the battery system.
Another thing I will say that is in favor of Lithium Ion - we spoke about the duration. In some ZEV (zero emission) capabilities, it is difficult to meet acceptable range. So, on the matter of adding some more miles... [This...ZEV capability] may be a request from some big cities in Europe, and we see some carmakers coming to us asking for both hybrid capabilities and some kind of ZEV capabilities, which are difficult to meet in Nickel Metal Hydride.
EVW: Who is coming to you?
Francois: May I just say there are carmakers in Europe.
PART TWO CONCLUDED NEXT WEEK...
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