Final Inspection

Reality May Bite for BEV Backers

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Reality may be setting in.

A year ago, it was all EVs all the time, as auto makers, battery suppliers and regulators alike had high hopes and lofty market projections for the new-generation of electrically powered cars and trucks about to hit the market.

But if the chatter at this week’s SAE World Congress is any indicator, it appears some of the bloom has gone from the battery-electric-vehicle rose.

David Friedman, a researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientist, spoke about the fading enthusiasm for E85 fuel, but what he had to say easily could be applied to BEVs, as well.

“The waning interest in ethanol is the classic boom/bust cycle,” he says. “It was once seen as the ‘fuel of the future.ʼ Now that some concerns have been raised, people say it’s a failure. It’s really somewhere in between, but it needs some more work.”

The same could be said of battery power, as well. Developers have been promising great things from lithium-ion, initially billed as the long-awaited enabler for the mass-market EV.

But while Li-ion batteries represent a step up from what we had before, as the dawn of another EV era approaches, it is clear the big breakthrough required to make electrically driven vehicles ubiquitous remains somewhere down the road, and it’s probably time to lower those near-term expectations.

The real promise, we’re now told, is with lithium-air battery technology, which offers even more power density that will allow auto makers to chip away at cost and/or extend driving range. But that silver bullet is still 20 years of development away, experts say. We’ll have to wait and see whether it arrives at all.

Donald Hillebrand, director-Center for Transportation Research at Argonne National Laboratory, contends not much has changed from 15 years ago when, led by General Motors’ EV1, the industry made its last unsuccessful foray into electrification. Cost still is high, recharging remains an issue and range continues to be limited.

Hillebrand says projections that call for EVs to take 13% of the new-vehicle market in 2020 “are way too optimistic,” adding we’re about to find out if this new wave of EVs “is a trend or a fad.

“BEVs may be sent back to the minor leagues for more work,” he says.

Range anxiety is still one of the biggest issue, and there are no good solutions in sight, according to Hillebrand. Fast-charging stations and battery-swap depots make no commercial sense, he says, citing his “back of the envelope” calculations indicating today’s Li-ion batteries are 20 times too expensive to allow a battery-swap business to turn a profit.

Based on driving patterns and energy costs, a $15,000 fast-charge station would earn $60 per year, the Argonne official says, meaning it would take some 250 years to earn a return on investment.

Hillebrand isn’t alone. A consensus appears to be forming that plug-in hybrids, alternative-fueled vehicles and advanced gasoline- and diesel-powered models provide more immediate answers to meeting upcoming fuel-economy and clean-air targets, while BEVs once again may miss the market sweet spot.

Auto manufacturers and policy makers shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket, says Stricker, whose company has led the world in hybrids but is approaching BEVs with caution.

“We need to avoid a ‘build it and they will comeʼ strategy.”

Otherwise, all that over-promising and under-delivering may open the door for “Who Killed the Electric Car? – The Sequel.”

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WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.

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David E. Zoia

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