Battery Power

Before we charge ahead, consider these questions.

Battery Power

The current issue of the Society of Automotive Engineers' (SAE) "Automotive Engineering" magazine carries a story outlining the remarks of battery expert Dr. Menahem Anderman, made at a conference in May.

He emphasized that before cost and performance of electric vehicle batteries come safety, reliability and durability, which will take time to establish. One battery fire of sufficient seriousness to reach major media would have, he said, "very significant negative impact." Everyone, of course, remembers the laptop computers of a few years ago whose lithium-ion batteries caught fire when they overheated. Li-ion batteries large enough to power cars or motorcycles are a thousand or more times the size of those found in laptops, and their cooling issues can be serious. This requires that battery makers be extremely cautious in preparing for this market—while forecasts of billion-dollar business drive a rush to become part of it. Let's hope they get the balance between caution and speed right.

Anderman explained that a high-volume electric-vehicle business will require a 10-year life from batteries. He suggested, the article continues, that battery life in hot-weather cities such as Phoenix or Los Angeles might be only a fraction of that. Battery cycle life is known to be strongly temperature-dependent, which is why densely packaged battery packs require active cooling and/or active charge/discharge controls.

He predicted likely future sales of electrics to be about one-tenth of the presidential goals currently being proposed. He also implied that the development of a market for electric vehicles depends upon government willingness to subsidize sales. Certainly there have been tax credits that reduced pricing on the Brammo Enertia (pictured).

I therefore wonder if, in 10 years, used-car and bike dealers will offer what we might call "electric jalopies" at normal used-level prices? If so, electric vehicles will have become true mass-market products accessible by ordinary buyers, outgrowing their present special status as playthings of trend-minded persons, willing to pay double price to "save the planet."

Even so, that leaves unanswered the questions of where such vehicles will be recharged, how long such charging will take, and for how long we must expect nearly half of U.S. electricity to continue to be generated by coal-burning power stations.

Electric vehicles have potential to offer new capabilities, but their present realities— including political ones—must not be ignored.