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June 3, 2024


Electric Vehicles
Nadim Maluf

We hosted at our offices in Milpitas, California, the Autotech Council’s recent meeting on Innovation Review on Battery Tech.

Derek Kerton, Managing Partner at the Kerton Group, spoke about the open secret that battery developers or manufacturers tend to emphasize particular specifications where they excel, but seem to (perhaps intentionally?) neglect the other specifications where the batteries fall short. Mr. Kerton compared the adoption of new battery innovations to the "obstacle course" in military bootcamps: A new recruit needs to overcome ALL obstacles to graduate, not just pick and choose obstacles.

This recruit will attempt and fail the course numerous times, learn from instructors and other recruits, be physically and mentally challenged perhaps to the breaking point before this aspiring candidate can mark the course as successfully completed. To quote Billie Jean King, the prolific tennis champion of the1970s and 1980s: "Champions keep playing until they get it right."

Batteries still don't get it right, not yet, so victory remains at bay. That’s not necessarily bad news but rather a candid assessment that must be addressed if we are serious about deploying millions of electric vehicles. Battery manufacturers and developers often declare victory all too soon after crossing one or two obstacles. The future of electrification depends on how fast our ecosystem can tame these obstacles. So being truthfully complete in stating specifications and achievements sets the proper expectations within the entire ecosystem, from manufacturers to end users.

In his definition of the obstacle course, Derek Kerton puts together a series of insightful questions to the battery community. Collectively, they highlight the span and complexity of the tasks that need to be completed. For example, "how does the battery fail" or "how does it behave in a crash?"

Courtesy of Derek Kerton.

If the obstacle course for batteries remains difficult to fully complete at this moment, how do we define progress and success?

Progress is incremental while being honest about the challenges. It took the auto industry a century of maturing combustion engines, eking out incremental improvements over time to reach the level of sophistication and economics observed in modern gasoline cars. It is absurd to think that batteries will reach maturity at relative light speed.

These next three categories are in dire need of progress especially as pertaining to accelerating adoption of electric vehicles. Failing to make progress will inevitably delay global adoption of electric mobility:

  1. Safety: This covers the span from tiny defects during manufacturing and assembly to the nature of failures in the field including those during a vehicle crash or malfunctioning of the electronics. Battery safety remains one of the most understated challenges for the industry, yet it is a very serious obstacle. Any incremental improvement in battery safety is necessary and welcome. Consider the following:
    • The large recalls of LG Energy Solution (LGES) batteries used in the GM Bolt and Hyundai Kona in 2020 due to battery fires proved extremely costly to these companies. There were over 3,000 EV fires in China in 2022. According to China's Advanced Industrial Research Institute (GGII), 35% of these fires occurred during charging, an additional 40% while driving, and the rest while parked. China EVs almost exclusively use LFP cathode, so please do not be tempted to claim that LFP batteries are "safe."
    • This record of battery safety for Chinese-made EVs will make it far more difficult for Chinese OEMs to meet the far stricter safety regulatory environment in the US. Safety standards in China (GB 18384-2020 and GB 38031-2020) currently call for giving passengers five minutes to evacuate a vehicle in the event of a fire. US federal and state regulators have a big role to play in "requiring" technologies that can eliminate battery fires altogether -- not just managing an incident.
    • Fire departments are not well equipped to fight battery fires, especially if the battery is shorted to the vehicle's chassis (at 400 or 800 V). Whether batteries power a vehicle on the road, or power a stationary UPS backup system in a downtown skyscraper, the danger of battery failures carries monumental consequences. This is where well-informed local regulations can play a positive role. Yet too many disparate regulations will cripple progress.
  2. Economics: Global adoption of electric mobility must overcome the obstacle of economics. Batteries remain too expensive to manufacture. At about USD 100 /kWh, a mid-sized sedan has a battery that costs USD 6,000 to USD 10,000, putting EVs within reach of only affluent communities. Price parity with traditional combustion engines means a battery manufacturing cost near USD 50 /kWh. Consider the following:
    • LFP battery prices for China are now in the range of USD 40 - 50 /kWh, and for NMC, the figures are near USD 65 /kWh. Progress will be measured on how the rest of the globe can reach similar economic targets.
    • Cost reduction often comes by removing inefficiencies in the supply chain. Yet, China dominates the battery supply chain, from mining raw metals to the fabrication of batteries. China wants to sell full vehicles, and not just its components.
    • Trade barriers, tariffs, and nationalization are macro-economic forces that push costs up. Proper and well-informed government incentive programs try to push the cost down, especially if they successfully promote scale. The United States must decide whether China is a partner in the long-term, hence, to negotiate new economic rules that govern fair trade between our nations, or to go our separate ways and build our own manufacturing infrastructure -- thus adding yet another large obstacle.
    • Some of the most exciting innovation in batteries, such as solid-state batteries, will bring noticeable benefits, but they will push the cost of batteries up…possibly way up. We do need innovation, yet we need to be honest about setting targets that accelerate adoption.
  3. Driving Experience: Typical consumers considering buying an electric vehicle have a few key questions on their mind. Is the vehicle affordable? Does it have a "good" driving range? Does it have access to a wide and reliable network of chargers? Is it safe (hence is it insurable)? And is the battery durable (a warranty will reflect that fact)? If they can get comfortable with these questions, then their transition to an EV becomes more likely. Consider the following:
    • A driving range of 300 or more miles (~ 500 km) is primarily determined by the size of the battery (i.e., the number of kWh), hence to a large extent, its economics. Weight will increasingly become another notable factor, but for now, it is about dollars and cents for the OEM and the consumer. This is also true for commercial vehicles, where the initial cost of the vehicle factors heavily in the vehicle's total cost of ownership (TCO).
    • Alongside driving range is durability, often measured in cycle life. Cycle life impacts the residual value of the vehicle, and for commercial vehicles (e.g., buses, trucks), it is another key factor in the calculation of TCO.
    • The bigger the battery's capacity, the better becomes its durability! So, bringing down the cost of the battery helps with both driving range and durability.
    • Increasing energy density of the battery (as some manufacturers are pushing ~ 1,000 kWh/l) does increase the battery capacity, but it also increases cost, and can degrade cycle life under certain circumstances. So, in our obstacle race, energy density is not among the first key obstacles to cross if we want to accelerate the adoption of EVs. This also illustrates the complex exercise of optimizing the battery to its use case.

The obstacle course is a bit like a game of truth or dare. If you can't give complete and truthful answers about the battery and how it enables the adoption of electric mobility, well, suggesting a penalty may become appropriate.  For example, let's say you truthfully declare that your battery can fully charge in 5 minutes or less. That's a fantastic feat! But you then neglect to state that an EV charging at that speed requires a charging power of nearly 1,000 kW -- enough power for 200 American-sized homes. So be prepared for a daring embarrassment because your proposed fast charge time is impractical in real life.

This obstacle course analogy is more than a sequence of independent obstacles. In batteries, each obstacle depends on a multitude of other obstacles. For example, declaring a high energy density (either by volume or by weight) is insufficient if not accompanied by the battery's economics, as well as its cycle life measured at meaningful charge rates and realistic temperatures and pressures. Yet, some vendors declare 400 Wh/kg but omit to state that the cycle life falls short, or perhaps omit to state that the measured result was on a coin cell (coin cells are very small batteries built strictly for laboratory purposes).

If we believe that batteries will appear prominently in the energy policies of the future, then the truth in stating and marketing our abilities to manufacture them in scale is essential. Daring the consequences of an optimistic outlook will not yield a pleasant outcome.

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