Advanced Automotive Battery Conference: Running out of road?


The Editor bring a fresh pair of ears and eyes to the 14th Advanced Automotive Battery Conference. Is the industry sticking to the roadmap or has it taken a detour? This article was first published in the Spring 2014 edition of Batteries & Energy Storage Technology.

This author recently saw a presentation by brand marketing guru Peter Economides, who worked on Apple’s relaunch following the return of Steve Jobs in 1997. Economides’ key message was that to succeed, you have to get the customers to do your work for you.

In other words, word of mouth. The early adopters and influential types buy something, like it, and tell their friends. The friends buy it, who tell their friends and so it goes on. Granny will never buy it, by the way, no matter what it is.

Economides cites Better Place, which hired him in its dying days in late 2012, as a classic example of how not to do it. He showed a Better Place commercial featuring a young man telling us why he drives an electric car. In a word, it boiled down to domestitude.

He drives his EV because “She” is for people who want to save the polar bear. The visuals of a similarly aged woman makes it clear that “She” also refers to his lover, the woman who he hopes wants to marry him and have his babies.

Ultimately, the advert (and Better Place) was, in effect, trying to sell electric vehicles – a Herculean task and probably doomed to failure.

Trying to convince someone to spend upwards of $50,000 on a car in an effort to settle down to domestic bliss with their sexy, tree-hugging partner was a bum steer, said Economides. It wasn’t cool enough to influence the influencers; it was trying too hard to be cool while simultaneously trying to appeal to everyman.

Tesla is different. Flying in the face of the mainstream, Elon Musk’s outfit has switched its marketing focus on to the sexiness of the car rather than the driver. The message is rapid acceleration = sexy. Saving polar bears = not sexy.

The drawback, of course, is the cost. And what is the main cost? The batteries!

Tesla, which did not attend AABC, was something of an elephant of the room. It remains an outlier. Who could have predicted when AABC started in 1999 that a nerdy billionaire would cram 7,000 laptop cells into a supercar and thus turn the concept of away from environmental masturbation to a penis-extension supercar?

Most of the presentations were by mass-market OEMs, but it would have been very interesting if Tesla had been there too, 18650s or not. Will Tesla’s ‘cheap’ EV be able to weigh in at circa $40,000 as publicized? Besides, what will $40,000 get you? 40 miles range? 60 miles? 100 miles? Seats included? Doors too? We’ll have to wait and see.

Detour from the roadmap

AABC is quite a glitzy show, sleekly managed in an impossible-to-get-lost kind of way. There are concerns that AABC is not quite the force it once was. Perhaps this is true. But if it is, it’s more due to the industry taking a detour from the EV roadmap.

All the projections for EV take-up are well short of expectations. When AABC first came into being in 1999, peak oil was a real concern and future decisions about auto electrics and the contribution it could make to vehicle performance and emissions reductions were up in the air.  Shale oil and gas has seen that off for the time being.

In Europe, emissions reduction targets have been delayed and/or watered down. Will the US follow suit? The final decision to adopt the federally mandated fleet average of 54.5 mpg by 2025 will be taken by Congress in 2017.

If the Republicans get in again, this ambitious target could also be seen off as an ‘attack on personal liberty’ or some such. Perhaps the answer to the car industry’s emissions headaches lay in paying off Jeb Bush, Chris Christie or whichever character ends up winning the Republican nomination?

Even if the EV industry hasn’t quite taken off as hoped, AABC remains a conference with clout on the cultural calendar, attracting C-level speakers and most of the right companies. But it is noteworthy AABC will hold its first conference in Asia – in Japan’s Kyoto – in May.

The Japanese may have already won the battery war. Toyota, Panasonic et al are years ahead in both lithium batteries and EVs, while Samsung and LG Chem have caught them up in terms of lithium battery sales. Asia, perhaps more than ever, seems the natural place for an advanced automotive battery show.

To this end, the author was struck by a presentation by ARPA-E’s Ilan Gur, who spoke about an AMPED (Advanced Management and Protection of Energy Storage Devices) project for the US DoE.

Gur repeatedly boasted about how ARPA-E was the “skunkworks” of the US battery industry, but this particular project seemed pretty conservative. Gur started off by saying next-generation technologies typically took 50-70 years to become standard issue, the implication being they shouldn’t bother.

But surely the job of ARPA-E, so often compared to the Pentagon’s DARPA, is to reduce this (extremely lengthy) timeline? Instead, AMPED is dedicated to getting more out of existing technology: what it calls “removing the blinkers” from lithium-ion.

This, it is envisaged, would achieved by developing ‘smart cell’ battery packs, with individual cell-level active monitoring and control via sensors. A ‘smart cell’ system would reduce the physical capacity of battery packs by 20-30% by mitigating the need for other power electronics in the vehicle.

As this is a system-level approach, the development of ‘smart cell’ EV battery packs requires the input of 10-15 different development teams, so there is little chance of manufacturers developing such a system. Which is a big reason why ARPA-E is funding it.

But is this really something which should concern ARPA-E? Is this going to have the Japanese quivering in their boots?

It is also highly noteworthy that both AABC Europe and AABC 2015 will both include “two to three sessions” concerning stationary battery applications. This seems a sign AABC is either running out of automotive ideas or delegates, or both.

Attendees were down roughly 100 on 2013. Is this merely due to being held in Atlanta rather than Florida, as initially planned? Next year’s AABC will be in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which may well be picturesque but is not exactly a metropolis.

Commercial breaks

AABC seemed rather like US television: commercials punctuated by the actual programmes you tuned in to see.

William ‘Freedom’ Wallace of General Motors kicked things off with a commercial for the Chevy Volt, aka the Opel Ampera in Europe. It remains the United States’ best-selling PHEV (40% of sales were in California) at 23,000 units, although sales dropped by c.350 in 2013.

GM draws encouragement from the widening socio-economic profile of buyers of the Volt. The average income of a Volt owner has fallen from $150 000 in 2011 to $75 000.

GM’s sample of 500 Volt users found they drive an average 27 all-electric miles per day, leading to an 81% reduction in gas. A concern for GM is that US power utilities are looking to recoup the cost of EV charging infrastructure – the days of freebies are coming to an end.

GM said ‘fun to drive’ was the main reason to buy a Volt. It was only when your author brought up the question of how much longer will Volts be eligible to drive in California’s car pool lanes – its days are numbered – were reasons other than the Volt’s ‘greatness’ proffered.

Michael Lord of Toyota wasted no time in saying the Prius is better than the Volt and the Leaf, but served up a few useful nuggets, such as EV sales total 10,000 a month in the US, with an 84% jump in 2013 overall. xEV sales have risen 900% since 2005 and with BMW, Daimler, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Volkswagen coming to the party before 2018, sales are only going one way, if not as quickly as anticipated.

As usual, Avicenne Energy’s Christophe Pillot won the ‘Most Beautiful Slides’ award at AABC 15. Even if EV sales are not spectacular, a very small EV market in the automotive world will still represent a huge market for batteries.

The respected Frenchman forecasts 10% annual growth of lithium sales until 2025, with 15% annual growth for ‘new’ lithium applications such as UPS, telecoms, forklift, medical, residential and grid energy storage.

As an aside, Pillot mentioned the cost of 18650s falling from $1.50/Wh in 2000 to just $0.17/Wh now. Expect further substantial price decreases in the coming years.

The great 48V debate

The debate about whether the auto industry should introduce 48V vehicles to cope with the growing power demands of cars continues apace. Stephen Kim of SK Continental gave the by now obligatory ‘48V is inevitable, it’s happening, please buy our kit’ spiel.

Having developed a 48V NMC pack, SK Continental is in a slightly smug position if it does take off but overall this author was not particularly convinced about its apparent low cost/inevitability.

Real-world 48V driving conditions may see a 25% in CO2 reductions against only 10% for test cycles, but real-world conditions do not matter when this is driven by regulation. Unless, of course, the regulations change…

SK Continental expects 9% of the global market will comprise mild hybrids, of which 21% will be sold in the EU, 15% in the US and just 1% in Asia. Hmmmm.

Dr Anderman then went about obliterating the arguments for 48V, starting off with a reminder of just what a flop 42V was ten years ago, with more or less only the 42V versions of the Ford Escape and GM Silverado seeing the light of day. The implication was clear: 48V is the new 42V.

Dr A raised more questions than he answered. The costs of lithium 48V were a predicted $1000/kW, more than a full hybrid EV. Can OEMs deliver a cost-effective 48V system while  keeping within the 60V safe over-voltage limits? Will mass production of 48V bring down costs enough before 2020?

Is 12-15 kW at 48V really much less expensive than at 110V for a plug-in hybrid? And, that being the case, why would anyone buy a mild hybrid and not a plug-in hybrid?

The plain truth is mild hybrids are not sexy enough and even if it costs $1 500 for a 15% fuel efficiency gain, the stats show customers are more willing to pay $3 500 for 35% fuel efficiency improvementas it offers the prospect of a purer hybrid experience. Indeed, mild hybrid sales are expected to fall over the next three years.

Looking to what’s happening in Japan, Dr A notes Honda has replaced its Fit mild hybrid and is offering two new powertrains: the P2 strong hybrid and the Micro-2 hybrid with ultracap pack.

While Honda and GM are likely to continue shrinking their moderate/mild hybrid offerings, European car makers are developing 48V mild hybrids for Model Year 2016 and beyond.

But at current cost levels, these can only be justified for high-end cars. Automakers have to absorb much of the extra cost and the positive business case is probably still beyond 2020.

The debate was taken on by the car manufacturers, which are looking to 12V stop-start as far as possible to meet emissions regulations in the mid-2020s. Ford’s Daniel Kok said the business case for 48V was a challenge and may well not bother with it.

Compared to Europe with 25% of new sales, stop-start cars are relatively small phenomenon in the US. But if there is one projection on which you may wish to bet your house, it is the adoption of good old lead-acid 12V stop-start in the US will soar.

Unlike hybrids there are common standards for stop-start for almost all processes, and it is cheap, low-hanging fruit for emissions reductions. The question is: will 12V lead-acid stop-start be enough in the US?

Probably not; Ford, for example, needs to reduce emissions by 4% a year. Chrysler, meanwhile, was sweating cups about its gas-guzzling pick-up trucks ruining their future average fleet emissions.

Besides, lead-acid stop-start doesn’t always work as it should and this makes customers uncomfortable; Ford says 30% of its customers deselect stop-start. So, Ford is looking at 12V lithium-ion stop-start not only as a fix to the increased energy demands of cars, whose cabins are rapidly becoming entertainment centres, but also to harness regen power.

Kok says 12V lithium-ion is a very feasible option but the costs need to drop 30-50% to get there. LG Chem agreed, seeing 12V lithium coming down the track before 48V.

Jeff Kessen of A123 Systems says the 11.5kg weight reduction and 3-5% fuel economy saving due to increased charge acceptance puts the value of a 12V li-ion battery system at the $200 mark compared to $78 for 70Ah AGM lead-acid system.

In cash terms, the pack costs of a VRLA lead-acid battery are roughly $115 versus $600 for an equivalent lithium iron phosphate pack. This $500 cost premium could drop to $300 by the end of the decade. Although even then it will still be more than twice as expensive as VRLA, this does seem as a relatively cheap way to meet emissions reduction targets.

A123 says there is a positive business case for 12V lithium now, but where are the sales? The cost of lithium remains the biggest hurdle, while there is also the ‘hot button’ issue of cold cranking temperatures.

12V lithium-ion could potentially offer 4 kW compared to 10-15 kW for 48V. In effect this would be a micro-mini hybrid; not quite up to 48V levels, but offering significant fuel economy and emissions reductions on existing 12V stop-start. 

Bright lights, big city

The final day was a little PR heavy and only 90 brave soldiers managed to stay the course for the full five days of AABC. Yet one of the most interesting sessions was saved for last – on charging infrastructure.

The key messages was using the public purse won’t be enough to pay for chargers – it needs capitalism – and, like the Kevin Costner movie ‘Field of Dreams’, build it and they will come.

For Chargepoint, which is doing a roaring trade in installing EV equipment for private parking lots in the US, capitalism is working. So much so, in fact, that the wife of Chargepoint’s CEO Richard Lowenthal has a housekeeping allowance which stretches to buying him a Tesla S for Christmas.

Lowenthal explained how free electricity for EV charging is worth $550 per employee per year to Google as a tool to retain employees. In contrast, Microsoft makes a profit from employee charging.

The ‘build it and they will come’ model may well work in the US, where many businesses have their own parking lots in which to offer subsidized charging. In countries where there is not a mall on every corner and citizens make use of their legs to get around, however, public charging may be needed for EVs to take off as hoped.

This remains a very tough nut to crack. EVs are being sold as city cars, but many city dwellers live in apartments without practical access to charging. Furthermore, with space in cities at a premium, installing charging infrastructure may mean retrofits.

Mark Duvall of EPRI put the cost of retrofitting car parks at $100,000 for a DC charger. Who is going to pay for that? In this case, capitalism won’t be enough; it’ll need grants, subsidies, mandates etc.

An elephant in the room 

One of the main takeaways of the 14th Advanced Automotive Battery Conference was the future cost of electric vehicles versus their ever more efficient internal combustion engine rivals over the coming decades.

Next-generation ICEs, which may feature turbo-charged dedicated EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) engines, will match or even exceed the fuel economy of hybrid cars. For a Toyota Camry, the engine efficiency rise from 36.3% to 38.4% in 2030 and 42% in 2050 will translate into a fuel economy rate of 32.2 mpg today rising to 65.6 mpg to 88.5 mpg respectively.

The message is that one of the strongest arguments to go electric – fuel savings – may not always be so.

Yet for most of the advanced powertrain technologies there is a single point in the future where the costs start to get very similar. John German of the International Council for Clean Transportation had a number of interesting slides that showed the manufacturing costs of ICE, plug-in hybrids, pure EV, and fuel cell cars would converge in the 2040s.

When the manufacturing costs of ICE cars will exceed battery EVs, hybrid EVs, fuel cell cars (if not plug-in hybrids), and the cost of ownership issue will likely disappear. But this may not be for decades.

At the moment the industry is at 80 real-world miles range for a mass-market vehicle, but what happens when we get to 120 miles? The greater range will simplify charging infrastructure.

A lot of the need for convenience charging goes away and the need for public charging infrastructure comes from PHEVs, and they’ll be lots of them. Domestic charging will be sufficient for metropolitan day-to-day charging. Fast charging will take care of the rest.

Dr A sees 120-150 miles real-world range needed for mass-market appeal of EVs. This is someway off at a realistic price point with lithium. Or will Tesla prove everyone wrong?

One thought on “Advanced Automotive Battery Conference: Running out of road?

  1. I wonder if the EV’s will take the place of the traditional fuel-powered cars. At the moment the batteries are not that good enough for long distances. However, producers keep searching for new technologies so it may be a good alternative in the future.

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