GM Readies a Tesla Killer
September 18, 2013
It’s not a threat to the big three. Yet.
But clearly auto giant General Motors sees the revolutionary Tesla model S (see the amazing Tesla assembly line above) as something more than a boutique plaything for the wealthy.
That’s why they are now gearing up to compete in the world of all electric vehicles.
General Motors Co. is developing an electric car that can go 200 miles on a charge for around $30,000, officials at the largest U.S. auto maker said, offering a challenge to luxury electric-car startup Tesla Motors Inc.
Doug Parks, GM’s vice president of global product programs, disclosed the effort on Monday at GM’s battery laboratory and test facility in Warren, Mich., but didn’t say when the car would be available. He said while the technology is available now, the cost of the batteries remains too high to be able to pull off the feat today.
GM’s move to raise the profile of its battery research efforts comes as Tesla is challenging the established auto industry’s claim to technology leadership with its $70,000 and up Model S. Mr. Parks’ comments came just a few days after Germany’sVolkswagen AG VOW.XE +1.21% said it intended to become the largest seller of electric vehicles by 2018.
Analysts and industry executives say Tesla, GM, VW and the current global electric vehicle sales leader, Nissan Motor Co., all face the same problem: current electric vehicle batteries are too expensive, and deliver too little usable driving range compared with vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said recently that “it didn’t require a miracle” to sell a 200-mile range electric car for around $35,000 in the next three or four years.
Every other EV currently on the market gets about 100 miles of range or less. Starting prices for them currently range between $25,000 for the Smart Fortwo EV and $50,000 for the RAV4 EV. BMW’s i3, launching later this year, is expected to start at $41,350.
Kevin Gallagher, a chemist and researcher at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, said auto makers are spending about $500 a kilowatt hour on battery packs. That means the 24 kwh pack on the Nissan Leaf would cost around $12,000. Last year, Ford CEO Alan Mulally said the battery on the Focus EV with 23 kwh of energy costs between $13,000 and $15,000.
Tesla Chief Technical Officer JB Straubel says the company’s battery costs are half or even a quarter of the price of the industry average, partly because of the company’s strategy to use thousands of commodity battery casings rather than the specialized batteries that GM and Nissan use.
“The battery prices in the Model S are substantially lower than what everyone expects today,” he said in an interview. Mr. Straubel expects the energy density in Tesla’s batteries will increase by more than 20% by the time Tesla’s mass-market car comes out in about four years. More energy in batteries should equate to longer driving range for roughly the same price.
Researchers at Stanford University are working on a new rechargeable zinc-air battery that could provide a low cost energy storage alternative to the current favorite, lithium-ion. Zinc-air batteries have great promise due to the cheapness and abundance of their basic materials along with a relatively high energy density, but until now the technology has been bedeviled by “sluggish” catalytic reactions. Solving that problem could greatly expand the market for wind and solar power, including electric vehicle batteries and utility-scale energy storage.
Before we dig into the Stanford zinc-air battery, let’s be clear that lithium-ion batteries are not going away any time soon. Though the Stanford team claims a much higher energy density for zinc-air there is plenty of room for improvement in li-ion battery technology, one recent example being the development of a new electrode that resolves the notorious “lithium traffic jam” issue.
If anything, the hitch will probably be the issue of lithium supply. Currently, the US depends heavily on imported lithium, creating a significant vulnerability to global market swings.
There should be some improvement in the near term, with the recent discovery of a huge lithium deposit in Wyoming and a coordinated effort by the Obama Administration to boost domestic lithium production. However, over the long term it’s tough to see how lithium alone could provide a stable platform for the exploding electric vehicle market, among other uses.
Zinc-air batteries work by churning ambient oxygen (aka “air”) with zinc in a liquid alkaline electrolyte to create an electrical charge. As the battery discharges it produces zinc oxide, which regenerates into zinc when the battery is recharged.
Problems with the technology include the aforementioned sluggishness of conventional catalysts used in zinc-air batteries, as well as the durability of the zinc electrodes.
To resolve those issues, the Stanford team came up with a new line of low-cost catalysts, including a nanocrystal-carbon nanotube combination as well as metal oxides sourced from non-precious materials.
The result is a zinc-air battery that uses a cobalt-oxide air catalyst for discharging and a nickel-iron hydroxide catalyst for recharging, which according to lead researcher Hongjie Dai, has a “high specific energy density more than twice that of lithium-ion technology.”
Dai foresees some additional obstacles in the Stanford team’s path to commercializing the technology, but in the mean time zinc-air batteries are already marching into the market.
Just last month, Bloomberg reported that Eos has reached a deal with New York City’s electricity supplier, Consolidated Edison, to test the company’s utility scale zinc-air battery.