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.

Wall Street Journal:

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.

CleanTechnica:

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.

One company we’ve been following here at CleanTechnica is Eos Energy Storage, which has been working to resolve the zinc-air durability issue.

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.

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7 Responses to “GM Readies a Tesla Killer”

  1. Phillip Shaw Says:

    The patents held by Chevron on the NiMH battery technology will expire in 2014, I believe. The EV-95 battery built under license are rugged and reliable power packs. They were used in the EV-1, the RAV-4E, and the Ranger EV among other electric vehicles. My 1999 Ranger EV, ‘Sparky’, has its original battery pack and is still going strong.

    I don’t know how competitive NiMH batteries are against Li Ion or Zinc Air, but it will be interesting to see whether anyone resumes manufacturing EV-95s, or other NiMH batteries once the patents expire.


    • The patents held by Chevron on the NiMH battery technology will expire in 2014,

      If the Obama administration really cared about EVs, it could have initiated a forced sale of the patent rights under eminent domain way back in 2009.  A fair sale price would have been the previous few years of annual royalties, projected out to the expiration.  (Roughly zip, I suppose.)  Just filing such an action might have persuaded the owner to sell.

      I don’t know how competitive NiMH batteries are against Li Ion or Zinc Air

      Just look at their relative position in power-tool applications.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    “…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.”

    Big expensive heavy batteries suck. Let’s electrify the road instead:

    http://inhabitat.com/stanford-develops-wireless-electric-car-charging-system-for-highways/

  3. ahaveland Says:

    Perhaps graphene/flurographene sandwiches have some mileage to offer.
    A 10cm cube of the stuff weighing about 2.5kg with 1nm layers would contain a square kilometre of dielectric.

    Making 100,000,000 atomically perfect layers would be quite a feat of nanoengineering!


  4. And the race begins. The fossil fuel industry must be watching this saying to themselves, “Oh sh##.” One of their major business sectors is about to disappear over the next 20 years.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      Or they could rebrand themselves as ENERGY companies as BP once did.
      They have the money, the brains, the infrastructure and the political and regulatory savvy.

      They could lead the future instead of fighting to be not swept away by it.

  5. andrewfez Says:

    They should bring back the EV-1 body shape. It had a drag coefficient of 0.19, while a Prius has something like 0.25 to 0.29. It had the lowest drag of any production car in history. Didn’t those later models get like 150 miles range per charge too?


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