Electric Car Revolution Remains a Distant Prospect


The first electric cars that aren't DIY projects and offer acceptable crash protection have arrived in the dealerships. Most of them are no-frills mini-vehicles that cost as much as a mid-sized sedans and can only take you a short distance and back on a single battery charge if you're lucky enough to avoid heavy traffic. Of course, that's not the case in the winter, when energy-sapping interior heating significantly diminishes its range. And if it runs out of juice on the road, no jerry can will help. Your only option is to call a tow truck.

With all the drawbacks of this type of car, you have to be a true believer in electric mobility to imagine that there really are one million people out there who want to have one.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Rudolf Krebs draws a pentagon as he sits in his office in Wolfsburg, home to the headquarters of Volkswagen. The 54-year-old is convinced that his background as a trained electrician and holder of a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering makes him particularly qualified for his new assignment.

Krebs leads the team at Volkswagen responsible for developing electric drive systems. Europe's largest carmaker won't have an electric car on the market until 2013. The miniature "Up!" car already on display at the IAA is a version outfitted with a combustion engine.

"In this case, we don't have a problem not being the very first," Krebs says. "It doesn't make sense to prematurely put a car on the market that doesn't offer any convincing benefit in terms of its usefulness."

Krebs writes a different term at each corner of his pentagon: energy content, performance, costs, safety and life span. Developers are trapped in this structure, he explains. An improvement in one aspect comes at the cost of another. If performance or energy content increases, life span decreases. Offering more range means a bigger price tag. Indeed, as he sees it, the greatest challenge is designing an electric car that hits the sweet spot where the levels of all these aspects are acceptable.

The Battery Bottleneck

It's already been four years since advances in lithium battery technology electrified the auto industry and convinced more and more people that the future of the automobile was in electricity rather than biodiesel or hydrogen. In the wake of these advances came development projects and billions in investments that have been transforming conviction into certainty that the era of the electric car will really dawn -- though certainly not as quickly as the German government would like.

The pace of development is set by the manufacturers of batteries. The question of how quickly battery-powered automobiles will be able to transport things in both a convincing and affordable way will be decided by the chemical interplay between the light metal lithium and some yet-to-be-determined substance. The leading firms in the battery field, most of which are based in Japan and South Korea, are placing their bets for this other substance on nickel, manganese and cobalt.

A battery made of these elements that can hold a kilowatt hour of energy currently costs about €400 ($545) and weighs about 10 kilograms (22 pounds). Though that's already considerably better than where things stood just a few years, it's still far from being good enough.

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