Innovation

The future of electric cars: Why the battery race will define it and Musk is a genius

TechRepublic spoke with Steve LeVine, author of "The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War" about the race to invent a super battery and the mainstreaming of electric cars.

Image: Steve LeVine

Talk of driverless cars is one of the technology industry's hottest topics, with major companies—both auto and tech—coming up with their own plans to unveil models of autonomous cars by 2020. But, what about their less-glamorous cousin, the electric car?

Steve LeVine, Washington Correspondent for Quartz, has spent years exploring the history and trajectory of the battery. His book The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War—released in paperback on Tuesday—narrates the race for a "super battery." It also explains why the journey has been so difficult. TechRepublic spoke with LeVine to learn what has taken the modern battery so long to develop, what it means for the future of electric cars, and what makes Elon Musk a genius.

Can you take me through a brief history of the battery?

Volta invents the battery in 1799. In 1859 you get lead-acid. Fast forward to the 1960's, when the environmental movement and smog became public issues. I grew up in Los Angeles and remember the brown sky during the summers. Choking smog in cities and the American population becoming environmentally-minded. Ford responded to this and created a high temperature, sulfur-based battery. When Ford got publicity around this, a lot of other players came in and wanted to do the same thing.

So, in the 70s, you have this energized, much more active research environment. In 1973 there's another Arab-Israeli war and, in response to that, you get the Arab oil embargo and the nationalization of much of the major oil companies' oil fields. Oil companies as a whole were frantic. Suddenly, they were stripped of much of their income. They were trying a bunch of different things to survive. One of them bought the Barnum and Bailey Circus. One of bought Montgomery Wards. Exxon decided "We're going to make electric cars, we're going to do something in batteries and electricity." They brought in these smart, cutting-edge, material scientists—I profile Stan Whittingham, from Stanford, in the book. He is a British man and he invents the first lithium battery in an Exxon laboratory.

By the late 70s what they couldn't figure out was how to stop the batteries from exploding. When we say lithium ion, what we are saying is that they are not using pure lithium metal. When pure lithium metal comes in contact with the air, it lights on fire. In 1980, John Goodenough invents a lithium ion battery, with embedded lithium in graphite, and it actually works, it doesn't light on fire.

How long have we had the technology to have an electric vehicle?

It's been 25 years. The cathode was invented in 1981. The anode, the other electrode, a little later. But no one saw any use for this. It just sat on the shelf. Then Sony wanted to commercialize the Betacam, the handheld video camera, but the batteries that were going to be required, the nickel-metal hydride batteries made it unwieldy. They had a commercial reason to do something with these lithium ions. That was why the big breakthrough was made in 1991—Sony wanted to commercialize a handheld camera.

How did electric cars get on the market? What are the challenges to getting them into the mainstream?

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were almost no cars out there. There was a real rivalry between electric cars and the internal combustion engine. Most people, including Thomas Edison, thought that electric cars were going to win. There was a similar problem to today—they were using lead acid batteries mostly and you couldn't have the distance. They hadn't mastered gasoline. They hadn't mastered how to make those engines not smoke very much, not explode, or how to start them without having to go around the front and turn the crank. When the invention of the starter was made, so you could sit in the car and start the engine with your key or a switch, was the point at which they diverged—the internal combustion engine won.

In the 60s, Ford had something, but it didn't go anywhere either. Those batteries were high temperature—meaning 300 degrees centigrade. The cars we drive go at 90 degrees centigrade, so it's like having a molten metal inside your car while you are driving. It is dangerous, no one would do that. In the 90s, GM tried out a car, and that died too. The batteries weren't quite there.

Let's fast forward to now. The main hurdle is cost. Batteries exist that can take a car as far as you want to go, that can be charged up quickly, that can go very fast, that won't explode, and you can build a car around it that is eminently desirable.

But the technology is very expensive. It requires $100,000 to buy a Tesla. The challenge, if you are talking about a mainstream vehicle, is that the battery is the single most expensive component of the electric car. It can be one third the price, or even one half of the price, if you are talking about the high-end, long distance batteries that Tesla offers. The ones that will go 265 or 280 miles on a single charge—that's $50,000 just for the battery. What battery researchers need to figure out is how to configure the batteries. Whether it's different transition metals, or a different anode trying to get silicon—a more powerful element—to store electrons on the anode side. A lot of them are trying to use pure lithium metal. If they can figure out how to use pure lithium metal without the negative side effects that would be the holy grail. This is it. It is getting more energy into a small space and at a much lower price.

SEE: Photos: A list of the world's self-driving cars racing toward 2020

What are the challenges for electric cars today?

The people who are buying the cars like the Nissan Leaf generally fall into two categories: They're green-minded or want to feel politically correct, they're not mainstream people. Most people won't buy a car that will only go 84 miles before they have to sit and charge it. Chevy just unveiled the Bolt, a pure electric car, and will start selling them by the end of this year. It'll go 200 miles on a single charge and cost around $30,000.

There are two main problems with electric cars today. They don't go far enough, and they are kind of dowdy. Generally speaking, people like their car to be semi-cool, and would like it to be technology-on-wheels also.

There is a third thing. It's not necessarily a prerequisite now, but definitely in the next 3-5 years, autonomous driving—people are going to want all of those technological components in the interior of the car, plus they want to start seeing the autonomous functionality. They will want the car to park itself. They would like to have warnings if they are coming close to another car, either in a lane or in a parking lot and so on. You must have in your mind, too, the kinds of things that you would like your car to do by itself.

Autonomous vehicles have been big buzz words this year. Will they be electric as well?

Some of them are. When you are talking about guys like Elon Musk, then everything he is formulating is electric. That's not a trivial point—he is lighting a fire underneath carmakers. This is why so many of them are coming out with new mainstream electric vehicles. Over the next 3-5 years, they are afraid he is going to run away with the game. I believe it is moving this way.

Consumer taste over the next 5-10 years will demand not only autonomous functionality, but also an electric component to a car. Not having it will seem unseemly, just like very few people now feel it is acceptable to throw garbage out of their windows. They won't want to be driving cars that don't have some either pure electric or hybrid capability.

SEE: The state of electric cars: 10 things you should know

Why has Musk been so successful?

Have you ever watched I Want an iPhone 4? He's successful in the same way that, generally speaking, people who buy smartphones want an iPhone. This is what Musk has done with electric cars. He is a showman. He is a very good frontman for his company and has proven to be an intangible talent. What are the ingredients that come together to make one CEO ultra credible and make another so-so.? He's got it.

Visionaries set a goal and then actually do it—he's actually done it. His cars are ranked by respected magazines of a quality and performance that they have never seen before. They use that kind of language. I think that all these things together, plus the feel-good factor in electric, have made these a real sensation.

First, he had the roadster, and no one paid much attention. All the carmakers, the German carmakers, the Japanese, have the Americans scared—and then he acts. All the while he is saying, "I'm going to be coming out with my model 3. It's going to be a mainstream car, it's going to cost $35,000." They are going, "Woah."

All of them, name any car maker, have announced that from 2016—2019, their own little cars in the 30,000s or the very high-end. He has created an environment in which rival carmakers fear him taking over the whole show—and here's the piece de resistance: He has driven Apple into the game. Apple is coming out with an electric car in 2019. They have 1,000 engineers working on this. This is the true competitor to Musk.

So, will they become mainstream?

All these carmakers will put their models on the market and the question is, will people buy them? This is different from the 2009-2013 period, where carmakers were just kind of putting their toe in the water. They wanted to comply with the higher mileage requirements. Now, this is real.

One out of two new vehicles sold are either an SUV or a truck, but most of the electric vehicles we are seeing are sedans. Obviously, if you are going to sell an electric car, you are going to meet the stricter mileage standards. By 2025, which is only nine years away, the carmakers have to double the efficiency of their fleet. They have to be an average of 54 miles per gallon. If you are going to do that, you have to have a lot of your fleet at zero emissions. So, you'll see a lot of new offerings of very cool and desirable electric and hybrid SUVs and minivans.

Where else, besides cars, will batteries have a big impact?

It's an issue for anyone who carries a smartphone. We would all like to be able to go to the airport and not spend the whole time obsessed with finding an outlet. It would be great to get these better batteries into our devices.

The biggest impact, if you are talking in terms of what happens to oil, what happens to the oil companies, and what happens to you politically, is either electric cars or stationary storage. That means being able to add electric storage to existing power plants whether they are solar, wind, natural gas, or coal-fired.

The idea is that if you add whatever the volume of battery capacity onto one of the power plants, when it comes to peak usage during the evening you can collect electricity all day, say with solar or with wind, and have them stored in these batteries and even find out how much electricity is created by the base power. By the natural gas. By the coal.

You draw the electricity from the batteries at night during the peak period and overall result is that you don't burn as much coal. You don't burn as much natural gas and you've enabled the solar. Suddenly, solar power becomes a much bigger business, much more desirable because you could store and then use it when the sun isn't shining, or when the wind isn't blowing. It's a big area of business and research. Analysts are a lot more convinced about the business case in the near term for stationary storage then they are for electric cars.

Your book is out in paperback today. What have been your takeaways over the last year?

The battery researchers still do not have a lot of confidence that they are close to making a big leap. I didn't speak to a single battery scientist, and these are the serious people, they're people whose opinion I have come to trust. They converge around the thought that they will get there one day, but no one knows of anything on the horizon. Any kind of configuration, any kind of new type of approach that could possibly get the battery where it needs to go. This big leap that we are talking about. The super battery.

And, we've deluded ourselves that the battery was like the silicon chip. That, if you just put a bunch of engineers into a room, then voila! You would have your super battery. That isn't how it works. It's the difference in the science—working on the silicon chip, it's engineering. Not chemistry, not electrochemistry. It's a chip and it's architecture and you are figuring "Okay. How can I fit more on this?" Make it 3D and figure out how to make a pathway shorter or whatever. With batteries, it's the reaction among elements on the periodic table. It's electrochemistry, and a lot of physics happen on the atomic scale that you just don't get on a silicon chip.

The problem researchers kept coming up against was that they would create their battery and, on paper, it would produce exactly what GM was looking for. But, when they applied the voltage to it, the whole atomic structure would change—it would transmogrify into something completely different. What it changed into was not acceptable for car batteries—it was not stable. That kind of challenge you would never run up against in a silicon chip.

Also see

About

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

Editor's Picks