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For Automakers, Better Batteries Crucial to Success of New Electric Cars

January 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the second of two reports on the future of electric cars, Paul Solman looks at efforts to make the vehicles more viable -- and financially successful for automakers -- by building better batteries and making them more aerodynamic. It's all part of his ongoing reporting on Making Sen$e of financial news.

MARGARET WARNER: Next: the future of the electric car and a crucial question: If you build a better battery, will drivers follow?

The NewsHour’s economics correspondent, Paul Solman, examines that question in the second of two stories about the future of the automotive industry.

It’s all part of his continuing reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

NINA TORTOSA, General Motors Engineer: So, I’m going to bring this on over here.

PAUL SOLMAN: GM Engineer Nina Tortosa.

Do you do any magic shows in here?


PAUL SOLMAN: At long last, perhaps, an illusion becomes reality.

After more than a century of false starts, the electric car may finally be here to stay, the Chevy Volt, whose battery lasts 35 miles, after which a gasoline engine kicks in. It’s been racking up car of the year awards in the United States.

The all-electric Nissan Leaf, just named car of the year in Europe, is about to hit the showrooms. Toyota and Honda have plug-ins on tap. And Ford has a bevy of electrified vehicles ready to roll, which it showed off at a recent auto show in Detroit.

So, will electrics again compete, as they did at the dawn of the automobile era, when they outnumbered gasoline-powered cars? Or will the key component of electrics, the battery, remain discouragingly expensive? Will gasoline prove too tough a rival, that is, as it has since the advent of cheap Texas oil more than a century ago?

MICKY BLY, General Motors Electrical and Battery Engineering: And what showed up in that same time frame was the combustion engine.

GM engineer Micky Bly:

MICKY BLY: It had longer range, higher energy, and that really started to dominate for the next 110 years.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, it just turned out that gasoline was so inexpensive because you could just draw it right out of the ground, didn’t take much to refine it, and that could propel a car just more cheaply than either electricity or steam?

MICKY BLY: Absolutely. The — the energy density in a gallon of fuel is something that is almost 10, 15 times more powerful than what you can store — store in a battery.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, the question today is the same as in 1908, when the gasoline-powered Model T Ford stormed the market: Can a battery-powered electric, however much cleaner and quieter, compete in price and range?

GM and others are betting that the better battery, discouraged for a century by cheap oil and carbon complacency, will finally evolve, now that oil’s price and Earth’s temperature are both so noticeably aloft.

MICKY BLY: This is from the EV1, where we started 15 years ago. You can see the size, the width of this battery pack. Look at the Chevrolet Volt. This has the same amount of energy now in a unit this size. So, it really talks about the evolution of the technology going from there to here.

PAUL SOLMAN: There was the mid-1990s and the EV1 electric. I drove a prototype for a NewsHour story back in 1993.

So, but this is just a little car. It doesn’t move, though.

MAN: Oh, it will.

PAUL SOLMAN: Wait a second. My goodness. Whoa! Whoa!

I have to admit, I didn’t think it was going to take 20 years before I was back to riding in a — or looking at — an electric car.

MICKY BLY: Well, you know, we had it out there for a couple of years. We realized from a cost point of view and from a technology point of view it really wasn’t ready for the marketplace.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s one explanation.

However, a popular documentary of a few years ago, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, took a somewhat dimmer view.

MARTIN SHEEN, narrator: On March 15, 2005, the last EV1 in the Burbank lot were taken away and destroyed.

PAUL SOLMAN: Filmmaker Chris Paine charged that GM’s EV1 electric didn’t die a natural death; it was murdered, “Orient Express”-style, by a combination of culprits, each taking a stab: the oil industry, for obvious reasons, the auto industry.

RALPH NADER, former presidential Candidate: They make too much money with their technological stagnation and the internal combustion.

PAUL SOLMAN: The federal government even a hand in it.

MARTIN SHEEN: As it gave enormous incentives to buy SUVs, the federal government also sued California to stop the electric car.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, of course, the rest of us — spoiled American consumers.

WOMAN: Like, I don’t know if they’re big enough, if they’re going to be strong and big and dependable.

MAN: I have to know where I can go to like recharge it or how to — what do I got to do for the battery?

PAUL SOLMAN: Feel at all funny about the fact that there’s this movie out there that is suggesting, showing that General Motors originally killed the electric car?

TERI QUIGLEY, General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center: I don’t know if I feel funny about who killed the electric car.

PAUL SOLMAN: Teri Quigley runs the Chevy Volt plant north of Detroit.

TERI QUIGLEY: And you can build them. And they have got to come, right? We have got to be able to sell the cars.

PAUL SOLMAN: You have also got to have plug-in stations nationwide, consumer confidence, maybe government incentives, which we have at the moment. Tough fuel economy standards? A carbon tax? But, again, the key is a cost-competitive battery. The Volt’s battery still costs some $8,000, according to GM insiders.

TERI QUIGLEY: Remember, with any new technology, the price point is always high, right? What was the size of the first cell phone you ever saw, huh? What was the size of the calculator? How much did it cost you?

PAUL SOLMAN: But the battery hasn’t made that kind of progress. And some people say that the battery, it basically came down to a point, with regard to its cost and its efficiency, and it’s kind of leveled off for decades. And there really isn’t much more you can get out of a battery than, say, 35 miles before you have to recharge.

TERI QUIGLEY: Were they working on it when it flattened out? Was there a need? Was there a demand? I will tell you, now that there’s a demand, and all kind of unique opportunities that this new technology presents, really smart people are going to be working on that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Indeed, the Volt is based on a third generation of battery technology, lithium ion cells.

MICKY BLY: Inside the Volt, there’s 288 of these stacked together, tied together with electronics and wired together, so we can monitor them.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, that’s 15 years ago. This is 10 years ago. This is now. Ten years from now, or seven years from now, what it’s going to look like? It would be a little thing, or no?

MICKY BLY: Well, that’s the real debate, of, will you go smaller for the same amount of energy, or do you go the same size with twice the amount of energy?

PAUL SOLMAN: Or do you make no real progress at all?

Not to worry, says Micky Bly.

MICKY BLY: Solid-state batteries is what we see as that next major breakthrough, with maybe 2X the energy density within a cell, two times.

PAUL SOLMAN: And 2X is two times, so then we would be twice as efficient, or the battery could be half the size.

MICKY BLY: Half the size or go twice the range. Today, we’re 25 to 50 miles on a charge.


MICKY BLY: You could double that between 50 and maybe even 100 miles.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, before too long, even hydrogen-powered battery cars may become a reality, like the one I drove on the NewsHour just five years ago.

But, on the other hand, says Sherif Marakby, amidst Ford’s electric fleet at the annual Detroit Auto Show, while batteries are becoming more efficient so too are gasoline engines.

SHERIF MARAKBY, Ford: We have improved the fuel economy 30 percent over the last five years. So the E.V.s are competing with a moving target, if you will.

PAUL SOLMAN: But competing, they seem to be, the range of the electric car extending day by day, bit by bit.

NINA TORTOSA: One of the first things we did to reduce drag was to close up the grill.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is GM’s wind tunnel in Warren, Michigan.

NINA TORTOSA: That smoke is going over that grill.

PAUL SOLMAN: Normally, it would have been going right in there…


PAUL SOLMAN: … putting the drag on the car.


PAUL SOLMAN: How much does that change in the grill save you?

NINA TORTOSA: The change in the grill saves us a third of a mile…

PAUL SOLMAN: In terms of the range of the car?

NINA TORTOSA: Or range, of total range on the battery.

PAUL SOLMAN: Every aerodynamic tweak matters when it comes to getting more miles out of a single battery charge — the dangling rubber air dam.

NINA TORTOSA: As we come around the corner — the corner of the vehicle here, you will see that it starts deflecting the air around the — the wheels.

PAUL SOLMAN: Oh. Oh, that’s cool.


PAUL SOLMAN: The sleek side mirror mount.

NINA TORTOSA: We did a stock-mounted mirror, instead of a patch-mounted mirror to separate the mirror further from the side glass, helping to reduce the drag.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, finally, reducing the semi-vacuum that forms just in back of the car and tugs on it from behind.

NINA TORTOSA: We have a .5-millimeter kick-up on the spoiler.

PAUL SOLMAN: When you say a .5-millimeter kick-up, you mean this little thing?

NINA TORTOSA: Yes, that little thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s worth what?

NINA TORTOSA: About a fifth-of-a-mile or so.

PAUL SOLMAN: A fifth-of-a-mile…


PAUL SOLMAN: … just by…

NINA TORTOSA: Yes, by kicking it up.

PAUL SOLMAN: A fifth-of-a-mile here, a third there, a full mile from the air dam. Tortosa and team managed to extend the range of the battery 25 percent, from 28 miles in the prototype to 35 miles now.

NINA TORTOSA: And one of the things about aerodynamics is it — it’s kind of free fuel economy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Free fuel economy for any kind of car in a developing world, where gasoline automobiles are proliferating as never before.

If battery technology can continue to progress, perhaps the world can handle the onslaught. But, in any case, we may be about to discover how far the electric car can actually go.