The electric car’s day has come thanks to battery technology

OPINION: The 2006 documentary film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” presented a fairly depressing account of why electric vehicles are rarely seen on our roads.

The message was that we could have them, but big business didn’t want us to have them. General Motors had developed an electric vehicle, the EV-1, which customers drove on a lease agreement, and absolutely loved, until GM took them all back and unceremoniously crushed them.

Something has changed since that documentary was produced. Now it seems like big business does want us to have electric vehicles. GM would love to sell you one today, if you were in the United States, and there is no shortage of options for those of us in New Zealand. BMW have a very BMW-like electric car, with Nissan and others looking after more budget conscious drivers.

However, the reason for the change falls short of a fascinating tale of intrigue involving globalist powers living high on oil riches. There is money involved, but at the root of it all are, rather anticlimactically, science nerds developing battery chemistry, and engineering nerds building factories to produce what the scientists come up with.

The fact is that there has only ever been one problem with electric vehicles: the batteries. It turns out, thanks to nature, that storing lots of electrical energy in a small volume that doesn’t weigh a huge amount, is very difficult. On the flip side of this we have oil which, thanks to nature, it turns out is really very easy to do the same with. Early on we sensibly went all in for the oil option, because it was there, big companies could sell product and make money, and consumers were happy.

The rate of battery development was no doubt hurt by our love of oil, but it didn’t stop. In fact, there was an unexpected saviour of the electric car, which began its heroic march in the 1990s, in the form of an army of laptops and mobile phones.

As we realised the pleasures of writing emails or directing some buy-sell stock deals while sitting on the beach, our demand for mobile electronics exploded. Money flowed in huge amounts as a result, with research and development budgets swelling accordingly.

Battery life, size, weight and cost were and still are one of the key challenges for producers of mobile electronics, so naturally that has been a key area for development. Billions of dollars have been tipped into improving these measures of performance. Mobile electronic device batteries have come along in leaps and bounds, although perhaps appearing less so due to our ever greater demand for device performance and features.

All of the attributes of a good mobile device battery are also good for an electric vehicle. The link is so direct that a standard form of battery cell, technically known as the “18650”, of which there are thousands in every Tesla car, is commonly known in tech circles as the “laptop cell”.

Things started to look up for the electric car then. Big car companies have always been painfully aware that batteries are the only thing holding them back. As the performance of batteries improved, particularly as breakthroughs such as Lithium-ion technology happened, their interest grew in proportion.

Government pressure and support helped, fuelled by societal concerns over carbon emissions and global warming from the burning of fossil fuels. Small start-ups, such as Tesla, who can afford to take a risk, leapt in and successfully took advantage of the rapidly improving state of battery technology.

So what about the General Motors EV-1? It was already there ten years ago, and many consumers loved it. Well it was there, but it wasn’t really. It was a mirage. What the consumers didn’t notice, or hadn’t yet found, was that the true cost of manufacturing the battery in their car was much more than they would ever be willing to pay for the whole car.

It gets much worse though, as although the batteries gave acceptable performance for a city car, they wouldn’t keep on doing that over time. The batteries were wearing out quickly, and the cost of replacement units had GM accountants in a cold sweat. Many of the cars actually did have their batteries replaced with a “new generation” of technology (for the time), but this was only making something bad into something slightly less bad.

Now we are in a good position with electric cars, and the snowball is well and truly rolling. The electric vehicle products we see on the market now, from nearly all the major auto makers, are very good. Their performance is brilliant. They are lovely to drive. They will keep working for a long time. The companies producing them have accountants who sleep well.

Maybe your next car won’t be electric though, and don’t expect petrol and diesel cars to disappear any time soon. Battery technology is still not at a level where it can compete with fossil fuels with regard to energy density and cost per unit of energy stored, but in many cases it doesn’t need to.

Just ask a BMW i3 or a Nissan Leaf driver. Technology and big business have met at a point that is making them happy, and all indications are that it will do so for many more of us in the coming years.

Disclaimer: Bruce Robertson owns two 500hp petrol-burning cars, rides a bicycle every day, and teaches electric vehicle engineering at the University of Canterbury. He is also the faculty advisor to the award-winning UC Eco-marathon and UC Motorsport teams.