October 13, 2010

Will the Car of the Future Be Electric?

Michael Kanellos

They are clean, fast and exciting. But will electric cars sell in large numbers?

Nissan, General Motors, Ford and a host of start-ups like Tesla Motors, BYD and Fisker Automotive have placed a multibillion dollar bet that a growing number of consumers want to buy cars that run wholly or in part on batteries instead of gas. If it works, electric cars could literally rewrite the political and economic destinies of nations. The marketing onslaught and excitement will hit a fever pitch by the end of the year.

The challenges? Batteries are expensive, electric cars can’t go nearly as far on a charge as they can on a tankful of liquid fuel and recharging a car can take hours, far longer than the ten minutes it takes to fill up now. Batteries evolve slowly. They are finicky canisters of chemicals that function as an organic whole. It takes roughly ten years for batteries to double in performance, according to J.B. Straubel at Tesla. Computer chips can do that in little under two years.

Electric cars sold well in the 1910s and 1920s, but faded out as gas prices declined. In the early 90s, manufacturers hailed a new line of electric cars, but struggled with ways to get the price down. Toyota succeeded when it switched to hybrids.

Circumstances have changed, say proponents. Battery prices have plummeted to $400 a kilowatt hour, or 60 percent less than they were in early 2007, and new chemistries like zinc air and lithium air will increase ranges and cut costs. While batteries may never see Moore’s Law-like rates of improvement, mass manufacturing and more activity in research and development may lead to a Moore’s Lite.

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