Range Doubling Claim Could Be Hype Before i3 Launch.
But Who’d Buy Electric Now If Range Will Be Outclassed In Five Years?
German luxury car manufacturer BMW stunned this reporter a couple of weeks ago in Paris by saying electric cars will have batteries with twice the current power within four to five years, which will double the range.
BMW has its supporters, but that claim was met with some scepticism by experts who see a much slower pace of progress. Others say the drive to produce a battery-only vehicle which competes head on with traditional engines is doomed and will only succeed if electric cars are designed with less weight, shorter range and more modest utility ambitions. Charging technology needs to leap forward too.
Not content with this doubling claim driven by new lithium air technology, BMW also said soon after that development, technology will be available to eventually achieve up to 10 times that performance. BMW is about to launch the i3 lithium-ion battery-electric car. BMW board member Ian Robertson added at a conference in Paris that in the next three to four years there will be more progress in battery development than in the previous 100 years.
Given that the current range of battery-electric cars like Nissan of Japan’s Leaf is currently only about 75 miles on a good day and it costs about twice as much as a similar sized conventional car, sales prospects of these cars have been cut back sharply from initial claims. Nissan affiliate Renault of France has been scaling down its early prediction that global electric car sales will reach 10 per cent of all world sales by 2020. Consultancy LMC Automotive recently said battery-only vehicle sales will reach a paltry three per cent by 2025, as buyers are still put off by range anxiety, high prices, uncertain battery life, and inconvenient, time-consuming and potentially dangerous recharging.
If BMW’s claims that new lithium air battery techniques will raise performance drastically are right, that would throw up in the air lots of these negative assumptions, and quickly lead to a world where battery electric cars were ubiquitous, rather than talking points and eye-brow raisers. Some experts believe that there will be a slow but steady improvement in battery performance, but not at the pace suggested by BMW.
Peter Fuss, a partner at the Ernst & Young consultancy’s Global Automotive Center in Frankfurt, Germany, agrees with BMW. He believes lithium air batteries will be available soon, but the timing is uncertain and could be as early as three years, or maybe up to seven years from now.
“I generally agree with BMW’s statement. Whether the (lithium air) improvement of performance is 2, 5 or 10 times is also very difficult to predict. However, based on my discussions (with engineers and universities) I always hear the quote ‘the improvement of performance thru lithium air technology will be significant’ – this will be more than just double the performance,” Fuss said.
Fuss said costs forecasts are also uncertain, although economies of scale will help. Fleet sales, rather than private ones, will also lead the drive to cut costs, because of the higher use rate.
Al Bedwell, analyst with LMC Automotive in Oxford, England, is sceptical.
“I’d say that there is a long way to go before lithium-air batteries are fully commercialised. ZN-Air, Li-sulphur and Li-Air are all promising technologies that can make a radical difference to BEV (battery electric vehicle) range but not for a while. The consensus as I understand it is that we are looking at 2020 to 2025 before these new chemistries appear at an affordable cost. In the meantime we are pretty much stuck with L-ion at best, along with the limitations that it imposes,” Bedwell said.
Frost & Sullivan analyst Nicolas Meilhan believes the kind of progress expected by BMW is more likely to take until 2030 for lithium air batteries, not four to five years. Moves to design electric cars which match the performance of conventional ones aren’t promising.
“Cars today have at least 500 kilometres (312 miles) of autonomy and take less than five minutes to recharge. If you try get the same performance from an electric car at the same cost, that’s mission impossible whatever the battery technology,” Paris-based Meilhan said.
Meilhan said saving weight is the key.
“Cutting the weight of the car in half means a similar cut in the power needs of the battery. If you halve the weight you could have a smaller battery which will take between two or three hours to charge,” he said.
Adding a small range-extending internal combustion motor would raise the range to an acceptable level.
Meilhan said BMW’s i3 design, which uses carbon fibre to save weight, is not the way to go because it is too expensive and won’t have a significant impact on the need to make more fuel efficient cars for global markets.
“BMW is about to launch the i3 and is being very optimistic about the future of electric cars. Renault had the same idea and isn’t selling many of its electric cars. The i3 will have a limited impact. BMW will sell its cars but only to rich buyers. It is a niche car and not what we are looking for, neither the solution to the global problems we face: climate change, fossil fuel depletion and pollution,” Meilhan said.
Phil Gott, IHS Automotive analyst in Lexington, Massachusetts, is not sure BMW’s projections will happen quite as fast as it says, although he has a lot of long-term optimism about battery development. Recharging problems are a big obstacle.
“Batteries are not the limiting factor, but the amount of energy you can suck out of the socket in the wall. As things stand you’re not going to do away with long recharging times. Wireless charging and recharging times need to be addressed,” Gott said.
Currently it takes about an hour to add 20 to 25 miles of range. Plans to increase the pace of recharging raise the possibility of 440 volts being handled by consumers, the safety consequences of which he finds alarming.
Gott points out that another factor which will influence the success of electric cars is the likelihood of changing life styles. As more people live in cities, and cars become more expensive, heavily regulated, and distances driven fall, car sharing will increase.
“If you’re not going to drive very far or often and return to a designated spot in a city, that is the perfect case for electric cars,” Gott said.
Thilo Koslowski, analyst with Gartner in San Jose, California, thought it was odd that BMW would make such ambitious predictions while it was launching the i3 because potential buyers would be offered a vehicle that would be outdated in four years time.
“They will be buying a car that will be outdated in four years and have no value because new models will have twice the capacity. Four years; that’s a typical leasing time for an automobile. What will it be worth after four years if the battery is only 80 or 90 per cent of its original capacity and there’s a new one out there giving 100 per cent more?,” Koslowski said.
Koslowski agreed with IHS’s Gott that other issues needed to be solved too.
“Capacity is only one aspect. Recharging time, longevity and ultimately cost saving is what the consumer is looking for. Hours to recharge versus minutes at the gas station, that’s a big obstacle for a lot of customers,” he said.
“Lithium air has big potential but it’s too early to say how they will last and what the technical limitations, like overheating in the (Boeing) Dreamliner (airliner) are . There’s all these unknowns and a question mark over longevity. If BMW is right, that would mean range would come closer to what consumers are expecting – up to 200 miles – that would bring much more peace of mind, but still doesn’t address cost, charging, longevity,” Koslowski said.