I work in Berkeley, CA, the tree-hugging, vegan-eating, Toyota Prius-driving, environmental sensitivity capital of the world. I live in Fremont, CA. This means I must drive 35 miles each way to work. Yes, you read that correctly—I drive 35 miles each way.
Every time I hear about a plug-in electric hybrid vehicle (PHEV) capable of providing 40 miles of driving on its battery before the combustion engine kicks in, I salivate at the prospect of not having to apologize to all the classic “Berkeley-types” for my gas-guzzling lifestyle. So, am I going to be first in line buying a Chevy Volt? I don’t think so and here’s why: it will be expensive!
Other thing you learn when you are around Berkeley a lot is that nearly everyone has seen the documentary “Who killed the electric car?” and believes that Detroit can easily make cheap PHEVs, but they don’t want to because of [insert favorite conspiracy here]. I shall steer clear from any such controversy and stick to some numbers for costs of batteries, and leave you to come to your own conclusions. (I shall conveniently sidestep the fact that battery costs themselves are controversial!)
Most people agree that for transportation applications, Lithium-ion batteries are the best option (more on this in a later post). Laptop Li-ion batteries cost ~$200 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), the most common measure of battery performance. This is for a single battery cell. We have to take a bunch of these cells to make a vehicle battery pack. Estimates suggest that the pack costs will be ~$450/kWh. Remember, these are laptop batteries, and if your laptop is anything like mine, this battery will last two years or less! But, let’s be optimistic and say that a PHEV battery will last four years.
To drive 40 miles on the battery pack, you need 16 kWh (give or take). This means you have to buy a battery pack for the car costing about $7,200 (16 times 450). And you still need to buy the engine, brakes, steering, seats…you get the point. And every four years, at least, you will be visiting the dealership, waiting to change the battery and shelling out another $7,200. I wonder how many Berkeley-types will be willing, or able, to do this.
Now, the batteries that General Motors will use will be much better than laptop batteries and will last a lot longer. But this also means that they will cost more. Now we start to delve into the unknown, but experts say that batteries capable of meeting the long-life requirement cost ~$1,000/kWh today. Given that, the same 40-mile battery will cost a whopping $16,000! Add on the cost of the car (~$25,000) and you get a ~$40,000 PHEV. News reports suggest that, indeed, GM is planning of a $40,000 launch for the Volt (note that government subsidies will get this cost down a bit, atleast for the early adopters). There is no way I can afford a $40,000 car with my LBL job (I will try this argument on my performance appraisal and see if I can get a pay hike). So no Volt for me.
But here is the optimistic part. Experts also think that with mass manufacturing, it will be possible to reduce the costs of these long-life batteries to be on par with laptop batteries. Which means that we can expect to see the costs coming down to, say $8,000 per PHEV pack in the future. This would lower the cost of the car to about $33,000—still expensive, but closer to what I would be willing to pay. And remember that these cars will cost less to run (electricity is cheaper than gas) and, hopefully, cheaper to maintain (less wear and tear).
But to really have a big impact, especially in getting widespread penetration in countries with large emerging economies such as India, these costs have to come down significantly, maybe by as much as a factor of two or more. And if we want to ever get to a pure electric vehicle, we will need a lot more energy (55 kWh instead of 16 kWh) and these costs have to come way down for these cars to be widely affordable. Fundamental research into battery energy, safety, and lifetimes are the only way we are going to achieve this. More on this in future posts.
What does this all mean? There is a PHEV in my future. What I don’t know is how far in the future! In the mean time, I will continue to come up with new excuses for why I need to drive, and not take pubic transportation or move. If you have any smart suggestions, let me know.