Electrically Flaccid

flush According to the corporate media, the Obama administration, and the usual crowd of half-informed conspiracy theorists and technophiles, “plug-in” electric cars are both possible and almost here as a viable automotive fleet-replacement technology.

Alas, the laws of physics, which enforce a rather strict connection between an object’s mass and the amount of energy it takes to move it, seem to continue to govern the universe, despite fervent contrary wishes.

Introduced as a concept car in early 2007, the ballyhooed Chevy Volt, to name one telling example, remains a mere industrial experiment.

And, meanwhile, here are the findings of a January 7 research report from the Boston Consulting Group:

DETROIT, January 7, 2010—Although electric-car battery costs are expected to fall sharply over the coming decade, they are unlikely to drop enough to spark widespread adoption of  fully electric vehicles without a major breakthrough in battery technology, according to a new study by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

The study, released today, concludes that the long-term cost target used by many carmakers in planning their future fleets of electric cars—$250 per kilowatt-hour (kWh)—is unlikely to be achieved unless there is a major breakthrough in battery chemistry that substantially increases the energy a battery can store without signifi-cantly increasing the cost of either battery materials or the manufacturing process.

“Given current technology options, we see substantial challenges to achieving this goal by 2020,” said Xavier Mosquet, Detroit-based leader of BCG’s global automotive practice and a coauthor of the study. “For years, people have been saying that one of the keys to reducing our dependency on fossil fuels is the electrification of the vehicle fleet. The reality is, electric-car batteries are both too expensive and too technologically limited for this to happen in the foreseeable future.”

Most electric cars in the new decade will use lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter and more powerful than the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries used today in hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Citing the current cost of similar lithium-ion batteries used in consumer electronics (about $250 to $400 per kWh), many original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) hope that the cost of an automotive lithium-ion battery pack will fall from its current price of between $1,000 and 1,200 per kWh to between $250 and $500 per kWh at scaled production. BCG, however, points out that consumer batteries are simpler than car batteries and must meet significantly less demanding requirements, especially regarding safety and life span. So actual battery costs will likely be higher than what carmakers predict.

Interestingly, these facts are almost certainly well-known to the overseers of the remaining auto corporations.  For instance, the fresh-faced change agent Ed Whitacre, GM’s “new” CEO, seems appropriately jaded:  “I know we have to have an electric car.” Hardly the statement of somebody about to unleash a new epoch-making invention!

Also of note is the corporate media’s predictable mis-reporting of the source of “the challenge” underlying the electric car conversion fantasy.  In The Washington Post‘s telling, a reporter with the Dickensianly perfect name of Peter Whoriskey would have it this way:

But overshadowing prospects for the transition of the vast U.S. auto fleet to electric — and the billions of dollars the automakers have invested in the switch — is the question of whether anyone beyond a sliver of enthusiasts will soon embrace the newfangled cars, which force drivers to rethink their habits and expectations of convenience.

This, of course, fits the standard ideology, in which automobiles come from Joe Sixpack and Joe Sixpack only, no capitalists involved — so all problems return to the humble Sixpack doorstep, not the needs and dictates of the corporate overclass.

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