A majority of Americans are skeptical about battery electric cars, worrying about range, charge times and, perhaps most of all, the replacement cost for depleted battery packs. The battery problem looms large, not least because today's EVs have a range of only about 100 miles, and four- to eight-hour recharge times on 240-volt electricity. The packs cost $10,000 to $20,000, and just how long will those batteries last?
Unfortunately, there's no clear answer to all this, largely because modern battery packs haven't yet undergone years of service. Nissan, maker of the Leaf, says there's no reason to think its packs will give out before 150,000 miles. It predicts they'll have 80 percent of their service life left after five years, and 70 percent after 10. And it offers a kicker — maybe you won't have to replace the whole pack — just drop in a few new cells or cell modules and you'll be ready to go again.
Individual cells could go bad because of chemical impurities, or because of their placement in the car, next to a heat or vibration source. But John O'Dell of Edmunds.com says that battery cells are likely to wear fairly evenly, and when the pack gets to the point of accepting only 80 percent of charge, it's probably ready to be retired.
Batteries will get better and cheaper as the research ongoing across the industry bears fruit. That's already happening at the financially troubled market leader A123, whose Jeff Kessen, director of global marketing for the Automotive Solutions Group, told me that it's just had a breakthrough that should make battery cars cheaper.
An Achilles heel of battery packs is their performance in extreme hot and cold weather, but A123 has made advances in temperature resilience. "We don't have to treat batteries as carefully in temperature extremes as with previous versions of the technology," Kessen told me. "The science of lithium-ion now allows batteries with no loss of performance across the full weather spectrum."
An improvement in what's known as cold cranking (the ability to produce electricity at, say, minus 20 degrees) has another great application, says Kessen. We've only begun to see micro hybrids in the U.S., although they are all over the road in Europe. Micros are regular cars with large batteries that shut the engine off at stoplights (as hybrids like the Prius do). The advantage is five percent better fuel economy at an added cost of only about $300.
Cold start problems mean that micro-hybrids mostly have lead-acid batteries, but A123's new cells should work very well in that application.
Finally, I asked Kessen if we're likely to see the 500-mile-range EV battery anytime soon. "Everything has to be proven," he says. "So we can expect noteworthy progress, but not in the enormous chunks that sometimes makes the headlines."