The future of EVs is solid — as in solid-state batteries

Volkswagen will introduce the VW ID.4 this year, a fully electric compact SUV for about $40,000. It relies on a modular electric toolkit that will be shared across other models. (Volkswagen)

 

The pandemic has taken a toll on buyer interest in electric vehicles (EVs), but carmakers are releasing more EV models in 2021 and clean air initiatives are back in style under the Biden administration.

General Motors’ announcement last week to move to EV-only in 2035 and California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s initiative last fall to ban new gasoline-powered vehicles in the Golden State that same year shows the level of will and desire has moved toward EVs as well.

But really, will such moves matter?

“No amount of commitments and edicts will make people consider EVs over internal combustion engines until the EV is more affordable for a wider variety of users,” said Matt DeLorenzo, a long-time observer of car trends and senior managing editor at Kelley Blue Book. In a recent article, he described new EV models emerging in 2021.

Behind that affordability question is the cost of the EV battery and its range. And those factors depend on research into how the battery is engineered.

“Sure, we need a better recharging infrastructure” like 500,000 charging stations nationwide suggested by President Joe Biden, DeLorenzo said in an interview with Fierce Electronics. “Still, the big breakthrough to watch is the solid-state battery.”

With solid-state, there is no liquid electrolyte, which makes it safer and should improve its energy density to allow quicker charges and increased range, he added. There is even the potential for eliminating expensive thermal management systems seen today. 

“Solid state is the big breakthrough to put EV on parallel with internal combustion,” DeLorenzo added. “That’s the breakthrough I’m looking for…It’s kind of like the silver bullet.”

That breakthrough would put every EV carmaker on an equal footing, he said. Right now, Tesla with its thermal management and electronic control systems holds an advantage.

Toyota and Volkswagen are focused heavily on solid state engineering. Toyota has announced plans to have a solid-state battery in a running prototype in 2021 and in production vehicles by 2025.  Volkswagen has a partnership with QuantumScape in California, which has announced test results for a solid-state cell.

Samsung also has developed a solid-state battery using silver-carbon instead of lithium, while Ford and BMW are working with Colorado-based Solid Power. Mercedes-Benz is working with Hydro-Quebec in Canada.

Today, the biggest single inhibitor to sales of EVs is the initial price, which runs from $5,000 to $7,000 more than a gas-powered vehicle, DeLorenzo said.  Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, customers must figure out how to charge the vehicle and where to charge it. For apartment dwellers, it is difficult to arrange for charging inside the garage or parking area.  

“If you are trying to buy a family car, you can still get a lot of gas for $7,000,” he said. “If you don’t own a house or can’t recharge at home, that reduces interest.”

  Kelley Blue Book says the average transaction price for a new EV is $39,000, which has come down in recent years. Most models are luxury class so far, but there are some sub-compacts on the market for $15,000 to $20,000, mainly outside the U.S.Only 2 % of all sales go to EVs right now, although EVs are making steady inroads.

DeLorenzo drives a hybrid, the Hyundai Ioniq, which can be charged with a 110-volt outlet overnight. If he needs it for long-range trip, he can head to a gas station.

“I think GM is making a mistake by dropping the hybrid and only building electric,” he said. “There will always be a role for hybrid.”

In the future, he prefers an approach that allows buyers to “buy the power train that fits your needs…from pure EV to gas to hydrogen fuel cell and hybrid…I just don’t see an all-EV fleet.”

DeLorenzo said Wall Street and some investors are putting forward “a lot of pr posturing” about EV. “The reality is they are ignoring market forces. A lot of intractable problems need to be solved before we eliminate gas-powered entirely.”

Having said all that, DeLorenzo wouldn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea. He loves what is happening to  competition and what that means for buyers and investors.

“We’re seeing competitors like never before including companies that never made cars,” such as Rivian, he said.

“When EVs came out, auto manufacturers were in a defensive position but now it’s the first time in 100 years where there is new tech. The barriers are lowered to get into the auto industry, compared to the last 30 years when we saw car brands going away.”

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