Trucks at Work

It’s all about the batteries …

Significant reductions in battery cost are imperative for the electric vehicle industry to grow.” –Pike Research

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It’s no secret that some of the major impediments facing the electric vehicle (EV) industry – with range and sticker price among them – all largely devolve from the limitations imposed by today’s battery technology.

For starters, batteries are incredibly expensive – especially the lithium-ion types now being favored by automakers – and they are going to remain pricey for some time as a variety of companies continue seeking ways to boost battery power density while reducing weight simultaneously.

That means, for the foreseeable future, battery technology development is going to remain locked in the research and development stage – not a stage that makes EV pricing attractive to everyday motorists.

Honda is the latest automaker activating yet another real-world testing effort aimed at finding ways to cut the “Gordian Knot” current battery technology imposes on EVs. The company just provided several 2013 model Fit EV compact sedans to Google, the city of Torrance, CA, and Stanford University as a part of Honda's electric vehicle demonstration program – the first recipients of Fit EV models in the U.S.

The goal of this latest EV project is to better understand the challenges and opportunities associated with the advancement in battery-electric technology, explained Steve Center, vice president of the environmental business development office at Honda’s U.S. division.

Debuted at the Los Angeles Auto show last year, the 2013 Fit EV is designed to travel of maximum of 123 city-miles per charge, but can only truly a range of 76 miles in combined city and highway driving.

Honda has been collaborating with Stanford University professors, researchers and students from several departments to try and find ways to not only boost battery power (and thus range) from its EVs, but also study the “psychological and physical reactions” to using battery-only EVs and how these reactions differ when driving a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle.

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The point of this research is to finds ways to decrease the “anxiety” associated with new technology, Honda explained, while also increasing joy in the EV driving experience. Ultimately, the Stanford research should help Honda to better understand customer acceptance of battery-only EVs and how to overcome physiological obstacles associated with the adoption of new technologies, it said.

That’s where Google comes in, as it will use the Fit EV as a part of its “G-Fleet,” an employee car-sharing service, offering Honda an opportunity to analyze vehicle usage including carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction, energy consumption on a miles/kilowatt-hour (kWh) basis and overall energy cost.

The Fit EV is slated to become commercially available in select California and Oregon markets during the summer of 2012 with a roll out to east coast markets planned for the spring of 2013. Equipped with a 20-kWh lithium-ion battery and 92- kW coaxial electric motor, the Fit EV battery can be fully recharged in as little as three hours when connected to a 240-volt circuit, Honda said.

Yet in the end it may very well be the battery that makes or breaks the EV in the real world. According to a recent report by Pike Research, lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries are becoming the most popular for EV units, though there are currently more than half a dozen battery chemistries with unique properties for power, energy density, and life cycle performance being commercialized at the moment.

While there is no chemistry that emerges as the clear winner (owing to the tradeoffs in the various properties), initial indications point to a greater interest in the lithium iron phosphate chemistry in the years to come due to its superior performance characteristics coupled with increased safety.

Yet while the cost of Li-ion batteries is gradually declining, it still represents a significant hurdle as it accounts for a large portion of total EV cost – and significant reductions in battery cost are imperative for the industry to reach the $14.6 billion market Pike forecasts by 2017.

Nearly half of the demand for EVs, by the way, is likely to come from Asia (led primarily by China) while Europe and the U.S. are likely to constitute 25% and 21% shares respectively, said Pike.

If the battery issues can be solved successfully, EVs might increase in popularity. We’ll have to see if that’s what happens.

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