Five Lessons from the Big EV Rollout

By · June 26, 2011

Electric cars have moved beyond the future technology stage and are on the market now, which means we can learn some useful lessons from the early sales experience. This is the way it looks now, based on limited and preliminary evidence—the next time I write something like this it could be very different.

Think City

Think declared bankruptcy for a fourth time earlier this week.

There will be shakeout. Obviously, not all the startup EV companies are going to make it. Aptera (which hoped to go wide with its fanciful three-wheeled 2e) is a probable casualty, and the Norwegian EV company Think—a veteran in this space, founded in 1991—declared bankruptcy (for the fourth time) earlier this week. Think fell apart, this time, because, after expanding to the U.S. and opening a plant in Indiana, it lacked a plausible business plan. A strategy based on selling its overpriced $40,000 two-seat cars to large corporate and government fleets (who could buy the Chevrolet Volt or Nissan LEAF for the same money) was wish-fulfillment at best. Survivors need to rethink their pricing plans and marketing strategy—what will make people want to buy our cars? Hoping for the best isn’t a viable option.

The early buyers are there. The supply of EVs is still limited by production constraints, regional availability and parts shortages resulting from the Japanese earthquake. You can’t—yet—look at sales numbers as meaning very much, because the cars are still in short supply, and far outnumbered by the eager early adopters who want them, It won’t take long for the companies to run through the advance order lists, though, and they’d better be ready with mass-marketing plans. The Smart experience is instructive here. According to Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche, the company was so taken aback by the flood of early orders for the Fortwo that it did little more than process reservations. When they ran through the pile, it was “What do we do now?” time.

Cold weather is a problem. Both the LEAF and Volt suffer in the winter, because the electric heater is a big draw—far bigger than air conditioning, for example. East coast buyers report 25 to 30 miles of range in the Volt, 65 to 70 in the LEAF, while their west coast counterparts are seeing 50 and at least 100, respectively. Until EVs either have better heaters or more robust batteries, this phenomenon is going to limit EV penetration in places with cold winters. This is one of several reasons I think California will have 50 percent or more of the early EV volume.

EV companies need reliable charging partners. Companies that sign “turnkey” deals that promise to simplify the whole process of buying, installing and obtaining permits for home-based chargers will have grateful customers. That’s why a number of companies have gravitated to experienced players like AeroVironment, and it’s why Fisker Automotive announced a deal with EV Connect this week. Fisker, which plans to roll out the Karma in July and August, doesn’t need to know the subtleties of hiring electricians in New York and Los Angeles, but its partner definitely does. EV Connect is only two years old, but its headed by executives with deep roots going back to charging the GM EV1.

It’s all about the batteries. That’s not a new lesson, of course, but it’s increasingly clear that battery tech rules in this space. That’s why Tesla Motors has forged partnerships with (and could be acquired by) Toyota and Daimler. It knows more about batteries than either one of them, and it’s able to deliver more range. I’m still impressed that the Tesla Model S will roll out of the gate with 300-mile batteries. Those packs weren’t due until a year after the car was out. Sure, the packs are undoubtedly huge (95 kilowatt-hours, anybody?) and expensive, but if 300-mile range were easy to achieve, other automakers would be offering it as an option. For the short term, the challenge will be getting as much out of lithium ion technology as possible. Research into better alternatives—lithium air comes to mind—is proceeding, but is still in very early stages. Lithium ion has at least five, and maybe even 10, years of supremacy ahead of it. Sakti3’s solid-state batteries have made enough progress for GM Ventures to put $5 million into the company, but even founder Ann-Marie Sastry isn’t making claims about taking over the world—yet.

Those are the lessons now, but the whole industry is standing on constantly shifting ground.


· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

It most certainly is about the batteries, and the issue has boiled down to one of price.
Weight, driving ranges and recharge times now (Tesla - 45 minutes for 300 miles) and shortly (DBM-Energy - 6 minute recharges) are entirely adequate to compete with gasoline powered vehicles. Price is the sole obstacle, both initial cost and lifespan
(DBM-Energy claiming 30 year lifespan, to which German govt labs concur). DBM-Energy clearly has the technology worth watching, and it seems to be here today.

· · 7 years ago


Nice rundown of the challenges ahead. I like the Think example. You can always get what seems to be an endless supply of customers, but if the queue isn't being refilled through marketing, and just plain a desirable product, the bottom can fall out fast.


· · 7 years ago


The basic reason others aren't coming up with 300 mile cars is that for them, the market isn't big enough.

Large range means huge battery, which means a large car (Model S is HUGE). All this means an expensive car - and thus a small market.

Ofcourse, if BMW & Diemler weren't sleeping, they could have come up with their Model S by now. But few execs in those companies believe in EVs, I guess.

· · 7 years ago

With where battery technology currently is, a 300 mile BEV needs at least an 80kWh battery pack. That's a $50,000 battery. Then you need to engineer and build the rest of the car. Do you think there is a market big enough to make money off of an $80-$90,000 car?

Nissan is the only major OEM that has had the courage to bring a BEV to market, and they just did so within the past few months. The industry moves slowly, and EVERYBODY is watching the LEAF. I don't know if I'd call it sleeping as much as I'd call it trying to gauge demand. What is more important? Greater range or lower price? Should Nissan have used a 30kWh pack and charged $37,499 or is it just right as it is?

The BMW's and Daimler's want to make money. They just want to sell cars and they need to know the public wants them before they invest billions of dollars in a new line of cars. I think many of the OEM's spent the past few years deciding whether or not to take the plunge into the EV foray, some are still deciding. Lucky for all of us Nissan has the balls to jump in head first and Tesla got the funding they needed to have an outside chance of actually making it.

BTW, How's the LEAF treating you? What's the furthest you've driven it on a charge, just wondering

· · 7 years ago

@Tom Moloughney ·

Yes, as I said "All this means an expensive car - and thus a small market."

But it is not like auto majors don't expensive niche cars - so, why not an EV ?

"What's the furthest you've driven it on a charge, just wondering".

88 miles - but that was my turtle experiment. Also, that was on 80% charge !

· LuvMyRoadster (not verified) · 7 years ago

Many times I've rocketed around in my 2 yr old Tesla for > 200 miles. A true guilt-free pleasure! There's plenty of market space for all comers; high and low end of the space. Obviously, I'm thrilled with my Tesla, but hope Fisker, Chevy, Ford, Nissan, etc. are all very successful with their EV offerings as well. I can hardly wait for my Model S to be delivered.

· · 7 years ago

Too bad that Think couldn't pull it off. Ener1 pulling out of their mutual relationship was certainly a factor in their demise . . . as well as the high base sticker price for the City EV.

Regarding batteries: I, the non-scientist, found much in the way of useful technical information in Seth Fletcher's new book, Bottled Lightning. Until reading through this volume, I would have been hard pressed to parse the specifics of Lithium Manganese Oxide batteries (Li-MnO2,) which power both the Volt and the Leaf . . . not to mention billions of cell phones.

Fletcher notes that current Li-MnO2 technology relies on a carbon-based anode. What we are going to see by around 2013 from the Panasonic/Sanyo consortium (world's largest battery manufacturer) will be a Li-MnO2 with a silicon-based anode and this alone, apparently, promises a 30% increase in energy density.

And DBM? Yes, It's always interesting to see what they're up to. Weren't they due to make another public test run in one of their modified Audi A2s this past month?

· Jim1961 (not verified) · 7 years ago

Wait a minute. Chris Payne who produced the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" said that batteries were not a problem at all with EVs? If batteries were not an issue back then why are they an issue now? There must be some kind of conspiracy!!

· · 7 years ago

"It [Tesla] knows more about batteries than either one of them, and it’s able to deliver more range." Not.

If this was the case, they would be getting more efficiency (mi/kW-h/mass) than others at less cost. They aren't. Their efficiency is no better than Nissan, Ford, or any other OEM using lithium-ion batteries (all get around 4 mi/kW-h for a car that is about 3700 lbs), and their cost is more. How do they get more range? Put more batteries in it. Brilliant!! Why didn't I think of that? If someone thinks Tesla's battery technology is that much better than everyone else, please let me know what you are basing it on. I hear this claim all the time but based on the performance, I don't see it.

· · 7 years ago

@regman "I hear this claim all the time but based on the performance, I don't see it."

True. It isn't a big deal to put a lot of battery and get a long range. Esp. when either using a large vehicle like S or a 2 seater like Roadster - that too at a price point which makes the cars a niche.

Another funny thing is - Tesla just uses off the shelf batteries - so, its not like they have some great proprietary chemistry.

· Christopher (not verified) · 7 years ago

Well, here's a start to the question regarding Tesla's battery technology:

Supposedly their Roadster batteries are more efficient than all others (see graph in above). And I believe I've read them arguing that their choice to go with the highly-optimized laptop battery suppliers ends up being more cost-effective.

Lastly, I think it's pretty unreasonable to say that they have no tech -- that they've just stuffed some off-the-shelf batteries in a box.

· · 6 years ago

Well, it might be a bit dismissive to say that Tesla has "no tech." One of the things that all these production EVs (Tesla, Leaf and Volt) have in common is very sophisticated battery monitoring computers that can sense if one of the cells is about to encounter thermal runaway. Tesla and Chevy both employ a rather elaborate liquid cooling scenario, while the Leaf using air cooling.

As the Tesla link in you post notes, Christopher, the Roadster's pack uses 6,831 individual cells (measuring 18mm x 65mm, hence the designation 18650) wired together in "bricks" and "sheets". That's a lot of those little suckers! If Telsa had more money to play with in the early days, they probably would have specified larger prismatics instead of going with all those little wound cylidricals to create their "bricks" and sheets."

Another previously unknown (to me) tidbit I gleamed from the Bottled Lightning book . . .

"Even the flat rectangular battery in your cell phone or point-and-shoot digital camera is most likely wound - just wound into an oblong shape and then placed in a rectangular container. Winding batteries is arguably faster and cheaper than the cut-and-stack process for making prismatic cells. The benefit of prismatic cells, however, is all that easily accessible surface area makes them easier to cool, which is particularly important when you start making cells the size of a paperback book and loading hundreds of them in a car. "

Note that the Volt uses just 288 prismatic cells for its 16kWh pack. If Tesla built its 56kWh pack from those same prismatics, they would need only 1,008 of them. Maybe the Model S will use prismatics. Anybody know?

As for the Chris Payne comment in the movie, Jim 1961, I also remember him stating that the EV1 would be "a 300 mile car with lithium batteries." This actually seems plausible, as the EV1 was a two-seater and (former EV1 owners, please correct me if I'm wrong here) most of the rear cabin space was crammed full of NiMH battery. Given the higher energy density of lithiums, that same battery space would undoubtedly provide greater range . . . or - if you want to do it differently - fewer lithiums in a smaller space, room for luggage and range closer to around 100 miles.

· Norbert (not verified) · 6 years ago

Re DBM: They recently delivered the three test conversion vehicles to Next Energy research center, the 15,000 km tests will end in September.

Re Efficiency: I'm not sure this is the correct calculation in each case, but dividing the known battery size by the (electric) EPA range:

Volt: 16 kWh / 35 miles = 457 Wh/mile
Leaf: 24 kWh / 73 miles = 329 Wh/mile
Roadster: 56 kWh / 245 miles = 229 Wh/mile

· Dave K. (not verified) · 6 years ago

I think the +or-100mile range of the Leaf/IMEV/Coda is about right. Of course you would always like more but as has been pointed out the question is will you pay for it? My personal driving pattern (I think very typical) is about 30-60 miles/day, and seldom excedes 80 unless I go on a road trip, so why would I pay thousands more for a battery I almost never use? I, like many, have another car for those road trips but I could make the arguement that it makes more sense to rent, then you can take the perfect vehicle on your road trip, truck, van, small car or whatever suits your needs. 100 miles is the sweet spot, maybe less in Europe and Asia.

· · 6 years ago

"Re Efficiency: I'm not sure this is the correct calculation in each case, but dividing the known battery size by the (electric) EPA range:"

This is only part of the answer. The Roadster is about 30% lighter than the Leaf. When you correct for weight, all full EVs are comparable. A better comparison is Wh/Mile/kg.

· JJ - Can (not verified) · 6 years ago

Laurent Masson wrote on this web site in the article about Citroen postal trucks about batteries that use salt.
He wrote that they can remain hot for a long long time.
Wouldn't they be cheaper to make?

· · 6 years ago

The Illuminati Motors '7' is rated at 155Wh/mile and can do 200+ miles with a ~33kWh pack (of Thundersky cells, so hardly cutting edge). The SIM-LEI car can do ~134Wh/miles, and I think that <100Wh/mile is possible at highway speeds.

So, it is more about the *efficiency* of the car; than about pack size. And once you have a top-notch drivetrain (i.e. an EV) then the next most important thing is the aerodynamics.

No commercial electric other than the EV1 has really dealt with aero drag.


· Tom K (not verified) · 6 years ago

I've got 3000 miles on my LEAF. Great commuter car. Longest single charge day was 87 miles with a 5 kwh lead foot and I still had 1 bar showing. I would've paid more for a larger battery...

· Norbert (not verified) · 6 years ago

@regman "This is only part of the answer. The Roadster is about 30% lighter than the Leaf. When you correct for weight, all full EVs are comparable. A better comparison is Wh/Mile/kg."

Weight is just one of several factors that would go into such a calculation, the work that the motor has to do is not (strictly) proportional to the weight. Of course, if you are interested in the efficiency of the whole vehicle, then weight is a negative, not a positive. Even if it were proportional (which it isn't), the difference is just 23%, relative to the Roadster, that leaves almost a difference of 40 miles of range.

The Tesla Model S, however, is quite a bit heavier than the Leaf, yet is expected to have a efficiency better than 300 Wh/mile (based on alpha tests). Even if it remains at 300, if you were to calculate it proportionally to the Leaf's weight, this would be 263 Wh/mile, which is an improvement of 31%, or relative to the Model S's max. range, a difference of about 75 miles in range.

· Norbert (not verified) · 6 years ago

Actually, correction, an improvement of 21%, which would be 60 miles of range less, 240 instead of 300.

· Norbert (not verified) · 6 years ago

Model S and Volt have about the same weight. So that's straightforward a ratio of about 300 to 450. With the Volt's efficiency, the Model S range would be 200 instead of 300.

· · 6 years ago

That Illuminati 7 is a cool one. Neil. It reminds me of the 1947 Tucker Torpedo, which is still a very aerodynamically clean car by today's standard. The designer for that one, Alex Tremulis had an aviation background . . . and it shows.

The Audi A2, which DBM has chosen as a test vehicle for its batteries, is purported to have the lowest drag coefficient of any production car. The rear hatch window is set up in such a way that a rear wiper motor/blade isn't needed, as the air cleanly breaks over the roof line and never allows water to accumulate back there. Why can't all cars be designed this way?

As for Thundersky batteries, they're a Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) formula. The energy density is slightly less than the more common Li-MnO2 formulas, but they are generally regarded as being more forgiving in respects to thermal runaway and being more environmentally benign, when it's time to recycle them. One of the earliest adopters of LiFePO4 batteries was the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) folks, who send their little computers all over the world, not knowing how well they will treated by the end users.

Zebra Sodium's molten salt batteries, JJ-Can, were used in European versions of the Think EV . . .

Note, though, that they need to be "reheated" if not used for a while, which might take up to two days before they can be recharged. It's interesting technology, but I don't think lithium battery designers are losing any sleep over the prospect of molten salt cells.

· Norbert (not verified) · 6 years ago

@Benjamin Also, the Audi A2 was built from aluminium (Wikipedia: "average A2 weighs less than 1,000 kilograms"). It's not built anymore ("last cars left the factory in August 2005").

· Larry, Richmond VA (not verified) · 6 years ago

Damn, I really liked the Think, only one of the electrics that has any style if you ask me. Hard to understand why it would cost $40k to produce them, once they had the components standardized. But I don't think a dealer channel is a big deal. If the cars were reliable and the price was right, you could sell plenty of them online.

· · 6 years ago

The lightweight aluminum construction of the original A2, Norbert, was another feature that the DBM folks were surely keeping in mind when using that car as a test bed for their experimental battery. Just about the time that DBM was creating such a buzz last fall, Audi announced that a new version of the A2 would be forthcoming. Specifics seem to change with every new press release (first a steel body, then aluminum with composite panels . . . first as an EV only, then hybrid versions) but it all looks promising . . .

I also shed a virtual tear, Larry, when I heard about Think. One of our contributors here on Plug In Cars pointed out that small companies that attempt to produce budget conscious EVs are at a disadvantage. They are always going to be outgunned by the big guys - notably Nissan with the Leaf - when trying to reach a competitive price point.

It's safe to assume that each Leaf that Nissan will make for quite some time will actually lose them money. They're a big enough company, though, that profits are coming in from elsewhere. Eventually, of course, the Leaf will become a profit maker for Nissan. But it might take a couple of years. Think simply didn't have those sort of financial resources and they had to make money on each car sold right off the bat.

· Samie (not verified) · 6 years ago

Thanks Jim for the great article.

With current Li technology one has to wonder at what price point would this technology be cost efficient (per Kw to mile w/ production costs added in, compared to ICE technology??) ? I don't think we will get to that point, instead we will see 2nd-3rd generation batteries have greater reduction costs & improved range, along with reduced production costs from greater sales volumes.

Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche shouldn't be surprised about the demand for EVs. In fact behind closed doors, he really isn't.
What Mr. Zetscne is concerned about is controlling liability issues (eg. by tightly controlling small volumes of vehicles in production), sticking to sales forecasts of ICE vehicles, and in the short-term (industry) not producing too many EV's so regulators won't demand greater fuel/Co2 regulations. Though on the other hand, all auto-manufactures want the public relations/government relations when they produce any plug-in or alternative fuel vehicle (prototype or production-ready).

· Norbert (not verified) · 6 years ago

@Benjamin Thanks for the link. I have added a bunch of links to very recent news articles and interviews to a thread about DBM and its A2 conversion tests at Next Energy, over at TeslaMotorsClub. (I hope the admins don't mind the reference.)

· · 6 years ago

I'm going to guess that they'll be fine with it, Norbert. Here is the most recent DBM article from your TeslaMotorClub forum post. Using Google's Translate feature, its now in English. The translation gets turned around a bit at times, but its still very readable . . .

Check out the photos of the battery installation. Put the cover back down and you've still got a complete luggage compartment. The new white/blue paint scheme is also cool.

· · 6 years ago

Once OEM production of EVs scales up and the early adopter demand satisfied, the EV will face the classical crossing the chasm scenario in the adoption curve. The next phase, the early majority target market, I believe, will push back because of their mental model regarding what an automobile is. They don't need 300 mile range, but their mental model says they do. You charge an EV at home overnight, while you sleep. Their mental model says they fill up one a week at a station. Cars make noise when they start, an EV doesn't. That doesn't fit their mental model. And on and on. The key is for the OEMs to get the early majority through these mental model issues.

· Ernie (not verified) · 6 years ago


"Large car" does not necessarily equate "more money". It's more to the effect that American automakers have long ago discovered that customers are *willing* to pay more for bigger cars, and so they *charge* more for them. But the amount of money they spend on engineering a big engine is about the same amount of money they spend on engineering a small engine. And the materials cost for the larger car isn't going to be an extra 100-200% of the car's cost.

Thus, Ford spent roughly the same amount of money developing the Fiesta as they did the Expedition, but the Expedition is being sold for almost 3x as much.

So as a result, Tesla, being run by people who are not blazingly stupid, will make a big sedan with a long range, and charge lots of money for it because people are more willing to pay the premium for a big car. Think conversely, made the smallest possible car in an effort to squeeze an extra 10 miles of range out of the battery they built. But they couldn't reduce their costs, so it ended up being too expensive. Think's model has been the traditional model for electric cars, going back to the 70's, and that's precisely what Tesla is reversing in every possible way. If you're going to make an expensive car, make sure it isn't a small, cheap piece of crap, Elon says.

· · 6 years ago

While I generally agree with your premise, Ernie, that Tesla's small company approach to the EV market (start with luxury oriented models and work your way down to more affordable models over time,) characterizing the Think City as a "small, cheap piece of crap" is unfortunate.

By most accounts, Think had an innovative and well engineered product to offer. That they didn't have the investment capital to be able to offer it at a competitive price is what did them in. Once Nissan put their billions of dollars behind the Leaf, it was going to be tough for anyone without similar assets to be able to market an EV in that price range. It will take upstarts like Think, though, to prod the major car manufacturers out of complacency from time to time.

· · 6 years ago

@ · Ernie (not verified) · "Large car" does not necessarily equate "more money".

It does - larger car means you need more battery to go the same distance, which means more money.

Ofcourse, the basic point we all know is - larger distance means larger battery & thus more money. But the fact that larger battery also means larger volume and thus either reducing usable space in the car or a larger vehicle to keep the usable space space is not much appreciated.

· charlie (not verified) · 5 years ago

i used the gas cost calculator to check the free truck rate
and it gave me the exact rate you guys can check it.

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