(Some) Progress on Price and Range for Electric Vehicles

By · October 09, 2012

Lit Motors C-1

Lit Motors shows off the C-1--and a motorcycle for comparison. (Lit Motors photo)

The two most important barriers to the successful adoption of electric vehicles are price and range. It may well be that both are overcome in the next few years, but there's certainly no guarantee.

Optimism at the Conference

At the SWSX Eco conference in Austin, Texas last week, there was evidence that progress is being made. "I'm a big believer in electric cars," said Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND). Eric Toone, principal deputy director of the federal ARPA-E program, an arm of the Department of Energy, told an enthusiastic gathering that Envia Systems (a battery company it funds) could soon deliver a 300-mile-per charge battery at an affordable price—half that of current packs.

Envia’s pack, if it meets its goals, will “completely resolve the range anxiety issue,” Toone said, and put us on a path to “revolutionize transportation in America.” When it happens, the revolution will indeed be upon us, but it may not be all that close.

General Motors took part in a $17 million equity round for Envia last year. And last February, Envia said that it had achieved a breakthrough energy density of 400 watt hours per kilogram, which had been confirmed in lab tests at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indiana.

Coming, But When?

OK, those are lab tests. Other battery developers, including several colleges have achieved great results in the lab. That doesn’t mean that Envia’s batteries won’t perform as advertised, just that we may need to temper our expectations as to when they’ll be on the market and change history. But they’re working on it: Atul Kapadia, Envia’s CEO, told me confidently months ago that the company had multiple ongoing programs with major automakers, testing its battery packs in cars.

But talking to GreenTech Media in May, Kapadia was more circumspect, saying that much integration work lay ahead. “Kapadia estimated it will take five to six years to get a full battery pack with the entire 400 watt-per-kilogram system,” GreenTech said. It's promising, but around the corner it isn’t.

"I'm a bit leery of claims made from lab testing," said Tom Gage, the EV pioneer behind the BMW Mini E and the AC Propulsion tzero sports car, which evolved into the Tesla Roadster. "If you're at the molecular level, I hear it takes seven years until you have an acceptable prototype cell and another seven to develop the production battery and put it into mass production."

Car Prices Dropping

Car prices will certainly come down with cheaper battery packs, but they seem to be coming down anyway. Last week, Smart introduced its new Electric Drive (ED), which will be on the road this coming spring with a stunning price of $25,000 ($28,000 for the Cabriolet). Add in the $7,500 federal income tax credit and a $2,500 California rebate and we’re looking at a $15,000 car—on a plane with the gasoline car. It’s cheaper than the Mitsubishi i, or any other mainstream car you could name.

Lit Motors' Danny Kim

Lit Motors' Danny Kim had an epiphany that led to a plan to launch an affordable electric commuter car. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also on the price front, I shared an SWSX Eco panel with Danny Kim, CEO of ambitious start-up Lit Motors. The California-based company is fielding the C-1, a two-wheeled, gyroscopically balanced enclosed motorcycle/car that it hopes to have on the market in 2014—at a price that will start at $24,000 but at scale is supposed to drop to $12,500. Does 200-mile range sound like enough?

I haven’t driven the C-1, but it’s appealing in pictures—and promises an amazing six seconds to 60 mph, with a top speed around 100 mph. It’s more than a weatherproof Segway—the cabin actually looks inviting, and the gyroscopes use different principles. A more direct comparison would be the four-wheel motorcycle-like door-less Renault Twizy, or better yet, the Auto X Prize-winning E-Tracer, an enclosed two-wheeler. But the E-Tracer is conceived as a $100,000 Tesla chaser, not an affordable commuter car.

Low Weight, Small Battery

The Lit C-1’s price secret, or one of them at least, is an eight-kilowatt-hour battery coupled to a vehicle that weighs only about 800 pounds. Drastically cutting weight allows a much smaller battery without sacrificing range—indeed, even allowing greater range. The C-1 will be licensed as a motorcycle, which is an easier regulatory path, but Lit will still have to make the featherweight C-1 as safe as possible. I love the fact that it’s almost impossible to push the vehicle over, but what happens if the gyros lose power?

Here's an early look at the C-1 on video:

Lit’s big challenge is getting enough people to pay $24,000 for his novel concept so the company will get to the scale that can drop the price. There are only a few prototypes now, so much needs to be done. Envia, also trying to cut costs, has to ensure that its high performance batteries that work so well in the lab can be durable and reliable on the street.

I’m sure both companies are working long hours to make it happen, but neither is going to change the world tomorrow. Maybe the day after tomorrow.

New to EVs? Start here

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