Friday, April 10, 2009


In a two page article titled "Riding a new wave of power" that's really an advert, the Age plugs entrepreneur Shai Agassi's vision of the electric car's future:
The fuel needle hovering near E used to mean a quick calculation on the location of the nearest petrol station and how much petrol was left. Now the computer performs that calculation. If it is a short trip, to the office or a shopping centre, it announces the location of the nearest points where the car can be recharged while it is unoccupied. If it is a long trip, the nearest station where the battery can be replaced, free of charge, is shown. That transaction will take about five minutes, or about the time, from start to finish, it would take to fill and pay for an ordinary fuel tank at a service station. The new battery will run for 160 kilometres.
Before discussing battery replacement, let's take a look Agassi's company, Better Place:
Better Place is a venture-backed company that aims to reduce global dependency on oil through the creation of a market-based transportation infrastructure that supports electric vehicles, providing consumers with a cleaner, sustainable, personal transportation alternative.
All warm and cuddly, ain't it? In reality, the company's goal is to make money. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

It is worrying that Better Place is forming parnerships with governments around the world, aiming to put in place its battery recharge and replacment infrastructure. Once established this infrastructure, especially if backed by government, will be nearly impossible to replace should a superior vehicle power source become available – hydrogen, for example. In criticising the current oil-based automotive fuel infrastructure Agassi unwittingly condemns his attempts to establish the electric car battery standard:
It wasn't that oil was so much better — electrons are better than oil — we just didn't have supply and demand at the critical time of the 10 years of formation of the industry.
So, just as the establishment of an oil-fueled vehicle infrastructure locked us into oil-fueled vehicles, Agassi hopes to lock in lithium-ion battery powered vehicles as the new de facto standard. This begs an obvious question: where the hell is all of the lithium going to come from?

Anyway, back to replacement batteries, which are anything but free – Better Place owns the batteries, with users paying a charge likened to a mobile phone usage fee. Here's how battery replacement works:
In addition to widely deployed charge spots, the Better Place network will provide fully-automated battery exchange stations. These swap stations are designed to extend the driver’s journey beyond the 100 mile range of a fully-charged battery. ... These Better Place battery exchange stations are even more efficient and convenient than conventional gas stations. Each is roughly the size of your average living room. Like the charging spots, they are fully automated. ... The depleted battery is removed, and a fully-charged replacement is installed. In under three minutes, the car is back on the road. ... The battery exchange stations will be able to accommodate any Better Place-compliant vehicle. All manufactured batteries will be stocked so that any electric vehicle with a swappable battery, regardless of make or model, can pull in and be serviced.
As Better Place infrastructure becomes established there will be considerable pressure on manufacturers to use Better Place-compliant batteries, having paid a Better Place licensing fee, no doubt. (Mercedes rejects the battery replacement plan, by the way.)

Better Place seems to have made an unheralded breakthrough in battery technology:
The batteries have a range of about 160 kilometres, and a lifespan of 400,000 to 800,000 kilometres.
A number of variables affect lithium-ion battery lifespan but it's doubtful any battery currently available can cope with the many thousands of recharges required over 800,000 kilometres. By comparison, Tesla estimates its roadster's battery, with a claimed range of close to 400 kilometres, will experience 5,000 charge cycles over its predicted 160,000 kilometre life.

Regardless, the Age article is designed to persuade rather than to inform:
A question about whether the economic crisis will serve as the necessary tipping point for mass adoption of electric vehicles sends Agassi careering off in an unexpected direction. The answer traces the history of energy use, from whale oil for home heating, to the trial and massive error of early attempts at an electricity grid. He explains how one technology leap-frogged another at a critical time — the development of the so-called horseless carriage — and how, as a consequence, 100 years of American and European brainpower shaped the evolution of the internal combustion engine, while the battery remained inert, heavy and toxic until the late 1980s.
Whale oil was used for lighting, not heating. The electricity grid evolved with AC winning out over DC for technical reasons. Let's just hope our engineering brainpower isn't wasted on lithium-ion battery powered cars when it's possible all that thought could be better invested somewhere else.

Finally, where all of the low or zero-carbon footprint electricty required to charge the batteries will come from has yet to be worked out.


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