Thursday, June 7, 2012

China's Electric Car Dominance? Not So Much

A couple of years ago, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in "Their Moon Shot and Ours" that China was treating the development of the electric car as an equivalent of the Apollo program.  He famously included this phrase, a candidate for one of the Most Wrong Things written:
Sure, the Moore’s Law of electric cars — “the cost per mile of the electric car battery will be cut in half every 18 months” — will steadily drive the cost down, says Agassi, but only once we get scale production going. U.S. companies can do that on their own or in collaboration with Chinese ones. But God save us if we don’t do it at all.
The problem is that there is no Moore's Law of electric cars.  I talked about in this very space, not more than a few weeks ago (without specifically saying "there is no Moore's Law of electric cars").
Battery research is slow compared to the semiconductor "internet speed" we're used to.  Think of how a battery works: two different materials give and take electrons at a voltage potential determined by the way the universe was put together.  All of the simple combinations have been tried and new ones are being researched daily.  The limits, though, are imposed by the universe.  In semiconductor work, the same materials are always worked on, the techniques for putting down dopants and photoresistive masks is all that changes.
Unlike Times columnists, engineers have to work with what's called "Reality", and in this case China is realizing widely useful Electric Vehicles just ain't happening, yet.  Business Week reports the central planners are cutting their plans for their EV production.  While they planned to be producing half a million cars per year in just 3 years,
"Developers have yet to achieve breakthroughs and will be lucky to sell 2,000 cars this year, mostly taxis. The government has hedged its bets by broadening the industry's official goals to include cleaner gasoline engines," according to a recent Associated Press article on the subject. "Officials including Premier Wen Jiabao started acknowledging last year that progress was slow and developers need to improve quality instead of rushing models to market." 
In fact, while the fanbois may be expecting EV development to be growing wildly, it's slowing and going into a decline phase - because the battery technology just isn't there and that just makes the cars not cost effective.  Design News reports:
That may be why EVs and EV batteries aren't doing very well in the US, either. Sales of the Chevy Volt have been slow. Nissan sold 370 Leafs in April, 579 in March, and 478 in February. A123 Systems, an EV battery maker that was granted up to $249 million in funding from the Department of Energy, posted a first-quarter net loss of $125 million and is said to be struggling.
Moreover, as we've reported before, industry analysts expect huge lithium-ion battery gluts over the next few years. Bloomberg News reported recently that venture capitalists are hesitant to lend support for EV-based efforts. "The only thing that would cause America to be all electric cars is to lose the economic trade war with China and have it imposed on us," a venture capitalist told Bloomberg.
To borrow a phrase from Barbie, "Battery design is hard".  China doesn't have any special, magic unicorn poop battery formulas that we don't have.

Electric cars kind of suck right now.  To be more polite, you can say they're not ready for prime time.  The idea is tantalizing, but the implementation has a long way to go for, as I said before, anyone who drives more than 40 miles a day or who needs actual power to carry something.  


  1. Yep, electric cars would be really neat if the batteries didn't SUCK so badly....

  2. Way back, when dinosaurs still walked the Earth and Steven Den Beste was still blogging at USS Clueless, he noted that the ability to carry 5 MegaJoules of dispatchable electic capacity in a backpack would change warfare forever.

    Reflect on how little energy that is, compared to what it takes to propel a car at highway speeds. (Yes, a little arithmetic is required.)

    1. Thanks for the input, Francis. That's before my time in the blogosphere, but for the rest of the readers who might want a little clarification, as I pointed out in The Least You Should Know About Electricity - DC, a Watt is a joule per second, so 5 MegaJoules is 5 Million Watt*Seconds or 1389 Watt*hours (5,000,000/3600 seconds in an hour).

      That's a lot of power - roughly a car battery delivering 100 Amps for one hour (or 1A for 100 hours...) (ideally). I think they're thinking more along the lines of thousands of amps in pulses.

      The kinetic energy of anything is 1/2 (mass*velocity squared), but once the car has been accelerated, the only energy requirement is to overcome the friction losses in the drivetrain and air resistance. Let's say driving a car down the highway takes 20 HP or so (rough guess - depends on a mess of variables). There's 750W per HP or 15,000W; about 10 times the energy in the battery pack Den Beste was talking about. Rough guess, so let's say the energy of a car moving down the road is 20 times the energy of that backpack.

  3. But the power to charge the batteries still comes from burning coal.

    1. Absolutely. Well, I guess it also comes from natural gas and some tiny proportion from nuclear. The only advantage to the EV is that the energy, once in the battery, goes to a motor that's very efficient compared to an internal combustion engine.

    2. Sure, but so long as the electricity comes from fossil fuel, the law of conservation of energy means that a greater amount of energy must be taken from the coal to produce an equal or lesser amount of energy in the battery. So assuming both your energy transfer and your battery are 100% efficient, you can break even.
      Electric cars, unless their electricity is produced completely by nuclear or hydro (or unless they are made to trash the laws of physics) are an environmentalist’s nightmare, ultimately costing more fossil fuel than they save. Now hybrids, which are not really an electric motor; just a more efficient internal combustion engine are another matter...

  4. You know what I recommend that the public-at-large get more than an electric car?

    A high school physics class.
    At least.

    A battery is inefficient. We've been making them smaller, lighter, and more efficient, but we're going to hit a wall, especially with lead/acid batteries.
    The only thing I think the Chinese have on us when it comes to batteries is that I would be willing to bet theirs has more lead in it. It IS China, after all.

    1. The inefficiency of the battery itself is something I haven't gone into anywhere. The points of this piece itself were the BS about "Moore's Law of electric car" and the myth that China, because they have mass amounts of unskilled, cheap labor would somehow leap frog the world.

      I don't recall numbers on battery efficiency off the top of my my head, but I do know that most slow chargers work at .1 capacity for 1.6 times capacity. I'm sure that's just to ensure a full charge was transferred and is more than you need because that says you need to force 160% of the number of electrons into the battery that you took out. It's not an impressive number - but it is better than 30% efficiency in an ICE.

    2. So, unless that wall is equal to or less than 100% efficiency, electric motors are just NOT worth it.

    3. I meant to say: so, unless that wall is equal to or greater than 100% efficiency, electric motors are just NOT worth it

  5. Some of those "extra" electrons go into reversing the chemical change that happens during the discharge cycle. You're doing more than just "Refilling the bucket" with what you've taken out.