The Holy Grail–and primary stumbling block–of electric vehicle hopes is battery capacity. The Chevy Volt is a case in point. Its battery is huge, heavy, expensive, and dangerous, requiring special knowledge, skills and tools for safe handling, yet it can only propel a Volt around 40 miles per full charge under ideal conditions. True, Various Tesla vehicles have much greater range, but at a cost that exceeds what all but a tiny portion of the American public can afford to pay, and their vaunted range advantage is still far below what the full tank of gas of the average compact car can provide at much less than the cost of a Volt, which is much less than the cost of a Tesla S.
There are only basically three ways to improve EV charge endurance: design a more powerful, yet smaller and lighter battery; make the car smaller and much lighter; make the car much more aerodynamic. The problem is that there are limits to the gains each of these approaches can provide, and improvements are made in small increments indeed, not in enormous leaps. As I reported in Electric Vehicles: The Spark Flickers, Chevrolet is developing the Spark, a tiny vehicle little bigger than a Smart car, which it plans to market more cheaply than the Volt, and which it is claiming will get more than 80 miles to a charge, nearly double the Volt. Chevy is also trying to improve the Volt, lowering the price and claiming as much as five miles per charge greater improvement. To some this might sound somewhat impressive until one realizes that GM has not only never made a penny on a single Volt, but has lost money hand over fist, and continues to bleed cash as every Volt drives out of the factory.
But now, as in the Star Wars saga, there may be a new hope, via spectrum.ieee.org:
Battery technology has advanced to the point where consumer vehicles like the Tesla Model S can go between 300 and 450 kilometers on a single charge. It’s pretty great, but you’ll pay for it, because high power density batteries don’t come cheap, and neither do Teslas. At Volkswagen’s Electronic Research Laboratory in Silicon Valley, they’re developing what VW calls a ‘quantum leap for the electric car’ in the form of batteries that are somehow smaller, more powerful, and way, way cheaper.
Oh, and they’re also making a three wheeled electric scooter that fits in your trunk. Why not?
Wow! But perhaps this sounds a bit too good to be true, at least just yet:
All of this information (and there isn’t much, to be honest) comes from an interview with the CEO of Volkswagen AG, Martin Winterkorn, by the German newspaper Bild. Here’s the relevant bit:
‘VW is researching a super-battery in Silicon Valley in California, that is cheaper, smaller, and more powerful. An electric Volkswagen that can travel 300 km (186 miles) on electricity is in sight. It will be a quantum leap for the electric car.’
Three hundred kilometers (under ideal conditions, we’re assuming) can’t touch the range of the Tesla Model S. But, it’s substantially better than the Nissan Leaf (200 kilometers), and if Volkswagen can make batteries that allow them to undercut the cost of the Leaf (and other electric cars) significantly, it could make eco-friendly vehicles accessible to people who would want to use them now but can’t afford to.
Ah, so there is a fly in the ointment. They may well be working on such a “super-battery,” that is cheaper, smaller, more powerful, will make you taller, grow a full head of hair, provide breast enhancements and lifts for female drivers, and simultaneously make you prettier, but no one, even VW and the wizards of Silicon Valley haven’t actually produced such a wonder of energy storage and deliverance. Plenty of very smart people have been working on just such a battery for a very long time, but those pesky laws of physics keep getting in the way. Which is not to say that if they succeed, well, the benefits for mankind, and the financial benefits for those marketing such technology may be substantial.
But what about the scooter?
Winterkorn also revealed that Volkswagen has been working on this bundle of joy:
All we’ve been able to find out about this thing is that it’s called the ‘Last Mile Surfer,’ it’s smaller than a Segway, and it costs less than 1000 Euros (about US $1,100).
The way to think about this scooter is not as an independent mode of transportation. Think about it as a way to make your primary mode of transportation, your car, more useful. For example, instead of wasting time and gas trying to find a parking spot right next to where you want to go, just park wherever you happen to see a spot within a mile or two of your destination and take your scooter the rest of the way.
Buried in those two paragraphs is a bit of reality, which, when vehicular propulsion batteries are involved, is a painful collision with a brick wall: a range of a mile or two–I’m guessing closer to a mile–and probably at a walking pace at that, providing absolutely clear, smooth surfaces upon which to scoot, and no curbs or stairs or potholes, etc. Take a look at the scooter prototype, gentle readers. How big can its battery be, and how much power/range can it possibly provide?
There is a certain cute/cool factor involved here, but ultimately, at a cost of more than a thousand dollars for a mile, or a bit more, of range, it had better have an additional bag of tricks the size of an iPhone if it’s going to hope to be a market success, and I don’t see a screen anywhere…
Perhaps someday a way will be found around the laws of physics, or another technology–a home cold fusion reactor?–will be discovered and EVs will not only be immediately viable, but cheap. Today just isn’t that day. Probably not tomorrow…or next week…or next year…