Where Are We Now?

A lot of stuff has happened in the auto world in the last three years:

  • Fisker is gone
  • A123 is gone
  • The 2nd Generation Chevy Volt is in production
  • BMW begins delivery of an EV, the i3
  • The Tesla Model S is a roaring  success
  • Production of the Tesla Model X is about to begin
  • Tesla begins construction of the Gigabyte Battery factory
  • Tesla announces that production will begin on a low cost EV, the Model 3 in 2017
  • GM announces it will produce a low cost EV, the Bolt in 2017

It’s amazing that one company’s name appears in most of these events – Tesla. Every major automobile manufacturer has announced plans for production of an EV, and all of this is a reaction to the success of Tesla. One company along has started the electric vehicle revolution. After watching Tesla for a number of years, and assuming (hoping) Tesla would fail, the other manufacturers finally realized electric cars weren’t going away. Tesla proved that current battery technology was good enough to begin producing electric cars. And not just  a golf cart in the guise of a car, but beautiful, high performance, award winning electric cars. Consumer Reports says that the Model S was the best car they have ever tested. This eliminated any arguments that the pending fuel economy standards were unobtainable.

 

 

 

 

Failure and Success

This post is about the flip sides of the coin of failure and success.

 

It very much appears that EVER (Electric Vihicle with Extended Range)  car maker, Fisker Automotive is on its last legs and is about to file for bankruptcy. Fisker makes the $100,000 plus Fisher Karma. Fisker first ran into trouble when its’ Department of Energy (DOE) loan was frozen, due to failure to meet various production benchmarks for the production of the Karma. This happen just after the failure of startup solar cell maker Solydra, which was also funded by the DOE. Despite many negotiation sessions between Fisker and the DOE, there was no way that the DOE loan was going to be restored in the charge political atmosphere  after the failure of Solydra. The purpose of the $529 million loan, was mostly, to allow Fisker to renovate a factory in Maryland for production of its next generation, lower price EVER sedan, the Atlantic. Whereas the Karma was a $100,000 two seater, the Atlantic was to be a $50,000 sedan. The straw that really broke the camels back (to coin a phrase), was a battery recall, caused by failures of lithium-ion batteries in a number of Karmas. It was Fiskers bad luck that one of the Karmas was being tested by Consumer Reports, when the battery failed. The batteries were made by another startup company A123. The battery failure was due to a manufacturing  defect in A123’s.new factory. The battery failure was catastrophic  for both companiles. To recall and replace the batteries cost A123 something in the neighbor of $50 million, at a time when it was already cash strapped, due to slower then expected EV adoption rates. A123, which had the leading lithium-ion battery technology, was a contender to be the battery supplier for the Chevy Volt. A123 ultimately was forced to sell itself to the Chinese giant Wanxiang Group. Wanxiang got the most advanced lithium-ion technology, funded by the US tax payers, for a bargain. We’ll talk more about A123 in another post. Back to Fisker – as a result of the Solydra failure, missed milestones, and the lithium-ion battery failure, Fisker will probably be forced to file for bankruptcy soon. This is really a shame, because the Atlantic, which was first unveiled in April 2012 at the NY Auto Show, had the potential of being a great car.

 

The success story is Tesla Motors. The Tesla Model S, which started production late summer 2012, has been an over whelming  success. The Model S, a fully electric vehicle, won Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year, and many other awards. The factory which produces the Model S is up to full production capacity, and there is a backlog of orders. Tesla’s first car was the Roadster, a $100,000 plus two seater. The Model S price ranges from $62,400 to $87,400, depending on battery capacity.

Tesla recently reported their first quarterly profit, and expects to be profitable for the year. Tesla chairman, Elon Musk, recently announced that Tesla will pay back it’s DOE loan five years early. Take that Milt Romney, and all other electric car and DOE critics!

Big Dog In The Fight

There are a lot of startup lithium battery companies, and it’s always nice to know that a well known (and respected) company is also involved. Several months ago just such a company, IBM,  announced the results of preliminary research that may lead to a  car battery with a 500 mile range. Everybody knows IBM makes computers and software, but batteries? IBM’s announcement was about lithium air batteries. The concept of lithium air batteries is not new, but IBM researchers have had promising results in the lab. Lithium ion batteries have an energy density in the order of 100 Whr/kg. A lithium air batter would have energy densities ranging from 1500 Whr/kg to 2000 Whr/kg. The lithium air battery would allow an electric car to have a range of 500 miles or more. In a lithium air battery, air reacts with lithium to produce electricity. When the battery is recharged, the air is released and the lithium returns to the anode.  There are many problems to overcome, but IBM researchers are encourage by the results achieved so far. IBM’s goal is to have a working prototype in 3 years. If the prototype battery is successful in the that time frame, IBM envisions that we could see production batteries in the 2020 to 2030 time frame. This is not just any company, it’s IBM, so we should all feel  optimistic  about the future of electric cars as the replacement for gasoline engines. If (should I say when) research is successful, IBM will probably not manufacture the batteries, but license the technology to others.

 

The last time IBM was in the popular news was when Watson beat former champs on the quiz show Jeopardy. It’s good to know that despite the demise of Bell Labs, there are still a few American companies doing basic research.

Fuel Cells vs. Lithium-Ion Battery

This past week BMW announced a partnership agreement with Toyota to conduct joint research and development on fuel cell vehicles. Late in 2011, Mercedes shipped a limited number of Mercedes-Benz B-class cars to consumers. In fact, Mercedes seems to be putting most of their eggs in the fuel cell basket ,as opposed to the lithium-ion battery basket. The thinking seems to be that only fuel cells will allow them to continue to produce a car with the traditional characteristics of a Mercedes. Again, this brings up the debate of fuel cell vs. lithium-ion battery. It seems to me that there is room for both as power sources for future electric cars. This is not either/or , this is a both situation. Lithium-ion batteries or some derivative will prove to be ideal as power sources in cars used for short and medium distances, while fuel cells will hold the upper hand in cars used for long distance travel. The use of hydrogen fuel cells solves another problem too – how to store the excess electricity produced by a solar or wind power plant. Why not use any excess electricity generated by these renewable  power sources to produce hydrogen?

Whether fuel cells or lithium-ion batteries are used, the driving power of future cars and trucks will be an electric motor.

Model S Production Begins

As was previously announced , Tesla Motors began production of the Tesla Model S this past Friday. Tesla celebrated these first production cars (actually, a Tesla board member received his Model S several weeks ago.) with a launch ceremony at the Tesla factory. The first lucky owners were presented with the keys to their new Model S by the man himself, Elon Musk.  You can watch the complete ceremony here –  http://vimeo.com/44558698 .

What a beautiful car the Model S is! Look for followup reports on the JaxsMac website as driver reviews come in.

A123 Systems Battery Breakthrough

Lithium Ion battery manufacturer A123 Systems has been in the news the past several months for the wrong reason. Several months ago a Fisker Karma EVER (Extended Range Electric Vehicle) being tested by Consumer Reports, stopped dead in its tracks. Talking about bad timing – it couldn’t get much worst! The cause of this sudden demise was the lithium ion battery in the Karma. It turned out that the battery was manufactured by A123 Systems. Even worst, the fault in the battery was traced to a faulty calibration on a machine in A123’s newly opened manufacturing plant in Michigan. The end result was that A123 has to replaced all batteries shipped to Fisker at A123’s expense. The cost totals some $50 million dollars. This really hurts because A123 is a startup company struggling to make a profit.

 

Well, this past week there was good news. A123 Systems announced the introduction of Nanophospate EXT, a new lithium ion battery technology capable of operating at extreme temperatures without requiring heating or cooling. This will allow electric vehicle manufacturers to greatly reduce or eliminate temperature control systems for their electric vehicles. You can read the details here – http://www.a123systems.com/   .

 

In addition to the Fisker Karma, A123 will supply the batteries for the Chevy Spark EV to be introduced in 2013, the Cadillac ELR EVER in late 2013, and the Fisker Atlantic EVER in 2014. As a share holder in A123 Systems, and an advocate of American technology, I believe that it is a company with great technology, and, with time, it will be a great American success story.

Camry Smashes Volt – Camry Burns

Do you remember the hysteria that the rightwing and others opposed to electric cars tried to cause when the battery in a Chevy Volt caught fire several weeks after a “what if government test”? Not only did the fire occur weeks (not minutes or hours) after the test, but GM’s procedures for handling the battery after a severe accident were not followed.  But facts did not matter to the rightwing luddites – this was not really about electric cars.  In 2008 there were an estimated 236,000 vehicle fires in the US and none of the vehicles were electric.

Well guess what happened in May 18th of this year? A driver in Geneseo, NY driving a Toyota Camry at a high rate of speed smashed into two parked cars; a 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and a Chevy Volt. The Jeep suffered substantial damage and had to be totaled. The Volt was crushed beyond recognition. The Camry – it burst into flames! Fortunately the driver of the Camry was rescued by the swift action of bystanders (including the owner of the Volt and Jeep). I have heard no mention of this in the rightwing press or on talk radio.

 

Elon Musk, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors

May and June are very significant months for Elon Musk. In case you don’t know who Elon Musk is, he is the co-founder, chairman, product architect, and CEO of Tesla Motors. He is also the CEO and CTO of SpaceX.

 

Last month SpaceX managed to launch the first commercial space vehicle. Since the demise of the Shuttle Program, Russian supply craft were the only means of getting supplies and crews on and off the Space Station.On May 25th the SpaceX Dragon space craft successful docked with the International Space Station – inaugurating the era of commercial space transport.

 

And if that were not enough, Tesla Motors is scheduled to start delivery of the Tesla Model S on June 22. The Model S is as ground breaking and important for pure electric cars as the Dragon space craft is for commercial space transport. Tesla first car, the Roadster, was a great example of what a total electric car could be, but at slightly over $100, 000, was beyond the reach of the average person. The Model S on the other hand is a totally different story. It will be produced as three standard models with a price/range varying from $49,900/160 miles to $69,900/300 miles. There are also premium models costing up to $97,900. Unlike the Roadster, the Model S is a 4-door sedan. The Model S is beautiful and besides the great range and prices will also have great performance.  We can’t wait to review the Model S.

Your thoughts?