GM's electric Spark: It's all about the batteries

Aug 21, 2012 By Jim Motavalli
Chevy Spark

Around this time next year, General Motors will unveil its first all-electric car since the EV-1. It's a battery version of the Spark mini-car that's hitting the showrooms now. In both gas and electric versions, the Spark is something of a pioneer. GM has never sold tiny A-Class vehicles in the American market, and it's never before gone mainstream with an electric - the EV1 never made it out of California and Arizona.

To say that many questions remain about the Spark EV is putting it mildly. To begin with, rushed out its announcement of the car late on a Friday afternoon, as if it wanted to minimize press coverage. GM damped down expectations as much as it could: "It will be sold in limited quantities in select U.S. and global markets starting in 2013, including California," the company said. You can almost feel the energy draining out of that.

The speculation was that GM is planning a "compliance car" designed to meet California's zero-emission requirements, and not a serious contender like the Volt. But what if the Spark, instead of being a "we've got one too" electric, was instead a rule breaker and barrier smasher?

The Spark, as announced last October, was to have "an advanced nanophosphate pack" from A123 Systems. There hasn't been any change in that, but A123 has had some well-publicized problems. The company is being bailed out in a $450 million deal that will see Chinese auto giant Wanxiang owning part of the battery producer. That deal has been decried by some in Congress (including Representative Cliff Stearns of Florida) because A123 received $249 million in Department of Energy stimulus funding.

In a way, that was more trouble than it was worth for A123, because it was used to build a spanking-new factory in Livonia, Michigan that added huge capacity before the were ready to absorb it. A123 supplies Fisker, and that company's delays in getting to market (and a subsequent battery recall) has proved crippling to A123. According to the New York Times, "Executives of A123...say the company has gotten off to a slower start than anticipated because the market for has failed to grow. The company reported a loss of $125 million in the first quarter of this year, as revenues dropped 40 percent from the year earlier."

A123 points to a recent breakthrough with batteries that can work in a wide range of temperatures without the need for external cooling or heating. But is GM getting antsy?

Earlier this month, GM CEO Dan Akerson said a few things about EV batteries that got everybody's attention. Not that many people noticed when GM Ventures, the company's investment arm, put $7 million into a battery company called Envia Systems. That company's CEO, Atul Kapadia, had been claiming major breakthroughs in range, cost and energy density. But you expect CEOs to say things like that.

Now GM's boss was confirming it. According to Akerson, "I think we've got better than a 50-50 chance to develop a car that will go to 200 miles on a charge (with Envia batteries). That would be a game changer....These little companies come out of nowhere, and they surprise you."

Go to Envia's website and the claims are bigger than that: The California-based company is talking blithely about $20,000 battery electric cars that can travel 300 (not 200) miles on a charge. If true, that's more than a game changer, it's almost game over for gas cars.

And it's not only GM that's talking about Envia. Eric Toone, the acting head of Department of Energy tech funder ARPA-E, told me earlier this month, "Envia definitely has had a battery breakthrough. And they're far along. The batteries have to be tested and deployed, and there is still a great amount of work to do, but they've moved beyond the bench scale."

So it's possible to speculate-without any actual evidence-that GM might change horses in mid-stream and install the Envia batteries it is without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt testing into the Spark. I posed just that question to Jim Federico, whose global small car realm covers all versions of the Spark.

I asked Federico about Envia, and there was a pregnant silence. "All I can tell you," Federico said eventually, "is that we have good relationships with all our suppliers, and are continuing to work with them. A123, Envia, LG, we're working with all of them."

Indeed, Kapadia told me that his company is "working with every single OEM of importance around the world. And the only thing that matters is what our customers say." He added that Envia had reached the important target of batteries (left) with 400 watt-hours per kilogram, "which wasn't easy to achieve." That milestone was confirmed in testing at the Indiana-based Naval Warfare Surface Center, which evaluates military systems.

But Kapadia also said that Envia has "nothing to announce" in the wake of Akerson's statement, and the company later got back to me with a statement.

In the prepared remarks, Kapadia said, "We are aware of the comments that were reported regarding Envia and a relationship with GM beyond GM's investment in Envia. It should not come as a surprise that Envia's world-record 400 watt-hours per kilogram technology is being sought after by automotive companies around the world. However, Envia has not yet made final decisions regarding business arrangements and there is nothing to announce at this time. Even though Envia is a participant in the fast-growing battery market, as is evident from contemporary examples, it is difficult to build a profitable battery company without leap-forward technology and a robust business model. Envia is still an exciting young company with laser-like focus on its technology and engineering."

Obviously, Envia doesn't want anybody leaping to conclusions about its partners. It wants to keep its options open. The Spark is still slated to have A123 batteries, and don't count that company out. But a deepening relationship between GM and Envia Systems may be in the offing.

Explore further: Old timey car to replace NYC horse carriages shown

More information: ©2012 Mother Nature Network
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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User comments : 21

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Parsec
1 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2012
This article is a strong piece of evidence why the investments made in battery technology by the Dept of Energy was such a good idea. Even if every single company that the government invested in goes broke, the enormous bounce in battery technology will push forward several years the switch from gasoline run cars to electric.

I only wish we had similar advances in pushing forward smart grid electric distribution systems so that all those electric cars won't bring the grid to a complete halt when they are all plugged in.
Vendicar_Decarian
3 / 5 (4) Aug 21, 2012
Now... What strategy can the Republicans use to destroy Envia?

They must have some plan in the works.
hemitite
3.7 / 5 (6) Aug 21, 2012
Dear VD,

Please grow up.

Thank you
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2012
Careful about Envia. Last time I saw their publications, the 400 Wh/kg estimate only held true for the first few charge cycles of the cell. They had the charge retention down quite badly by 700-800 cycles, which is unacceptable for electric cars that have to last for years and years. Great for a laptop battery, or a cellphone, but much too unstable for EVs.

The only way they'll get a $20k car is to use a small battery with a relatively short range, which means more charge cycles per mile, and with few charge cycles available it won't actually be cheap after replacing the battery every two years.
triplehelix
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 22, 2012

I only wish we had similar advances in pushing forward smart grid electric distribution systems so that all those electric cars won't bring the grid to a complete halt when they are all plugged in.


Which is why electric cars are pointless.

In a combustion engine car you burn what you need, in an electric car you charge it at a charge point which is connected to a geographical "grid". This grid has software controlling it by looking at energy usage patterns and ensuring enough energy is available to prevent brownouts. In other words, it purposefully overcompensates what is actually needed. If the current need for sheer arbitary sakes is 500 gigawatts, it will make 525-550, not 500 on the dot.

Electric cars will mean grids compensation amounts will increase hugely, wasting energy, whereas a combustion engine burns what it needs, and does not overcompensate at all
italba
1 / 5 (3) Aug 22, 2012
1) In a combustion engine you don't burn what you need, you burn 10 times what you need.
2) What will happen if every car owner would fill the tank in the same day?
3) How much do you earn from this FUD spreading job?
triplehelix
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 22, 2012
Another factor to also take into account is the acceleration and speed of a vehicle. I am not suggesting we need blaring 200mph electric vehicles, but nonetheless, I highly doubt the acceleration or speed on these things is great, so is really designed for inner city driving, rather than motorway or "highway". If this is the case, those 200/300 miles per charge is laughable, keeping a vehicle cruising at a speed is a lot less energy using than getting a very heavy object from stationary to moving.

I'm not suggesting electric cars are pointless, it's just usually something only gets onto the public commercial use when it has been perfected by military or high up tech industries so its easily usable and affordable for mainstream sales.

Also, Parsec, I highly doubt it will be bailed out companies making battery breakthroughs. It will be Universities funded by profit making organizations.
triplehelix
1.7 / 5 (6) Aug 22, 2012
1) In a combustion engine you don't burn what you need, you burn 10 times what you need.
2) What will happen if every car owner would fill the tank in the same day?
3) How much do you earn from this FUD spreading job?


You don't use 10x the amount you need. A lot of fuel makes heat etc and wasted on the crankshaft, but nonetheless, it is around 40-50% efficient on most newly designed cars, diesels especially have amazing efficiencies.

Power plants feeding the Grids, which also burn fossil fuels, are not as efficient because they're not being updated because governments are now only funding renewable energies, so now the UK and USA have 1950's and 1960's technology (mostly, not all!) running the grid at terrible efficiencies, and is then wasted by directly going through downsizers to reach the public, and is overcompensates to not allow brownouts.

So under our CURRENT and next 20-30 year future, yes, combustion engines ARE more efficient.
triplehelix
1 / 5 (4) Aug 22, 2012
WOW, how sad, someone has purposefully just ranked me 1/5 on all my posts, italba, that's very juvenile.

Here, have a list of English powerplants, all 50's, 60's and 70's, and only a handful from the 90's

http://en.wikiped..._England

Please provide sources and evidence what I am saying isn't real, then vote me 1/5. Until then what I have said is correct. It's a well known fact that our battery technology is not keeping up with our product technologies needs. We are advancing our systems faster than we can power them through batteries. A powerplant will make energy, go through miles and miles of wires, losing energy, goes through downsizers (Unless you want 4 billion volts going through your mains) to reach you at a 240v system in UK. Our way of "transporting" electricity is MASSIVELY wasteful due to downsizers and over-compensation.
italba
3 / 5 (2) Aug 22, 2012
40% is the peak thermal-to-mechanical energy conversion ratio for best car diesel engines at optimum temperature and WITHOUT ACCESSORIES (alternator, fuel injection pump, cooling pump, oil pump, exhaust gas filter). You have also to subtract transmission power loss (10-20%). In the best case you'll have 30% maximum efficiency, for a very specific power from your engine. If you need less or more power, the efficiency is much worse. And if you brake or stop the efficiency goes below zero! Consider also the oil transport energy needed, the oil refinery oil-to-gas energy waste, and you'll be lucky if you have a 10% global efficiency. The electric generation and grid status are very different in each country of the world, anyway this does not change the total efficiency.
italba
1 / 5 (1) Aug 22, 2012
1) I have never downranked anybody, even if he deserved it.
2) The project and construction date does not mean that the actual plant is working with the same technology.
3) The lithium batteries are quite good for the average user. And, like every technology, we will only get better batteries when there will be a huge market request.
4) With electric cars, you only need the AVERAGE power needed for your trip, not the MAXIMUM like combustion engines. A 30 kWh battery can be enough for a 100-150 km trip.
5) You can recharge your battery AT NIGHT, when there is less request for electrical energy but powerplants and grid are still on.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 22, 2012
They had the charge retention down quite badly by 700-800 cycles, which is unacceptable for electric cars that have to last for years and years.

That really depends on what finance model you use. I'm currently looking at the "Smart ed". They use a model where you don't buy the battery but just lease it for 70 Euros a month (which isn't an attractive price by my estimates, and neither is the asking price of the car - but those are different issues).
When the battery has degraded sufficiently it is replaced by the auto maker. So you never have that multi-10k chunk of money to shell out for a battery replacement.

If they halve the price (of the car and the leasing rate) this would sound attractive.

If the battery is cheap to make and easy to recycle then even a battery that is fully degraded after a 700-800 cycles might be worth the auto maker's trouble.
Eikka
not rated yet Aug 22, 2012
That really depends on what finance model you use.


It really doesn't. A battery that costs $10k and lasts for 1000 cycles is as expensive as a batterry that costs $20k and lasts 2000 cycles.

The fact that you're renting the battery doesn't change its ultimate cost. All the expenses are eventually pushed to the customer because the supply chain won't operate at a loss. If anything, it will just drive the cost up, because there's bureaucracy involved and the man in the middle is earning his living out of your monthly payments.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Aug 22, 2012
even a battery that is fully degraded after a 700-800 cycles might be worth the auto maker's trouble.


The entire industry has managed to drop battery prices to 1/8 in the last 20 years, to get to the price point where the smallest useful battery size is still about four times too expensive for the mass market, and that is with batteries that last 2-3 times longer than the Envia prototypes.

It would have to be ridiculously cheap to compete.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 22, 2012
The fact that you're renting the battery doesn't change its ultimate cost. All the expenses are eventually pushed to the customer because the supply chain won't operate at a loss.

Certainly they won't operate at a loss. But in the mentioned case you're never stuck with a degraded battery. If you figure that the cost for gas in the one month period would be the same (or higher, deducing the cost of electricity you need for the same range) then it can come out as a bargain (or not).

It's the up front (and maybe in-between) cost of buying a hugely expensive battery that puts people off. Monthly installments are easier to plan for. 30 Euros a month I could stomach. Always having to have 20k locked away in a bank account just in case of battery failure I would not.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Aug 22, 2012
Then again: a 200 mile range for 1000 charges would be a 200000mile range - which is more than most cars last these days.

Even if we drop that down by a third because you don't always charge when it's fully empty and the degradation sets in earlier we'd get 133000miles. That's not too far off from normal car lifetimes.

With battery capacities going up in leaps and bounds and the occasional promising report here on physorg about developments in the field, i'd say that electric cars aren't too far away from being ready for prime time.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2012
Then again: a 200 mile range for 1000 charges would be a 200000mile range - which is more than most cars last these days.


Yes, but having 200 miles of actual honest range would require installing approximately 2.9 times the battery capacity compared to today's electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, whose batteries are 3-4x too expensive at the moment.

So, to get from 2.9 times the price to 0.33 times the price to be appealing to the mass market, the new battery would actually have to be nine times cheaper than anything on the market today, which the trends predict would take 20 years at the going rate of progress.

Getting just 100 miles out of it at a compelling price would still need it to be about 4 times cheaper, but, 800 cycles to 63% range is not nearly enough. It comes out at roughly 65,000 miles total, so you'd need at least two battery sets for the life of the car, so 1/8 again.

It's simply too incredible. You don't go from 3-5% to 85% drop in prices just like that.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2012
Besides, with so much money invested in the battery, without which the car is worthless, the resale value of the electric car is lower which also needs to be factored in.

A $30-40k car will still have good value after 5 years, but if the battery is shot and requires a $5k replacement, that's not going to sell very well because 100k miles is where good cars are just broken in. That's the point where the middle-class first owners trade them out for a new one, and the lower middle class and the poor will in turn drive the next 100k miles.

If the car doesn't go at that point, it's not a solution to any problem because the majority of the people won't be able to use them. It'd be just a rich man's toy.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 25, 2012
Yes, but having 200 miles of actual honest range would require installing approximately 2.9 times the battery capacity compared to today's electric cars

Well, that's what the article is about, innit?

So, to get from 2.9 times the price to 0.33 times the price to be appealing to the mass market, the new battery would actually have to be nine times cheaper than anything on the market today,

mass markets tend to do that. Look at how far down solar panels have come. Look at how much cheaper electronics are (and how much more powerful) than they used to be. As I said: with progress in battery materials, new cathodes and anodes being reported almost on a daily basis I see no reason for pessimism.

without which the car is worthless, the resale value of the electric car is lower which also needs to be factored in.

Why sell? I never understood that one. And with the leasing method I explained earlier that is a non-argument, anyhow.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2012
As I said: with progress in battery materials, new cathodes and anodes being reported almost on a daily basis I see no reason for pessimism.


There's no pessimism. The rate at which things are going, we'll see the electric car reaching the masses and become a real contender by the end of the decade. The issue is that the claims about Envia's batteries are so far ahead of the curve that they're too incredible to be true.

We'll see the 100 mile car before we see the 200 mile car, and no, we don't really have one yet. Let's see how the Tesla S sells before making the call.

Why sell? I never understood that one.


Selling your car before it starts to develop problems and little nicks and tears all around is smart value, because you always get to drive a good new car, and only pay the difference. All you have to do is afford to get in the game and save enough money to buy a brand new car once.

Cars aren't like houses. They're bad investments for the long term.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2012
But the main point about re-selling the car is that there's a huge portion of people who simply can't afford to buy cars if they can't buy second hand.

If the electric car won't last from father to son without expensive replacement parts, it won't last from first owner to second and third, and that excludes a large population of working class people who do the majority of driving anyways.

That's another reason why 800 cycles out of a battery simply isn't acceptable. It works if your customer is Tom Cruise, but Tom isn't responsible for most of the CO2 emissions and other pollution from traffic in the country.

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