Electric Car Battery Must Keep Going And Going

One of the buzzwords at the Los Angeles Auto Show is "electrification." It's a future where cars run solely on battery power. Paul Eisenstein of The Detroit Bureau, an independent auto news service, says that future is still a ways off. He tells Steve Inskeep that for electric cars to succeed, they'll need a battery that lasts for more than 100 miles before a recharge.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, it's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. We're about to talk about the biggest single barrier to a revolution in cars. We could be driving electric cars instead of gas. In fact, we might have been doing that for a century were it not for the batteries. Paul Eisenstein is with an independent auto-news service called the Detroit Bureau.

Mr. PAUL EISENSTEIN (The Detroit Bureau): To make the technology work, you need batteries that are smaller, lighter, significantly more powerful, delivering range that's more like a gasoline car.

INSKEEP: Eisenstein says for electric cars to succeed now, they would need a battery that lasts for more than 100 miles before a recharge and has a charging time of 15 minutes, not eight hours. Eisenstein has been looking at new cars available now at the LA Auto Show.

Mr. EISENSTEIN: What we're seeing this week are hybrids, and what that does, is it uses technology, electric technology, to recapture energy that's normally lost when you're breaking or coasting. But you're not primarily riding on a battery; you're primarily using a gas engine.

INSKEEP: It's jumping back and forth between the gas engine, the electric engine, and there's a little bit of each being used at all times.

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Exactly. Now, the next level, which we're hearing a lot of discussion about, is the plug-in hybrid, or as the industry prefers, the extended-range electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt, which certainly gets a lot of attention. These vehicles are designed to ride primarily on their battery power, but they have gasoline engines as backup. That way you don't have to have much battery on board, at least not of the current technology batteries. So, you can do your daily commute, and you may, if you only drive it for commuting purposes, you may never fire up the gasoline engine.

INSKEEP: Let's figure that out so that I understand what's going on and how that's different from the hybrids you just described that are on the road now. With this thing that's been plugged in all night, I get up in the morning. I'm on my way to work, and for the first 30 or 40 or however many miles, that battery is driving me exclusively, and it's only when the battery is dead that I'm using any gas. Is that right?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: OK. So, the batteries that exist now, are they good enough for that to be a successful vehicle that millions of people could plausibly drive?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: The simple answer? We don't know. All these manufacturers that are pushing for plug-ins or, like, extended-range vehicles, particularly GM with the Chevy Volt, are betting that the latest generation of lithium-ion battery technology, pretty much the same stuff you have in your cell phone, that they're going to be able to scale that up so it can push a car for a while.

INSKEEP: Oh, my good - if it's like what's in my cell phone, we're doomed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: It's never going to work.

Mr. EISENSTEIN: But that's the big worry. Not only will it provide enough power, but will it last for 100,00 miles or so? And the technology has to go even further if we're going to achieve the real breakthrough, what everybody wants, which is the pure electric vehicle. Yeah, they've got batteries that are good enough and getting better for standard hybrids like the Prius, like the Ford Escape Hybrid, and the new Mercury Milan Hybrid that they're showing at the LA Show. But now they have to make the breakthrough for these plug-in vehicles, and those batteries are going to jump to lithium technology.

INSKEEP: Is there any sense that you have that Detroit, by being so far behind Toyota, say, when it comes to hybrids, might end up ahead, because their first generation of widely selling hybrids might have better batteries and a better system and be this plug-in system that might go beyond what the Prius, say, could do right now for Toyota?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Yeah, certainly, the batteries that are going into the next generation of the Ford hybrids, the Mercury Milan and the Ford Fusion that they're going to be showing in L.A. Those are significantly better from what I understand than the batteries in the Prius. But it's a war out there. These manufacturers are racing to try to come up with better battery technology. So, we are likely to see massive, massive breakthroughs in battery technology over the next few years. That said, I have to remember that it was 100 years ago when Henry Ford and Thomas Alva Edison sat down, and Edison calmly predicted he'd have the 100-mile battery in time for Henry's wife to be able to drive her electric vehicle. Well, here we are a century later, they're still struggling.

INSKEEP: Paul Eisenstein, thanks very much.

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: He's with the Detroit Bureau, an independent auto-news service.

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