High Cost Of Batteries Affects Price Of Electric Car GM's much-anticipated Chevy Volt is expected to cost $40,000. David Kiley, senior correspondent in BusinessWeek, says the high price is because of the cost of the battery. He says, however, that once the government's incentive is factored in, the price of the car will drop to around $32,000.
NPR logo

High Cost Of Batteries Affects Price Of Electric Car

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113039276/113039258" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
High Cost Of Batteries Affects Price Of Electric Car

High Cost Of Batteries Affects Price Of Electric Car

High Cost Of Batteries Affects Price Of Electric Car

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113039276/113039258" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GM's much-anticipated Chevy Volt is expected to cost $40,000. David Kiley, senior correspondent in BusinessWeek, says the high price is because of the cost of the battery. He says, however, that once the government's incentive is factored in, the price of the car will drop to around $32,000.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And now to take this conversation beyond the lab. David Kiley joins us from our bureau in New York. He is senior correspondent for BusinessWeek and the author of several books on the auto industry. Welcome to the program, David.

Mr. DAVID KILEY (Senior Correspondent, BusinessWeek): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Let's start with sticker shock first. The much anticipated Chevy Volt would cost a whopping $40,000. Why?

Mr. KILEY: Well, it's because of the cost of the battery itself. I mean this is really a battery on wheels with a little motor that when the battery runs out will sort of back up the battery. You've got the government involved here though. So the estimates are that when you factor in the government incentives to the consumer, the actual price to put this on the road will be something around $32,000.

SIEGEL: Now as you say, the image here is of a battery on wheels. I sat in a model of a Chevy Volt at the auto show in Detroit earlier this year and the battery in it is so big, it actually creates a hump that runs through the middle of the car and it reduces the rear seat in effect to two bucket seats. Why is it so big?

Mr. KILEY: Well, because in the case of the Volt, they want consumers to be able to drive on an electric charge up to about 40 miles. After 40 miles, then the gas fed engine or motor in the car then starts feeding energy through the battery that continues to power the car. So even after 40 miles, you're not - you're not running on gas, it's actually the gas motor is continuing to power the battery.

And so the more energy you need for that, the larger the battery has to be. If the range were only going to be say five or six miles on full electric, the battery would be able to be a lot smaller. But, you know, the Toyota Prius captured our imagination or the imagination of a lot of people with this certain wow factor, and GM is hoping for the same thing with the Volt.

SIEGEL: Speaking of the Prius, is Toyota wowed by the lithium ion battery technology?

Mr. KILEY: Not so much. They, at the Frankfurt Auto Show last week, talked about how their extensive testing of these lithium ion batteries have been kind of disappointing in terms of what they deliver for the cost that's necessary. So they actually have said that they don't think electric - all electric cars powered by lithium ion will be a real factor in the marketplace till about 2020. So they are continuing to work with the current battery technology, which is called nickel metal hydride. And that's the battery that's in the Prius. It's also in the Ford Escape hybrid and in some of the other hybrids that General Motors and other companies have on the market today.

SIEGEL: I gather Nissan has ambitions in this area.

Mr. KILEY: They do. Nissan - which is sort of mated up with French carmaker Renault, they're sort of owned and managed together - they have a very ambitious plan to start rolling out electric all-battery, all-electric vehicles by 2011, 2012 and 2013. And they've linked up with a company called Better Place, and they have a test, which they're starting in Israel and rolling out to about 20 countries where you wouldn't have to wait and recharge your battery. You could pull into a station and actually swap your battery and have a fully charged one put back in.

SIEGEL: Let's say though that a few years down the road we have Nissan cars like that, we have Toyota hybrids, we have GM Chevy Volts out there. What does that mean for servicing all these cars? Is one going to be limited to the dealership in all cases because they're the only people who know your car?

Mr. KILEY: Right. I think that in these first generations of all this new technology, it's going to be dealer only. And, you know, it's going to be quite a job for these car companies to train and educate these dealerships with new personnel and new training. And, you know, it's an area for new jobs. We can always use that.

SIEGEL: David Kiley, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. KILEY: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: David Kiley is senior correspondent for BusinessWeek. And photos of that big Volt battery are at the All Tech Considered blog, that's at npr.org/alltech.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Electric Cars Make Progress With New Batteries

Electric Cars Make Progress With New Batteries

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113031560/113039257" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

General Motors' Chevy Volt on display during opening day of the North American International Auto Show earlier this year in Detroit. The Volt uses a lithium ion battery with a gasoline-powered, range-extending engine. Jerry S. Mendoza/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Jerry S. Mendoza/AP

General Motors' Chevy Volt on display during opening day of the North American International Auto Show earlier this year in Detroit. The Volt uses a lithium ion battery with a gasoline-powered, range-extending engine.

Jerry S. Mendoza/AP

Using batteries to drive car engines is a technical tour de force involving cells, electronics and sensors. The massive amount of energy produced has to be tightly controlled. And engineers have to fit the battery shape into the vehicle.

The next generation of hybrid and electric vehicles will have a lighter and more powerful kind of battery inside — lithium ion batteries, which automakers are investing billions in developing.

There are three things that stand out about electric cars. First, they're really quiet. Second, they accelerate instantly, because electricity is immediately available to the wheels. And third, they'll be expensive: Some of the billions carmakers are investing in battery technologies is going to show up in the sticker price.

Ron Jamieson is in charge of General Motors' new 30,000-square-foot battery lab. GM has invested $1 billion in its Chevy Volt program to build a car that can go 40 miles on battery power alone. The lab is filled with black or silver chambers that look like huge meat lockers.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the lithium ion batteries inside the chambers charge and discharge under different conditions of climate and load. GM also runs continuous tests on individual cells.

There are more than 200 lithium ion cells in one 400-pound battery. Each cell has to be perfect, or the battery won't work.

"This cell — I guess it's about the size of a greeting card," says Brian Corbett, spokesman for GM's hybrid programs, while showing one to a reporter.

The cell is a flat pouch that looks like a plastic 8-by-5 padded mailing envelope. A lot of energy is stored in the little package. But Jamieson says the cells won't catch fire even if the battery pack is crushed in an accident.

"You might expect, well, wow, if I stuck this in water or short it out or whatever, I would expect some very bad results," says Jamieson. "But it has been very, very benign. As I say, boring."

GM says its Chevy Volt will be available at the end of 2010. Other carmakers will launch electric and hybrid cars with lithium ion batteries in 2011 and 2012. Car companies say that over time, the cost will go down as more drivers fuel their cars at the electric outlet instead of the gas pump.