The Tesla vs The New York Times battle has been hashed over all week, and the consensus in many quarters is that electric vehicles are ready for prime time, but Times reporter John Broder is, to put it kindly, not ready for electric vehicles. Lost in the sauce is the only real obstacle to getting more people behind the wheel of an EV, and that is affordability. Sooo… who’s doing what about that? Well don’t look now but the Obama Administration is doing something precisely about that with $20 million in new funding to develop affordable EV batteries.
Tesla vs New York Times vs Affordability
As Times reporter John Broder aptly demonstrated, the Tesla Model S is a brilliantly designed car, but no amount of cutting edge engineering can make up for a driver’s lack of common sense (obviously the same goes for gasoline powered cars, too).
For EVs, the problem isn’t within the battery range itself, it’s the expense involved in engineering high-range batteries. Unlike conventional cars, for which the gas tank is a negligible factor in the selling price, the battery pack is a key feature of an EV. Its size, weight, and configuration make all the difference between affordability and not.
That’s the challenge addressed by the Obama Administration’s latest project, the $20 million Robust Affordable Next Generation EV Storage Project (Range).
The EV Storage Project will be administered by the Energy Department’s cutting-edge research arm ARPA-E, which has just released a notice of the funding opportunity, though it does note that the $20 million is subject to the “availability of appropriated funds.”
The end goal is to come up with cutting-edge solutions that will triple the range of a typical EV from around 80 miles to 240 miles per charge, while chopping costs by around one third. The end result will be an EV that costs under $30,000 and can go on long trips before recharging, pretty much what you’d expect from a conventional vehicle.
At this first stage of the project, ARPA-E is focusing on the battery itself. That means breaking out of the conventional lithium-ion box and trying new approaches like these:
“Aqueous or other low-cost inorganic electrolyte based systems and novel cell geometries are of particular interest, as are flow battery architectures employing liquid or slurry-based reactants that enable physical isolation of active materials.”
It also means developing a “robust” battery that can shoulder other tasks aside from making the vehicle move. That would help extend the vehicle’s range, since it would enable the elimination of redundant equipment and/or structural elements.
Other considerations include the use of little or no flammable or combustible substances, and the reduction or elimination of waste heat.
President Obama and EV Affordability
When President Obama used his State of the Union Address to promise executive action on climate change if certain members of Congress continue to throw up roadblocks, he wasn’t exactly leaping into unknown territory.
Despite pushback from the aforementioned members of Congress (okay, so Republican leadership), for the past four years, the Administration has pushed forward with clean technology initiatives to reduce carbon emissions, including a raft of projects aimed at bringing down the cost of EV tech.
With the goal of making EV ownership affordable and accessible to the mass market, the Administration has already marshaled scores of public and private EV stakeholders together, including many of the top employers in the U.S., such as utilities, tech companies (Google being a big one), major fleet owners (FedEx for example), and manufacturers of all kinds both within and without the automotive sector.
One key element is EV Everywhere, which like the SunShot solar initiative is designed to accelerate new technology and overcome structural obstacles. As part of that program the Administration has just recruited 13 major U.S. employers to serve as role models for workplace EV charging, with the goal of getting many others to follow their lead.
The Administration also launched a partnership with Google to develop a national online database for EV charging station locations, an online guide for communities to accelerate their EV readiness, and a major energy storage research center called JCESR (Joint Center for Energy Storage Research).
One Last Word about that Tesla vs New York Times Thing
Not for nothing, but there was a long period of time not too long ago during which the conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh made a cottage industry out of bashing GM’s Chevy Volt. That seems to have died down, partly squashed by an aggressive ad campaign by GM featuring happy Volt owners.
Now, along comes The New York Times with a Limbaugh-style whack at Tesla, but this time it seems that EV enthusiasts have taken the matter into their own hands. Rather than waiting around for Tesla Motors to come out with a new ad campaign, a convoy of Tesla owners set out to replicate Broder’s journey this weekend under similar weather conditions. You can catch up with them on Twitter, complete with photos.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.