In January, as cold and awful weather gripped most of the U.S., a nightmare unfolded for the battery-electric-vehicle industry.
Reports from Chicago (a wintry locale even in the more temperate months) captured long lines of BEVs as they waited their turns at charging stations. Batteries were running dangerously low and, in some instances, depleting their charge altogether. Some desperate owners went so far as to temporarily abandon their dead cars.
The BEV industry is getting a lot of attention for many reasons, but this wasn’t the kind of spotlight it craves. Overall sales growth has been slowing lately, leading companies such as Tesla to cut prices to stay relevant in an increasingly crowded market, and fire safety issues persist. The last thing the BEV world needed was a spate of battery flops going viral.
Yet, according to several experts contacted by WardsAuto, the situation wasn’t as dire, widespread or catastrophic as it initially appeared in the oft-sensationalistic local news coverage. Nor did it prove any kind of inferiority with BEV batteries.
“Because it was so cold, the batteries are required to be at a certain temperature to charge at a fast rate,” explains Aaron Lieberman, CEO of BEV home charging station tech company Buzze.
“If the charging rate is increased, like at (Tesla) Superchargers, the charger has to slow down as the battery cannot accept the power as quickly,” Buzze’s chief product officer Jesse Martin adds. “Because of this, the backflow of people charging was not a problem with charge times of 30 minutes. However, with charge times now being two to three hours, the backup of cars increased drastically.”
This was compounded by the scarcity of resources. Reeja Jayan, associate professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, points out that “if you have limited charging stations, as we have in the U.S., you can imagine how this becomes bad quickly.”
Also, being the technology of the moment, BEVs are subject to greater scrutiny by the media and the public. In such a situation, the greater the problem, the wider the coverage. The difficulty gets magnified.
Michael Backman, president of BEV industry consulting and software services company Spectivate, says that “strictly speaking, battery ‘failure’ is not more likely or common in EV batteries than ICE batteries. All types of batteries suffer performance loss in cold weather.”
That isn’t very comforting to those who committed to paying tens of thousands of dollars to drive a BEV, though. A sobering fact of auto battery life these days is that BEV power packs can be far pricier than their ICE counterparts. For an ICE owner whose battery has degraded, swapping out for a fresh one won’t break the bank. His or her BEV-owning friend, though, might be on the hook for a replacement that can approach or even exceed $10,000 per unit (Even assuming the battery pack can be accessed cost-effectively – Ed).
However, BEVs are still relatively new products, as are their batteries. Invention and innovation will make them cheaper and more reliable. Phil Dunne, managing director of London consultancy Stax, predicts that “huge improvements are going to come over the next five years as new battery technologies evolve. Lithium-ion batteries are the current standard, but there are already a number of different technologies, including lithium iron phosphate and lithium nickel manganese cobalt, which each refer to different materials used in the cathodes and anodes linked by a liquid electrolyte.”
Dunne adds that the next major advancement in the technology should be solid-state batteries. Toyota and Volkswagen, among others, are hot on this trail; the two OEMs are hoping to mass-produce such goods by 2027.
However, the public shouldn’t rely solely on deep-pocketed automakers or battery specialists to innovate their way out of any problems. Several experts say BEV owner awareness can be lacking. Tesla models, for example, offer a preheating option for cold days. This not only makes for a non-frozen car interior, it “preps” the battery to readily accept a charge. Once the vehicle is plugged in, charging can occur at a properly rapid pace. “Of course,” points out Jayan, “this requires consumers to be more organized than they usually are.”
That’s assuming those consumers don’t get discouraged in the first place. None of the innovations on the horizon, or great leaps in driver awareness, are going to happen overnight. There will be more frigid days and more depleted/dead BEVs waiting on long lines at a still-inadequate number of charging stations.
This leads to a troubling thought: Will the reputation of BEVs suffer because of this and might that lead to an abandonment of the technology? Is the auto-driving world about to rush back to the comforting embrace of the ICE?
Matthew Kappers, CEO of next-generation battery developer the Coretec Group, does not believe so. In his view, BEV “technology isn’t some flash-in-the-pan trend that will wither away at the first sign of adversity. It’s been around long enough and has become established within a growing and dedicated consumer base, that it’s decidedly here to stay, especially considering the tech is only getting better and more efficient with continued research, testing and innovation.”