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From the road, for the road

10 October 2017

Tesla are pouring gargantuan sums of money into building a factory dedicated to manufacturing the type of 18650 Li-Ion cells used in the growing range of EVs that the company plans to make.

Li-Ion technology is now pretty mature and despite the potential risks, has proven itself to be pretty robust and reliable. It also delivers an "adequate" energy density based on mass and volume -- such that some of the Tesla vehicles now offer ranges which are roughly equivalent to their dino-juice-powered peers.

However, battery technology will change, of that we can be sure.

Just as we started with Volta's piles of dissimilar metals separated by acid-soaked paper and moved on to other chemistries and methods of construction, so we'll eventually replace the Li-Ion with newer technologies that offer improved safety, performance and energy density.

Perhaps, as discussed yesterday, we'll even end up with non-chemical methods of storing electrical energy -- such as practical supercapacitors.

The big questions we need the answers to however, are what will the next big energy storage technology be and how far away is it?

Well we've heard about Zinc-air and Aluminium-air batteries for a long time now but little seems to have happened in terms of getting these things out of the lab and into the market.

One technology that has suddenly appeared from nowhere in the past few weeks though, is the lithium-carbon cell using asphalt (bitumen) as a key ingredient. Yes, we're talking about batteries which might be ideal for the road... made from the road!

According to this Arstechnica story, the new battery technology offers almost four times the energy density (per Kg) than the existing 18650 Li-Ion cells being used by Tesla and most other EV manufacturers.

Just as importantly, these new cells can be recharged in as little as six minutes (assuming a suitably high-current charge source).

If (and I must say IF) this technology can be taken from lab to market at a reasonable price and in sufficient volume, this may be the real turning point in practical EVs.

Imagine an EV that gives twice the range of your dino-juiced car on a single charge. Imagine one that can be completely refueled in about the same time it takes to load your tank with 91 octane petrol.

Now we're talking *practical* EVs!

Which brings me back to Mr Musk...

I worry that Tesla will find itself at an extreme disadvantage in the next 5-6 years, mainly because it is a ground-breaker today.

Once all tooled up to create millions of Li-Ion batteries and committed to this battery technology as the backbone of its EV fleet, Tesla will have to re-tool to switch technologies mid-stream. That's an extra cost that its competitors, who are later to the market, will not face.

The GMs, Toyotas, Hondas and others will be able to start their full-scale EV roll-outs with this new battery tech and a smaller investment than Tesla. This will mean lower overall costs and thus the opportunity for higher profit margins and/or cheaper prices on the EVs they sell. How can Tesla compete?

In essence, Tesla will have blown huge amounts of money by creating a market and, due to its inability to ramp up EV production to meet demand, lost the lead.

I don't think I'd be buying a brand new EV right now... the risk of astronomical depreciation occurring almost overnight, as new technologies are rolled out, is too great. However, I would leap at the chance to buy a cheap second-hand EV which has already experienced that massive depreciation.

If you grab a Nissan Leaf for $10K or so with 80% of its battery capacity still intact then you have a good chance of coming out ahead when compared to that $10K Mazda dino-juicer that was an option. What's more, when new battery technology rolls out there is always the opportunity to "upgrade" from the old-school Li-Ion pack to a new Li-whatever pack and triple your car's range overnight.

I certainly hope this new battery technology (or another new tech) pans out and we suddenly see dino-juicers as being the inefficient, polluting, unreliable vehicles that they are (by comparison). Once the revolution really starts, I expect the "smokers" will be off the road within a few short years. It will just be too expensive to hang onto them as an every-day drive.

What do readers think? Is going EV a no-brainer once new battery tech effectively makes them "better" than "smokers"?

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