Monday, December 22, 2008

Technology For Electric Vehicles Is Moving, Only It Is In Reverse

If GM could build the EV1 to go up to 150 miles on a full charge 10 years ago, why can the Volt only go 40 miles on a full charge today?

Excellent question. Surely, battery technology has advanced in the past 10 years, right?

Yes, but that's not the real problem.

The battery pack powering the EV1 was NiMH (nickel metal hydride). The Volt will be powered by lithium ion batteries like the ones in laptops and cell phones.

So, yes, battery technology has advanced in the last 10 years, but I think the problem of reduced battery range goes beyond that. I think the "regression" in battery capability is intentional. Here's why:

In 1994 General Motors bought a controlling stake in ECD Ovonics. By doing so, GM gained control over the development and manufacturing of Ovonics large NiMH batteries. This move also provided GM with all the patents on the batteries.

As mentioned, these NiMH batteries were used in the final examples of the EV1 in 1999, and reportedly worked flawlessly.

Fast forward a couple of years to 2001, and a relatively unpublicized transaction took place. GM sold its share of ECD Ovonics (and the patents) to…


Yep, the oil company.

Six days later, Chevron completed its' purchase of Texaco. So now the battery technology that allowed the EV1 to run for 150 miles without a single drop of gasoline is in the hands of one of the largest oil companies in the world.

In 2003, Texaco Ovonics Battery Systems was renamed Cobasys, a 50/50 joint venture between Chevron and ECD Ovonics. Independently, Chevron owns a 20% stake in ECD Ovonics.

By now, you are probably guessing that an oil company with the patents to a very effective battery technology would never let that technology see the light of day. It could very well put them out of business.

To state that the technology was buried is not entirely true. But what Cobasys did is extensively limit the ability for any one to get their hands on NiMH batteries. And anyone found utilizing the NiMH battery technology that Cobasys had the patents on were sued and sued often, such as Panasonic. In essence, Cobasys controlled the market for NiMH batteries, and they were doing their best to make sure none of the batteries made it into any electronic vehicle.

And that brings us nearly full-circle to the current crop of electronic vehicles, including the Volt. The Volt, as mentioned, will run on costlier lithium ion batteries, which will drive up the cost of the Volt. GM could have used the cheaper and proven NiMH batteries, but alas, they sold the patents to Cobasys (Chevron). Do you think Chevron would allow the Volt to be produced with NiMH batteries, eliminating the need for a gasoline engine to supply power after 40 miles? Not a chance.

Now, to be fair, Cobasys is allowing their NiMH batteries to be used in the Chevy Malibu hybrid, the Saturn Aura Hybrid, and the Saturn Vue Hybrid. But all of those vehicles are hybrids, so they still rely on gasoline. Not one vehicle is utilizing Cobasys batteries as the sole source of power.

But it gets better. The company chosen to supply the Lithium Ion batteries for the Volt is called A123Systems. Guess who they are partnered with? Cobasys.


So, to bring this all together, the battery technology from 10 years ago that powered a car 150 miles, is now controlled by an oil company, and any new hybrid vehicle in production now relies on batteries from an oil company.

Is it any wonder that we are 10 years down the road from the EV1, but have yet to see a true mass market electric vehicle? Not when the technology is owned by an oil company. I guess we can only sit and wait until 2014 when the patents expire.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

very insightful... crap, but very insightful

NiMH batteries are less safe, exhibit memory affects, offer poorer high and low temp discharge, lower power to volume and power to weight ratios... and don't handle very high charge/discharge rates as well as LiIon

-A Battery Engineer

8:55 PM  

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