Batteries Aren't the Key to Cleaner Transportation

A historian warns against expecting too much from battery innovation, but not from alternative transportation.

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"If past experience tells us anything about the future, we should be wary of expectations and promised breakthroughs in battery technology."

That was the conclusion I reached in 1999, published in a book entitled The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History (Rutgers, 2000). More than a decade later, I'll stand by what I wrote.


Does that mean that batteries are unimportant? No. Storing electricity has been and continues to be a critical technical requirement for any working electric car. Despite advances in fuel cell and ultra-capacitor technology, every publicly available electric and hybrid-electric vehicle released or announced in recent years continues to rely upon more or less conventional battery systems for storing and using electricity. Thus, on first pass, batteries are important, and better batteries (more efficient, more robust, more affordable, etc.) will lead to better electric vehicles and, therefore, to more widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

So, batteries matter, but only up to a point. Batteries are only one piece of a complex suite of long-term solutions to the problem of over-reliance on internal combustion. Yet too often the public debate begins and ends with groups of scientists and engineers praising the super-battery of the future and other groups, often economists or incumbent vehicle manufacturers, talking about the liabilities of the battery of today. In 1994, cultural archeologist Michael Brian Schiffer described this as the "better battery bugaboo," the belief held by generations of would-be electric vehicle experts and enthusiasts that the electric vehicle's time will come when and only when the problem of the battery is solved.

Even Nobel laureates, it appears, are not immune to this belief. Speaking in Cancun in December 2010 as part of the Global Climate Conference (COP-16), U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu talked about the Department of Energy's battery development programs. According to Chu, the super-battery -- one that could affordably and sustainably power say a Ford Fusion 450 miles on a single charge -- is almost here: "It's not like it's 10 years off in the future.... It might be five years off.... It's soon!" Sounds good, but the super-battery has been five years away for more than 100 years. Seriously.

None other than Thomas Edison himself announced an early super-battery in 1901. The resulting alkaline cells were good -- better than the lead-acid batteries that were available at the time Edison commenced work -- but was the Edison battery a super-battery? Not exactly. You'd have heard about it before if it was. There were multiple false starts, and commercial-ready versions of his Type A cell were not introduced until 1909. In the interim, lead-acid batteries had improved a bit, the Edison battery was found to have some liabilities that were not observable in the laboratory, and oh, by the way, internal combustion technology was improving so quickly that even Edison's then-super-battery (had it been delivered on time, within budget, and without newfound problems) would not have stood a chance.

Here's the real problem: Entrepreneurs can raise money with tomorrow's battery, but you and I cannot drive a car with it. Car manufacturers can only use technology that can be bought and installed and charged today. Five years, tomorrow, soon, whenever ... it does not help us today.

I keep hoping that I'm wrong, that one of these fancy technologies will pop from the lab and upend the century-long balance of power that has led to the dominance of internal combustion. But here's the sentence I wrote 10 years ago that followed the one above:

"Without dramatic changes in prevailing energy prices or public policies, battery-powered electric vehicles will not be competitive with internal combustion cars on a head-to-head basis."

Again, I'll stand by it. Today, prevailing energy prices have moved up, and public policy has been mobilized to support alternatives to internal combustion. I'm not sure if the changes are "dramatic" enough to make electric vehicles competitive, but it's close enough that serious, well-capitalized entrepreneurs have entered the fray. To that end, I'm most excited about new business models like Better Place's battery exchange system that eliminate "range anxiety." I'm excited about plug-in hybrids that use off-the-shelf battery technology to increase convenience and efficiency at marginal cost. And I'm excited about new mobility concepts like car- and ride-sharing that challenge long-standing behavioral assumptions and create value in new ways.

What do all these new concepts share? They have nothing to do with the battery.