Battery innovation isn’t as slow as many people think it is, and the continued pace of battery improvement enables entirely new types of electric car design, according to Tesla co-founder and CTO JB Straubel.

We drive the new Tesla Model S thumbnail

Tesla could have never created the Model S — its second-generation electric car that won Motor Trend’s car of the year award for 2012 — with battery technology from a few decades ago, said Tesla’s CTO and co-founder J.B. Straubel at the Cleantech Investor Summit last week. He explained, “The type of vehicle we can create is fundamentally different every time that tech [batteries] moves a little forward.”

While battery innovation appears gradual, the incremental leaps add up over time. Battery innovation is improving around 5 to 8 percent per year, which can deliver a doubling in core performance metrics every ten years, which is ultimately really “revolutionary” said Straubel. Because of the large size and heavy physical weight of batteries involved with electric cars, the impact of battery innovation on the design of the car can be even more significant than Moore’s Law has on some computing products, added Straubel.

For car design, “It’s almost as if the properties of steel were improving at a rate of 5 to 8 percent per year,” said Straubel.

Tesla Model S

The new design and engineering of the Model S has been Tesla’s differentiator, and it is what the company is hoping will help it move into profitability and success as a more mainstream auto maker down the road. The car is one of the first electric cars in the world that was designed from the ground up as electric. In contrast most auto makers that have built electric cars have taken an existing traditional gas-powered car and put batteries in it.

The Model S, in comparison, has placed the battery along the bottom of the car, so that it doesn’t take up seating and storage space, and also so that the car has a low center of gravity and is more aerodynamic. The Tesla Roadster (it’s first car) and the Nissan LEAF are based on the bodies of gas-powered cars.

Shai Agassi, the founder and former CEO of Better Place, also touted the importance of the rate of battery innovation during his talk at the Cleantech Investor Summit. He said the energy density of batteries goes up 15 percent every 18 months; the cost per kilowatt hour goes down 15 percent every 18 months; the life cycles of the batteries (how many times it can charge and recharge) goes up 15 percent every 18 months; and the cost per lifecycle-mile does down 50 percent every 18 months. “If you don’t like the margins in this [electric car] business just wait 12 months,” said Agassi.

The crucial factor for both Tesla and Better Place will be surviving in an early market place as these improvements emerge. As with all startups, timing and execution will be key.

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  1. And a cold day in the Northeast negates all that progress.


    Love the Tesla, but if this doesn’t get fixed, the ICE remains dominant.

    1. Did you even read that article Michael? The guy doesn’t plan his trip correctly then blames the car, that’s like running out of gasoline and blaming General Motors.

      Nice post Katie, quality as usual.

      Another key aspect of Tesla model S and electric car design is that you can add significantly more safety to the car. Without an engine up front or transmission you can add structural shapes that simply wouldn’t fit into the design of a normal ICE car. The Model S has one of the highest crash test ratings of any car, ever.

      The other cool thing about Tesla’s battery is that they can make it into any shape they want. This will be important when electric power trains start branching into more areas.

      Peter Rawlinson can explain it better than I can. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrbOLHW8Pec

      1. The guy from NYTimes 1) didn’t mention in his article his overall travel distance and average travel speed 2) haven’t charged his car during night parking.

      2. I want to agree with you, but it’s pretty clear that the car got much less range in the cold weather than it indicated it would at the beginning of the trip and lost a great deal of range overnight just from being cold.

        Yes, we have to expect some issues like this in these early days of the new age of EVs, cold-weather performance clearly is a significant issue.

  2. Typo. “It’s” shouldn’t have apostrophe. And I agree w Michael Grant.

  3. Just get a Volt. No range issues.

  4. No worries James, keep on paying for that gas. Today, in my neighborhood, $4.17/gallon for regular unleaded. One tank will cost me $70 for my ICE vehicle. One MONTH of charging will cost me $60 in my Tesla. Driving nearly 20k miles a year, that saves me about $3500 in gas costs per year. So, in 5 years, I’ll have saved nearly $18k in ownership costs, and that doesn’t even include the fact that there is no ICE engine to repair, no oil services, no smog checks.

    So yes, TODAY they do need more Superchargers. But TOMORROW (and by ‘tomorrow’ I mean the end of this year), when they have >100 Supercharging stations along the N-S and E-W corridors, do you really think the ICE will reamin dominant?

    Hmmm… I think I disagree with Michael Grant.

    1. James Robertson rd2 Monday, February 11, 2013

      Let’s posit that they actually install those stations. Given the number of electric cars using them, and the ROI (someone with a spreadsheet at Tesla will bring this up regularly), how long do you think they’ll stay in place for a handful of vanity owners to use? Heck, hybrids are high priced now, never mind full on electrics. No one in the average buying range is getting one, period. Now, as to actual usage: Let’s use the trip I take a few times a year to shuttle my kid to college (300 miles). In average use (using heat and/or AC), I’ll have to charge 1-2 times each way. That’s 30-60 minutes added to my trip in each direction, which . That wait time assumes no line at the charge station, either – what if there are people using each station when I get there? gas stations, even full when you arrive, cycle quickly. Then there’s the brick effect if you let the car’s charge go all the way down – and yes, what is considered normal use of a car (parking it at an airport, for instance) can get you there. These things are expensive toys.

      1. james you have a thorough lack of knowledge about the Tesla. It has a 180-290mi range. Even if you drive 80 the whole way in freezing temperatures the car will only need to be charged twice. (note it will also be able to carry twice as much stuff as most other sedans— 68 cubic feet—about the same as a jeep grand cherokee….so depending on how much stuff your kid needs for college your ICE car might need two trips! lol). As to the supercharger stations, most of them run on solar arrays installed by Tesla that feed the grid. The stations are like mini power plants that eventually pay for themselves….which is why they are free for Tesla owners and won’t be removed regardless of how little one might be used.
        Also don’t ignore this is the safest vehicle on the road with 5 star ratings from every angle of impact. In fact it actually broke the roof crushing machine in one of the tests.
        As it stands today it may have some level of inconvenience for long trips….but for those trips the fuel will be free, the trip safer than in any other car, it will be more roomy and be able to hold more stuff. And don’t forget it goes 0-60 in 3.9 seconds…if you need to add a little thrill to the long trip. EV’s are at their best around town and in a garage at night. Yet even today many people would sacrifice a bit of range inconvenience for safety, cargo space, fun, and free fuel….and that is TODAY. In 5 years the batteries will be better and lighter and as a result the Tesla will have far greater range and be even quicker. The battery can be swapped out in 10 minutes….and the entire car is readily upgraded with software updates

      2. James, you obviously know nothing of Lithium batteries. They do NOT just brick themselves. They can be discharged down to 0 volts and be recharged just fine.
        Also, most families have more than 1 car. If you needs require you to travel those kinds of distances several times a year AND you have no access to a gas car, then an electric car just isn’t for you. For the rest of us, with multi-car households, 1 electric car fits in perfectly with our needs.
        Finally, as for price, the Nissan leaf just came down in price, and the Volt and Model S cost less than the high-end BMW’s & Mercedes some of my friends are buying.
        So if someone values a a brand name and is willing to pay a premium to own it, then what is so wrong about someone paying a smaller premium or something that THEY value, such as efficiency?

      3. for these trips, you rent a car or use your second car.

      4. James, since when was a car NOT an expensive toy. Any car.

      5. You said, “never mind full on electrics. No one in the average buying range is getting one, period.”

        The average price paid for a car in the U.S. last year was about $30K.

        The new Nissan LEAF is $28,800 list price. After incentives, it’s under $20K in many states.

        YOU ARE WRONG!

      6. “These things are expensive toys.”

        Flashback to 1987: “Cell Phones Are Neat But Expensive”

        …1997: “Cell Phones Are Everywhere”

        …2007: “Apple Debuts iPhone”

      7. James, please move aside. You are blocking the door to the Tesla store and I am desperately trying to get inside so I can put down my deposit for a car that cannot be built fast enough. I will probably have to wait 6 to 9 months for delivery like the rest of Tesla’s thousands of customers so I need to get in today. I will be sure to wave at you when I pass you on the highway from my Model X in the HOV lanes.

    2. Nice rd2! You forgot to mention your reduction in carbon foot print. Induction charging technologies will one day keep you EV charged as you roll down the highway.

      Also, I can’t believe there are people that think in the year 2013 it is cool to drive arround in 100 plus year technology. The ICE is ridiculously outdated. And ironically, electric vehicles have been around since the ICE.

    3. “Driving nearly 20k miles a year, that saves me about $3500 in gas costs per year.”

      –20k miles a year? REALLY!!!??? Do you work 10 hours per day, 6 days per week as a pizza delivery driver? Are you a long-haul trucker? 20,000/365 = 54.8 miles per day. 20,000/260 (260 workdays in a year) = 77 miles per day.
      Very few people actually drive that much on a consistent basis in their own personal vehicle. The average American female drives less than 12k miles per year and the stats for American men are skewed by occupations that require driving as part of the job. Truckers, cab drivers, delivery drivers, etc.

      You’re not saving money! You merely pre-paid your energy expenditures and hid them from yourself in the price of the vehicle–

  5. So basically, 5 cycles = 90 months according to Agassi.

    In 90 months, or 7 1/2 years, we should have a battery that is twice as energy dense as today’s and costs half as much per kw/hour. In other words, today’s $20,000 Tesla battery would allow a 500 mile range for the same 1200 lbs. And in another 7 1/2 years from there, it should be 600 lbs. and run $10,000. At that point, why would anyone buy an internal-combustion car?

    Volt-like vehicles seem like a perfect bridge for the next decade or so. By then a very robust electric-charging infrastructure will be in place and perhaps a battery breakthrough will occur, accelerating these trends somewhat.

    If not, we can rest knowing that before 2030, an absolutely no compromises car that costs under $30,000 will run 500 miles and if you want to save some money you can get a 300-mile range car for less…. That lesser-range car will let you do pretty much everything, except forgo charging on east-cost roadtrips in the winter when overnighting in Vermont.

    1. “In other words, today’s $20,000 Tesla battery would allow a 500 mile range for the same 1200 lbs. And in another 7 1/2 years from there, it should be 600 lbs. and run $10,000.”

      And have a 1,000 mile range according to Agassi.
      And then in another 7 1/2 years from there, it should be 300 lbs., run $5,000 and have a range of 2,000 miles.
      And in another 7 1/2 years from there, it should be 150 lbs., run $2,500, and have a range of 4,000 miles.
      And in another 7 1/2 years from there, it should be 75 lbs., run $1,250, and have a range of 8,000 miles.
      And then (according the Agassi) sometime before the year 2060, it should be 37.5 lbs, run $625, and have a range of 16,000 miles.

      That’s right folks! According to Agassi, by the year 2060 you will be able to drive an entire year’s worth of miles on ONE CHARGE!

      So warm and fuzzy!

  6. Arthur Porcari Monday, February 11, 2013

    You forgot to mention China based Nasdaq listed Kandi Technologies (KNDI) who though being an EV maker, has patented and developed a Quick Battery Exchange technology that first attracted China’s mega Electric Utility, State Grid (88% of land mass and 1 billion consumers) to Joint Venture with KNDI in 2010 due to the added EV benefit of Grid Stabilization Vehicle to Grid (V2G), Next was blessed by the PRC Government and State Owned “Lithium in the Air” Battery Company ( Listed on Fortunes Global 500), in 2012 as being the preferred model for EV electrification . And as of last week, KNDI agreed to a 50-50 Joint Venture with China’s largest passenger car maker Geely to jointly develop a small inexpensive line of EV’s for all of China.

    To Quote International Nomura Securities Analysts in a Research note confirming their “Buy” recommendation on Geely last week:

     Geely announced it has entered into an agreement to form a 50/50
    joint venture with Kandi Technologies (KNDI.US, not rated), to develop
    and market electric vehicles (EV). We do not expect the JV will make
    any contributions to Geely’s 2013 earnings; however, we believe this
    is positive for Geely in the long run.

     Given the recent headlines on smog, we believe China will continue to
    aggressively push for the adoption of alternative vehicles, including
    EV, in the long term. In our opinion, Geely and other automakers must
    remain at the forefront in the development of EV. Since EV technology
    has yet to reach marketwide acceptance, we believe a JV is the best
    strategy to minimize development costs and risks.

     Kandi Technologies has embraced a concept similar to the vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology. Other than the fact that both companies are
    based in Hangzhou, we believe Kandi’s application of V2G is a major
    reason for the cooperation. We believe V2G is one of the more viable
    concepts in the EV industry. In Kandi’s case, used EV batteries are
    swapped with recharged batteries. Recharged, unused batteries are
    connected to the grid to balance loads during peak load demands.

    You can be excused for missing this. As a small $120 million market cap company, KNDI has been all but ignored by main stream elitist investors, analysts and journalists in the US, but not for much longer.

    1. Thanks for the off topic Kandi spam.

  7. James Robertson Monday, February 11, 2013

    That’s fine, until you have to drive a car in heavy traffic, and try to use the heater or AC. Like, say, the Washington Beltway in the summer. Oh, and then how do you plug it in at your destination? Then, when you do want to charge it, you need to allocate 30 minutes (assuming there’s a fast charging station). If not, you need to allocate a few hours). Electric cars are an answer to no question that is being asked by anyone.

    1. My drive is 6 miles each way to work. For 80% of americans, their commut is <40 miles. That is in the range of all electric cars produced today.
      You are concocting scenarios that only 20% of the population will ever encounter, and using the exceptional cases as a reason to validate your point
      For longer distances, drive a gas car. Just about every married couple has more than 1 vehicle so what's wrong about having 1 gas and 1 electric?

    2. James says, “Electric cars are an answer to no question that is being asked by anyone.”

      @James, I’ll ask you a question…

      How do you intend to pay for the right to pollute our environment, endanger our national security, and make thousands of your fellow citizens sick with your pollution?

      We really want to know the answer, James.

      1. Those sound like very scary things!

        But given that manufacturing EV’s requires very expensive, high energy consuming (and polluting) inputs. And that supplying the grid with electricity to charge them results in lots and lots of pollution, do electric vehicles really even mitigate the effects of pollution? Just because pollution from EV’s isn’t manifestly obvious in our country, doesn’t mean it has been eliminated. And the bogeyman of “national security” can be used to support nearly any cause anyone can dream up. Give me a break!

  8. Much as I love the battery swapping idea, I think Shai Agassi’s projections are trying too hard to fit the silicon chip paradigm. The reality, that we are exporting coal to China only to come back at out greenest edge as pollution, and supporting the rape of Tibet to supply China with Lithium for batteries for export to the USA. Talk about wasted energy!
    Meanwhile in the USA, battery companies are folding because OEM don’t want them while USA EV designer/builders are denied access to them. Straubel and TeslaMotors were smart enough to address this issue early on. Therefore, I value J.B.’s comments more highly..I still would like to see US lithium in the truck and solar car Lighthouse Charter HS Maker students are building instead of lead-acid as well as in my own DIY EV!

  9. I hope companies like Tesla start exporting EV’s to other countries too. There is a global market for EV’s and low-cost models will become an instant hit. They need to combine the small cars with solar panels and sell it as a package.

    1. The surface area of a car that could be used to create energy from solar panels is incredibly small relative to the energy required to move a vehicle with people in it. Solar panels cheap enough to put on “low-cost models” wouldn’t produce enough energy to move their own weight. Solar panels light enough to produce enough energy to move their own weight are too expensive for “low-cost models.”

      But seeing those panels will surely make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside!

  10. Well James,

    What if you are pregnant and don’t want to expose the fetus to the dangerous toxic fumes from gasoline and the additives? Because if you do, you know you stand an excellent chance of a miscarriage, or a child born with mental or physical birth defects. Plus, the more times you do it, the greater the risk. What about cancer? Same issues for both you and your born and unborn children. Most gas stations are self-serve, and even if they are not, the fumes are everywhere. Do you have someone else take the car to the gas station and then return home with it for you? How do you do this every time the car needs gas? What if you run low on gas somewhere? Should you take the risk harming (or losing) your child? Or, does you ICE car suddenly just turn into an expensive, and very dangerous lump?

    1. “you stand an excellent chance of miscarriage”

      How do you explain the fact that our society has been able to have enough live births to increase the population size, when nearly every fetus since the 1930’s has been exposed to these fumes on multiple occasions? Exaggerate things much?

      And if we’re really concerned about harmful effects to OUR fetuses, does that mean it is morally okay to just ship manufacturing of batteries and battery components over to China and let them deal with the pollution from it?

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