How the Drive for Smaller Gadgets Is A Boon for Electric Cars

ipodcarVehicles and consumer electronics connect on a lot more levels than plugging an iPod into your car stereo. According to Ford Research (s F) Senior Manager Ted Miller, who spoke today at IBM’s (s IBM) Almaden Institute summit on energy storage in San Jose, Calif., the incredible shrinking gadget represents a boon for the development of affordable electric cars — it all comes down to the battery.

To commercialize electric vehicles with a range of at least 100-200 miles, “A really dramatic change and a series of home runs” will be needed in battery technology, said Miller in his presentation. Put another way the industry needs innovation that can take a significant bite out of the sticker price of batteries for plug-in vehicles — a major obstacle to mass market adoption because the battery represents the most expensive part of an electric car. Miller told me after his presentation that it will be trends in the consumer electronics market that help drive that shift.

Because gadgets were one of the original applications for lithium-ion batteries they are proving to be a fertile ground for innovation. Engineers at electronics giants like Sanyo have been tinkering with lithium ion batteries for years, and making gadgets smaller is a big driver of that. “You’ll always want a smaller iPod,” Miller said. Startups are also doing some “great work” with battery technology, said Miller, who praised the work of stealthy Envia Systems, which developing cathode technology.

But there’s at least one thing electric car developers can’t glean from the advances in technology for laptops and gadgets. Auto and battery makers lack the tech industry maxim that, (as Om put it back in 2007) has made millionaires out of geeks: Moore’s Law, which says the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. “We don’t quite expect Moore’s Law to apply directly” to battery technology — doubling energy density or halving cost at a rapid, predictable pace, Miller said after his talk.

Instead of that chip-like doubling, we can expect advancements over the next seven years or so as more resources are dedicated to the tech, and it continues to evolve. “We act like it’s an old technology,” Miller said, when it’s less than 20 years old. That might be ancient by Silicon Valley standards, but it’s a new kid on the block compared with lead-acid batteries, invented more than a century ago. He showed a slide forecasting that we’ll approach the limits of lithium-ion technology, and have a “revolutionary technology change” sometime around 2017. “We’re just trying to put lithium-ion in automotives, so stepping beyond that is obviously of interest,” he said — but it’s still in the lab.

Image courtesy of Flickr creative commons.