Should Electric Vehicle Makers Be in the Battery Biz?

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Any company hoping to launch a plug-in vehicle for mass market consumers has to be focused to some extent on battery cost — it’s the priciest part of the vehicle, making many models either prohibitively expensive for an average consumer at this point, or forcing the company to consider selling it without a profit for at least the first few generations.

But executives from three electric vehicle startups readying electric models — Coda Automotive, Tesla Motors and Aptera — have different ideas about how involved an electric vehicle maker really needs to be in order to lower battery costs for a viable mass market vehicle. Kevin Czinger, CEO of Coda Automotive, which is working on an electric sedan with several China-based partners, JB Straubel, chief technology officer for Tesla, and Paul Wilbur, CEO of Aptera, which is working on a futuristic-looking three-wheeled vehicle, weighed in on the question late Tuesday at the AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference.

Kevin Czinger, Coda Automotive: The growth of a viable electric vehicle industry will require an automotive-grade battery system designed “from the ground up,” said Czinger. “And then you need to be able to manufacture it at scale at the right price point from the very beginning,” Czinger said. That’s why Coda has “designed total battery system design from the cell up,” hoping to be “close to competitive at Day 1 with internal combustion vehicles.”

Paul Wilbur, Aptera: “We don’t want to be in the battery business,” said Wilbur. The battery technologies that are here today don’t offer a realistic long term solution for affordable electric vehicles, he said, “so we’ve decided to focus on the physics of the automobile. If you don’t focus on aerodynamics and you don’t focus on weight, then quite frankly you’re missing a big part of the pie.” Ideally, said Czinger, Aptera wants to offer a “sub-30” (less than $30,000) model. “That’s where the mass market will come into the game.”

JB Straubel, Tesla: Tesla focuses very heavily on powertrain technology, said Straubel, and tries to “optimize systems to work together,” rather than getting “directly involved in cell chemistry research.” The startup is, however, “working extremely closely with the largest battery vendors in the world,” Straubel said, to the point of conducting internal R&D on different suppliers’ battery cells to “determine which have the most cost efficiency.”

Cost-cutting measures will become increasingly important for Tesla with its upcoming Model S sedan and the lower-cost models it hopes to eventually produce, but Straubel said, “Cost competitiveness based on the value you’re giving your customer. With these technologies, it’s not just about the very lowest price point…I can recharge a 5 mile range car in 5 minutes and it wasn’t that useful.”

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With a track record of performance in start-up and emerging growth companies like Webvan Group and Global Signal, Kevin has proven that he’s got the knowledge base and tenacity to bring an all-electric car to market. This is something where it can be part of a revolution, and a car that is safe, useable and deliverable now.

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