Your Mileage May Vary

Technologists, “greenies” and (hopefully) mainstream consumers are anticipating the release of many new hybrid and electric cars, none the least of which is the soon-to-be-shipped Chevrolet Volt. The issue I see coming is one of potentially profound disappointment by the general masses due to the current state of energy storage in batteries.

I am a somewhat disappointed owner of a Neuton rechargeable lawnmower with nickel metal hydride (NiMh) batteries (I bought an extra battery for $99). After the first season the batteries weren’t holding a charge so I couldn’t finish my relatively small lawn with both batteries. Neuton agreed I’d “conditioned” them properly over the winter by storing them inside and charging ’em once per month, so they gave me two new ones. They’ve also have recognized the initial failings of these first batteries and have since done a deal with Duracell for newer technology they ship with the current generation of mowers, but reviews I’ve read show people still disappointed with the lower-than-gas-mower power and how as the stored energy drains, the mower’s power weakens right alongside it.

Since I have a Toyota Prius in the garage—a car I may still upgrade to a plugin hybrid (PHEV) using Minneapolis-based ReGo‘s technology for $5,000—I am trying to keep up on the current state of electric storage technology (i.e., batteries) and how far we have to go. No question I see that it’s closer to mainstream but the jury is still out on whether or not it’s yet commercially viable.

That’s what General Motors thinks too.

On page 154 in their most recent SEC Form S1 filing (PDF) they state, “On a fully charged battery and tank of gas, the Chevrolet Volt has a driving range of hundreds of miles. When powered only from electricity stored in its 16-kWh lithium-ion battery; the Chevrolet Volt has a typical range of 25-50 miles depending on terrain, driving technique, temperature and battery age. Advanced lithium-ion battery technology is the key enabling technology for the Chevrolet Volt, although this technology is new and has not been proven to be commercially viable.

All that said, I do believe in the brilliance of GM’s approach by leveraging battery storage along with a small internal combustion engine that will do nothing but charge the batteries when they fall below a threshold. It means that I could hop in the Volt and drive to Chicago…something I would never do in a purely electrical vehicle like the widely anticipated Nissan Leaf which this New York Times article states, “…has a range of about 100 miles before it needs recharging. But that range can vary a lot – to as little as 62 miles to as much as 138 – depending upon factors like weather, traffic, accessory use, load and driving style.” I’d be very nervous driving a Leaf for a full weekend day…let alone out of the Twin Cities metro area.

If you’d like to watch a video that gives a solid overview of the current state of the marketplace, this one from the recent World Energy Expo in Austin, TX will give you a good sense of what’s going on right now. When it comes to vehicle energy storage, I anticipate that consumers will become disillusioned unless they completely and totally understand the limitations and the variables that comprise the statement, “…and your mileage may vary.

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  1. PXLated on September 26, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Looks like China will be the leader in this…
    “Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry, starting in 20 pilot cities”

    I have the feeling the U.S. is slowly becoming a second rate country 🙁

  2. Steve Borsch on September 26, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    I really like Tom Friedman, but every time I read one of his columns I have one thought: “We’re totally screwed.” I can’t let myself go there, although the multiple TRILLIONS of dollars in Bush tax cuts during his tenure, additional TRILLIONS spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the gearing up of the GOP to cut some more if they get in to power, makes me convinced we’re screwed.


    A123 just opened the biggest lithium ion battery plant in North America (though capital was less than half a billion vs. China’s multiple billions) and the gun *just* went off and the race has just begun.

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About Steve Borsch

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Connecting the Dots Podcast

Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.