• What’s REALLY Stopping the Electric Car?

In the first half of this article, we looked at the "Seven Unexpected Reasons Electric Cars are the Future." "Seven" because it’s a prime number, "reasons" because we needed them, and "unexpected" because there’s a lot more to this story than just torque vectoring, environmentalism and the cost of getting from Point A to Point B. Even for all that good stuff, the electric car’s real, immediate impact on our society won’t have as much to do with saving polar bears and dollars as it will creating industries and saving jobs.

So, there’s a happy socioeconomic picture emerging here — but on the flip side, it’s that same socioeconomic strata that’s holding electric cars back. These days, most people think that battery technology is the primary thing keeping electrics from dominating the industry, and that’s true to an extent. But it’s also a red herring, because there’s plenty we can do today to usher in a new golden age of transportation — without breathlessly praying for the next lithium-air unicorn to show up. Or, at least for it to show up before our ice caps melt and half the world becomes a habitat for actual red herrings.

Technology only moves at a certain pace. Fall behind it and you miss out on opportunities. Push technology too hard, and you wind up with asbestos insulation. There’s a balance point in the middle where society has to adapt to make what’s known work, while planning ahead for the unknown. That’s where we are today with automobiles.

A good craftsman doesn’t blame his tools --- so for this second half, we’re going to look at the tools we have available today to get this job done. The technology is there; we don’t need new metals, high-tech composites or nano-materials to get where we’re going. The only tools we really need — a pen and a piece of paper — have been around for a good long while now.

So, what’s really stopping the electric car, and how do we get it started again? Continue reading.

(Incidentally, for our regular readers: I mentioned in the last article that this was originally the second half of the first, but got split in two for length. The version you’re reading now wound up long enough to justify splitting in half itself, making three parts instead of two. BUT…the readers’ votes are in, and you guys want it all. So, here it is…thanks for reading Topspeed, and see you in the Comments!)

Electrics Are Too Expensive, and May Not be Getting Any Cheaper

What's REALLY Stopping the Electric Car?
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Actually, they’re not all expensive – the REVA G-Wiz sold for about $13,000 U.S. in many markets, which isn’t much more than some up-market golf carts here. Unfortunately, the G-Wiz was effectively just that: a glorified golf cart. The Chevy Volt is an actual, real car – but it’s also a hybrid, and adding a few options can easily get it to $40K. The Tesla S is without a doubt the best electric sedan there has ever been, or may ever be – and no, I’m not just saying that as a Tesla fanboy. It is a spectacular car, if you’ve got $70,000 lying around.

People won't invest in an infrastructure to support something that only 1 percent of them will use

Of course, nobody’s faulting a manufacturer for selling to a segment; everyone does it. But niche segment cars, no matter how good they are, never get anything into the mainstream. At the end of the day, most people just don’t care about things that they can’t afford. And they’re not going to invest in an infrastructure to support something that only 1 percent of the population will use. But why are electrics so expensive? They’ve only got one moving part, and theoretically the electrical circuit doesn’t need to be any more complicated than a household dimmer switch. So, what’s with the spendiness?

AC Induction Motors

All modern electrics use alternating-current (AC) induction motors, just like you’d find in any one of your household appliances. They’re higher-revving than direct-current (DC) motors; they’re more powerful, smaller, simpler, much quieter, run cooler and don’t have commutator brushes to wear out. And the motors themselves usually cost little to no more to produce than DC motors. But the devil is in the conversion, because batteries run on DC power. That means you have to have an AC/DC converter/inverter to run the motors and recharge the batteries.
These computer-controlled inverters can be eye-wateringly expensive, and easily account for a quarter to a third the cost of the entire car. DC motors require no inverter/converter, and theoretically no computer controls of any kind. But until someone comes up with a way to combine the low cost of a DC system with the performance of an AC system, we’ll be stuck paying an extra 25 to 30 percent just for the converter and controller.

High-Tech Batteries are an Expensive Dead-End

A big part of what kept the G-Wiz’s cost down was its use of 1890’s grade lead-acid batteries. These batteries work reasonably well in small applications, but they’re ungodly heavy. Enough so that if you keep piling them on, you end up expending more energy to move the batteries than you do the rest of the car. Lithium-ion batteries like those the Tesla uses are much lighter, but they cost orders of magnitude more than lead-acid batteries. Right now, Tesla quotes $30,000 for a replacement S Model lithium-ion pack; that’s 42 percent the price of the entire car! Granted, prices are steadily dropping as the battery industry expands, but they’ll only drop so far until demand catches up with supply.

We can shake the tree of technology as much as we want, but it will only bear fruit so fast

Unless there’s some quantum leap very soon in cheap, lightweight batteries (maybe metal-air types), this is going to going to keep electrics out of the mainstream where they need to be. My fellow tech-nerds would love to find the solution in technology, and a solution may be found there eventually. But developing ever greater technologies is an expensive and time-consuming process, and a cascade effect of cost is inevitable. We can shake the tree of technology as much as we want, but it will only bear fruit so fast.
We need a different approach that doesn’t rely solely on developing the newest super-battery.

Cost, Benefit and Solutions

At the end of the day, add all that up and we see a tremendous price problem for electrics. In theory, if you were to load a Tesla S with lead-acid batteries and a fully DC power system, you could put it on the market for the price of a Honda Civic. Or a fully electric Volt for the price of a Hyundai Accent.
Of course, nobody would do that, because it would be stupid given current technology – but they should.

You lose about 10 percent of your battery energy coming and going through the inverter/converter

The AC/DC thing alone is a massively overlooked stumbling block for the kind of entry-level cars that will make or break the electric car industry. Unfortunately, it’s not a problem most manufacturers have bothered addressing yet – it’s been more or less accepted as a necessary evil of electrics. One compounded by the fact that you lose about 10 percent of your battery energy coming and going through the inverter/converter. That’s at least a 10 percent reduction in range and power, just to convert DC to AC and back. And more to the point, an extra 10 percent of weight and cost in batteries just to maintain the same range. For series hybrids like the Volt? Double all of that, because they have to convert electricity twice.

It’s just all bad all around, especially for the lower-priced electrics the market actually needs. The ideal solution is to go as near as possible to a full DC system; but unfortunately, nobody’s seriously thinking along those lines as of right now.

(Actually, someone IS. Unfortunately, I can’t get into it here for legal reasons. Ask the Magic 8-Ball again in 18 months or so, after the patent paperwork clears. Define “tease.”)

Shaking Trees and Sour Fruit

But even if we were to – ahem – go to a fully DC system that performed just as well as an AC/DC system, that still wouldn’t shoo the biggest elephant in the room: batteries. Yes, a high-performance DC system would help a lot; but even then, we’re still left with the much larger and more systemic problem of shaking the battery technology tree for the next 40 years, waiting for something useful to fall out the moment it can.

Unfortunately, the problem with continuously shaking any fruit-bearing tree is that whatever fruit falls is bound to drop before it’s ripe. Then we wind up with a bunch of sour apples, and that ruins the whole bunch. Or, to be a bit less metaphorically obtuse: We wind up with bad technology, failed technology, dead-ends and go-nowheres because we were in a hurry to rush something to market. And every time that happens, we run the risk of alienating the market further, and giving the critics more to carp about. Bad press is worse than no press in this case.

Unfortunately, the problem with continuously shaking any fruit-bearing tree is that whatever fruit falls is bound to drop before it’s ripe

So, what we really need at this point isn’t a technological solution – we need to give battery technology a bit of time to ripen on the branch, so we end up with the best tech and not just the newest crap. We need a solution that can be implemented right now, preferably one that requires no more than the stroke of a pen; or the click of a mouse, as this century’s case may be.

Fortunately, the patron saints of all things electric in this century have already taken one of the first steps toward that solution.

Swappable Battery Packs – Problem solving with Tesla and Black & Decker


If not for quick-change battery packs, would cordless power tools have ever taken off? Some years ago, someone had the bright idea of making the battery packs in power tools with a quick-release mechanism. That allowed a person to use the power saw or drill until the pack went flat, swap it out for another one on the charger, and plug the flat pack into the charger for later use. Even though each battery pack might only hold 20 minutes of juice, swapping them back and forth like this might give you a solid two hours of work time before both were too flat to use.

If not for quick-change battery packs, would cordless power tools have ever taken off?

Now, consider an alternate present, where quick-change packs were never invented. In this scenario, you’d have 20 minutes of work time, and then have to stop for 30 minutes or longer while the battery recharged. If that were the case, you’d have people saying “That takes twice as long to do anything? Why not just use a hand-saw then?”

And that’s exactly where we are with electrics right now.

The whole discharge-recharge approach works fine if you’re talking about a fairly low-draw appliance, like a cell phone or a laptop. In these cases, you’ve got a pretty high ratio of charge-to-use time; slap your cell on the charger for 15 minutes, and it’s probably good for another hour. High-draw appliances like power saws and electric cars are just the opposite – here, it takes as longer to recharge than it does to discharge the battery.

Things have gotten better with today’s quick-recharge stations, but you’ve still got the same basic problem at hand: batteries discharge too fast, and take too long to recharge. Even if it only takes 20 minutes to recharge — who’s got time to sit at a service station that long?

What's REALLY Stopping the Electric Car?
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A few years ago, Tesla showed off a test mule with a quick-change, power-tool-style battery pack

Tesla, of course, was ahead of the game on this one. A few years ago, Tesla showed off a test mule with a quick-change, power-tool-style battery pack. Parking the car on top of a specially built rack, Tesla showed that it was possible to swap out a battery in 30 seconds or less. Afterward, the car was good for another few hundred miles, at which point you could either recharge the new pack or swap it out for the now-recharged old pack. With this approach, (provided it took less time to charge the old pack than discharge the new one) you could keep swapping packs infinitely without ever having to stop and charge.

Consider the benefits here:

A power-tool style system like this wouldn’t rely on the latest lightweight wonder battery. You wouldn’t need 400 miles worth of range; you could even use a few old, lead-acid batteries with 50 miles worth of range, which would keep the weight down while drastically cutting the cost of batteries. It seems like an ideal solution, apart from the two glaring problems you’ve already noticed.

  • Not everyone has a quick-change battery rack at home, or the $200K it would take to install one.
  • This whole scenario assumes you never want to go more than 25 miles from home.

There’s an answer to those problems though. But it’s not technological, it’s economic.

Battery Swap Stations – Standardizing an Answer

Cordless power tools are pretty cheap. Okay, they cost about as much individually as plug-in tools, but you usually don’t end up spending more per tool than for plug-in models. Especially since most people buy them in sets, which include at least two battery packs and a charger. That way, you’re spreading the cost of the batteries over several tools, instead of having to buy a battery for each one.

Power tool manufacturers can do that because the packs are standardized – every tool in the set uses the same battery pack. The circular saw uses that same pack and release system as the drill, and the drill uses the same pack and release system as the saw. It’s just another example of standardization making things cheaper and easier.

There’s a pretty obvious analogue here to electric cars: If they all used the same battery pack, you could swap them from car to car. Instead of relying on quick-change racks at home, you could have them at service stations where they used to sell gas. Think of it as a kind of "core refund" system. You could stop in for a quick battery swap, pay for the electricity in the new pack, maybe a little surcharge on top of that, and have the cost of the new pack and electricity in it offset by your old one and the charge it still contained.

That would solve the range problem. And there’s nothing to say you couldn’t swap out for a better battery, or pay to have more batteries installed for longer trips. Want five lithium-ions for your cross-country road trip. Sure…come on down to Chevron and we’ll fix you up. And when you get where you’re going, pop into another Chevron and they’ll install a couple of NiCads for tooling around town. No problem. Just credit the cost of the Li-ions to your account and use it later.

It would be a beautifully elegant way of doing things, and simple enough to implement. But…glaring problem. What if you don’t want to stop at Chevron? What if you want to swap out somewhere else? What if that other place doesn’t carry the kind of battery you use?

Well, make sure they do.

Weirdly, solving this part of the problem may be the simplest of all…or, it will be after we address a slightly problematic disease in the industry as a whole.

Modularity and Standardization – The Problem with Dell-itis

Manufacturers today suffer from what I like to call “Dell-itis.” That is, the practice of taking something that should be universal and modular, and making it integrated and proprietary so people can’t go to anyone else for parts or repair. “Dell-itis.”
It’s no secret that cars today are more integrated and proprietary than ever before. At one time, nobody expected a 727 Torqueflite to bolt to a Big Block Chevy. And that was fine. Now, you’re doing well if a Chrysler 300 and a Chevy Impala share the same sized nuts, bolts or valve stems.

Manufacturers today suffer from what I like to call “Dell-itis”

The same is true for electrics and battery packs, but even more so and to less point. Most passenger cars are about the same width, and have about as much length under the passenger compartment as any other, give or take a couple feet. And a rectangle is a rectangle. So, why is it, if you’re putting batteries under a chassis (RC Car style) as most electrics do now, the battery pack from a Volt won’t just plug in under a Tesla S? What’s the point in that?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but…it’s because Tesla wants to sell batteries. So does Chevrolet. So do Honda, Toyota, Ford, Mopar and anyone else who can make a dollar on a sale – and they don’t want you going to any of those other guys for your batteries. You can’t blame them for that, since they are in the business to make money. But it is completely fair to point out that their making extra money selling proprietary batteries, their persistent case of Dell-itis, is costing us money and holding the entire industry back.

And there is utterly no technical excuse for it.

There’s no real reason every giant battery pack in the world couldn’t be broken down into smaller, individual modules. There’s no technical reason to use one, huge battery pack instead of lots of smaller ones, especially considering the fact that these massive battery packs are already made of lots of smaller battery cells. It’s just a matter of the size of the box or boxes they put those smaller batteries in. Tesla, for instance, could put 2,000 AA-sized lithium-ion battery cells into one, big 900-pound box – or they could divide those same cells up into ten 90-pound boxes. Make each one the same size (say 6 x 8 x 10 inches), allow them to mount and dismount individually, and you’ve got a fully modular battery pack that can be very quickly replaced in “pieces” using any other batteries of the same size.

They don’t even have to be the same type of battery; they could be lithium-ion, NiCad or even cheap lead-acid golf-cart batteries. That gives the end-user the choice of what kind of battery, or what mix of different kinds, they want to run during changes.

This does sound like something Tesla (of anyone) would probably do. At least, likely before anyone else would. Case in point, the new Tesla "home battery" they just introduced. It’s a 10- to 15 kWh pack that sits stationary in the home and gathers electricity during the cheap hours to release it during expensive peak hours. Think of it as kind of a capacitor for your whole house,

It also uses exactly the same individual battery modules as the Tesla S, just sized down a bit for home use. That’s barely, and I do mean {}barely , one step removed from fully modularizing the Tesla’s battery pack. Look closely at the picture of Tesla’s home battery pack above — smaller boxes, all the same size, within a larger box. This close.

Granted, Tesla’s home battery is $13,000, the biggest chunk of which is the inverter needed to convert the battery’s DC power to household AC. (Wait a minute...why does that sound familiar? Oh, if only someone had already come up with an extremely cheap and efficient way of converting DC to AC and back. Too bad. Ask the 8-Ball later, I guess.)

But no matter what happens with Tesla’s home battery — even if that one company modularized and standardized every one of their batteries and mounting system across the board — that still wouldn’t get us any closer to the end goal. Because everyone would have to do the exact same thing, using the same-sized batteries and the same mounting and release systems. But that would never happen, because of Dell-itis and the profitability of proprietary parts. Never happen, as long as manufacturers have a say in it.

Yeah...about that.

The Illuminati Rule – Setting Standards through the SAE

The Society of Automotive Engineers sets specifications and sizes for everything in automobiles. Meaning, once the SAE rules that a thing be a certain size or a certain way, that’s the way it is. The SAE’s word isn’t exactly law in most cases, but it is kind of like the force of gravity: Here on Earth, you can defy that immutable force for a while, but it’ll always win in the end.

This gives the SAE some huge leverage, and maybe the only leverage that counts when it comes to ending the plague of Dell-itis. The most important thing to know about the SAE is that it isn’t a for-profit manufacturer; it’s a private organization with dues-paying members. In that respect, it works more like a big union than a corporation; and as an international body, it’s really accountable only to itself. The SAE, unlike manufacturers and politicians, isn’t in anyone’s pocket but its own.

Personally, I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, but it must be said (with utmost love): If ever there were such a thing as an Illuminati one-world shadow government in the transportation industry, the SAE is it. In terms of engineering and specification, authorities don’t get any higher. I like to imagine the SAE board as a group of cloaked figures meeting in a dark, stone chamber; they’re gathered around a bronze-smelting altar, spewing green flame beneath a tungsten effigy of Charles Kettering. The Council chants ultra-low frequency radio waves, in metric.


If Illumin – sorry, SAE – wanted to, they could end this particular case of Dell-itis with one little paragraph. Here’s what it might look like:

“Document J1839-a Standards of Modular Battery Packs for use in Electric Ground Vehicle

Battery packs used in electric and hybrid-electric ground vehicles must measure within the parameters of Subsection B; that being for most, 6.0 inches tall, 8.0 inches wide and 10.0 inches long. An electric ground vehicle may use as many of said modules as required, provided that:
A) Those modules connect directly to the chassis, and not to other battery modules.
B) Each battery module uses the locking quick-release mounting system specified in F 1.1.
C) Each battery uses the standardized slide-release electrical connection specified in G 2.25.
D) They are arranged in the vehicle using either a stationary or mechanical rotation system so that those batteries may be accessed and changed using the stationary battery-changing rack specified in Subsection L (generic of Tesla patent no. 48798-G-42a).”

So, there you have it. With this kind of rule, the SAE says battery packs have to be broken up into modules (6 x 8 x 10) that all have the same mounting system, and can be changed using something like the Tesla quick-change battery station.
In one stroke of a pen, the SAE just revolutionized the entire transportation industry.

With its trunk not constantly shaken by screaming investors, the tree of technology can take the time it needs to mature the best possible solutions, and not just the expensive stop-gaps demanded now

From here, we open the floodgates to interchangeable batteries and quick-change service stations. Once that happens, we’ll no longer be slaves to the speed of battery technology, which has always held electric cars back more than anything else. With its trunk not constantly shaken by screaming investors, the tree of technology can take the time it needs to mature the best possible solutions, and not just the expensive stop-gaps demanded now.

With “gas stations” featuring quick-change battery bays, the service industry will have some investment in the electric car industry. Maybe the oil companies they’re in business with will lose money – or maybe they’ll get smart and start investing in battery and power infrastructure. The day could come when Exxon-Mobil merges with Exide batteries to become Exxon Electric. Why not? It would be the smart move if they want to stay on the profit train and maintain their service station contracts. The entire automotive and fuel industry would end up reorganizing itself – gradually. Organically.

And all because The Council published a paragraph.

What Can We Do?

I’m not a member of the SAE — mostly because I hear you have to be a Freemason first. I don’t pretend to understand the inner workings of the organization, and I don’t have anybody’s phone number on my vintage 1991 Roldex. But I’m sure somebody reading this knows the secret handshake, and which foot to stand on while you recite Avogadro’s Constant.

So if you know somebody in The Manor, here’s my suggestion: Ask them to establish a task force to examine the best practices of the power tool industry, or something analogous in the transportation industry.

Once that happens, the 138,000 engineers of the SAE will have a best practice to examine

And if there’s no best practice already in the automotive industry to study, then Tesla: It’s time to take the lead. Again. You’ve already started with your power change rack. All you have to do is take that one step further to modular battery packs, with each module sized and mounted with the intent of becoming the best-practice standard of the industry. It shouldn’t be too hard, seeing as how nobody’s doing it. Hell, you’d almost set the standard by default.

Once that happens, the 138,000 engineers of the SAE will have a best practice to examine, all but guaranteeing that those cloaked figures in the Hall of Kettering will give us the battery standardization we so desperately need.

So, Elon…what’s up? I know you’re flying around up there in your Iron Man suit somewhere. Care to save the world for us? You, Buffet, Steyer and Besos can do a “Billionaire Avengers, ASSEMBLE!” thing. It’ll be fun. Just don’t tell Tom he’s definitely the Hawkeye of the group.


So, here it is, friends – the end of Part II of our two-part series on electric cars. In Part I, we talked about why electric cars were the future; in this one, we looked at what’s holding them back, and the things we can do right now to get to tomorrow in one piece.

Despite those “the end is nigh” signs held by our perennial doomsayers, the fact is that humanity may be on the cusp of the greatest era in our short history on this planet. Personally, I happen to favor Gene Roddenberry’s vision of tomorrow, where human concerns are concerns of life, and not concerns of simple survival. Where technology provides the tools, and human wisdom determines how we use them.

Humanity may be on the cusp of the greatest era in our short history on this planet

Environmentally, socially and politically, the last century can only be called a near unmitigated disaster. But in spite of that, we stand with a chance to take control of our species’ destiny, and move it past the malicious machinations of mere nature. Not to seem melodramatic about it, but this is where we stand today: At the crossroad of extinction and evolution. The path we chose is the test we face.

So which one will we take?

It’s up to you.

Richard Rowe
Richard Rowe
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