Electric vehicles will have a range of more than 500 miles within the next 10 years.
That is the view of Martin Eberhard, a man who sprang to prominence when he co-founded the Tesla electric sports car company in July 2003.
One of the world’s most forthright advocates of electric cars, he was ousted from control of Tesla in 2007 and became electric vehicle engineering director at Volkswagen’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) in Palo Alto, California, in early 2009.
Here, he answers Autocar's questions about the future of EVs in general and about VW’s electric offerings in particular.
What does VW’s ERL do, and where do you come in?
The ERL is the Volkswagen Group’s biggest R&D centre outside of Wolfsburg. We employ around 100 people, we opened in 1998, and we focus mainly on the development of new driver assistance systems and new human-machine interface technologies, as well as improving the multimedia functionality and connectivity of Volkswagen Group cars.
We developed the new Google Earth functionality for Audi’s A8 and A7 sat-nav systems, and worked with Stanford University on VW’s driver-less DARPA Challenge cars. We’re also working on the development of the power electronics and battery systems for Volkswagen Group’s forthcoming breed of electric cars, which is where I come in.
Which EVs are you working on right now?
Our biggest projects at the moment are the development of the lithium-ion battery packs for Volkswagen’s Blue-e-motion Golf, the E-Up city car and the Audi e-tron. We’re working exclusively with ‘18650’-type lithium-ion cells. They’re the same size as the ones you’ll find in most laptop computer battery packs; that’s why they’re referred to as ‘consumer cells’.
Why use laptop batteries when other manufacturers are developing bespoke cells for automotive applications?
Because 18650 cells are at the leading edge of battery development, and by using them we can benefit from state-of-the-art technology straight away. Put simply, 18650s develop faster than any other kind of battery because there’s more demand for them; the industry is already making two billion of them a year.
To illustrate the point, the lithium-ion cells we’re currently working with contain 2.9 amp-hours of power; five years ago the ones we were using at Tesla only had 1.4 amp-hours. That rate of development has already had an impact on the cars we’re working on. The batteries we used in the original Audi e-tron prototype, for example, gave it 60kWh of power and a range of just over 150 miles.
But with the 3.4 amp-hour cells we’re about to take delivery of, it should have 100kWh and do close to 300 miles on a charge.
Is there a cost advantage involved with using existing batteries?
Of course. Even with the latest-generation 18650 cells, we’ll be looking at a commodity price of about 200 euro per kilowatt-hour. (Nissan’s batteries for the Leaf reportedly cost around 400 euro per kilowatt-hour). Using more, smaller cells also gives us greater built-in redundancy in our battery packs. If one cell dies, you wouldn’t notice in a battery pack containing thousands of them.