Technology

GulfNews Technology

Seven tech updates Musk may deliver on 'Battery Day'

Tesla will provide a highly anticipated technology update on Tuesday when Elon Musk takes center stage at an event the chief executive officer has dropped hints about for months - and which has helped propel the company's sky-high valuation. The "Battery Day" presentation, which follows the annual shareholders meeting, is expected to showcase innovations designed to keep the company's lead in electric cars as rivals flood the market with new battery-powered vehicles over the next couple of years. If history is any guide, Musk could talk about demand for Tesla's vehicles at the shareholder meeting, or give updates about new factories in Berlin and Austin, Texas. Shares of the company rose as much as 2.8% in pre-market trading Monday after Musk indicated Tesla may be in line for a record quarter in an internal email to staff. But the first-ever Battery Day, where Tesla will stake out its technology road map, is of keen interest to investors. The tiniest improvement in batteries can have a huge impact, because they are an electric car's most-expensive part. Will Musk and Chief Technology Officer Drew Baglino go super deep with a highly technical presentation on battery chemistry and improvements made since Tesla acquired Maxwell Technologies in 2019? Is Musk - who just last year vowed that 2020 would be the year of the robotaxi - going to promise flying cars? Or will he tout improved range for Tesla's existing vehicles and pledge to add a more budget-friendly car to Tesla's lineup? "A lot of the stuff that Tesla has been working on is about making the battery manufacturing cheaper, not a new recipe for a battery or a completely new revolutionary structure," said Sam Jaffe, managing director of Cairn ERA in Boulder, Colorado. "But when they institute all of these advances, they will be able to make a $25,000 car." The shareholder meeting gets underway at 1:30 p.m. local time on Tuesday in Fremont, California. Musk likes to keep his fans and rivals guessing, but here are seven educated guesses about what he may unveil. 1. Cost Parity? About a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Energy set a target to bring the cost of battery packs down to $100 per kilowatt-hour from an average of more than $1,000. It predicted when this milestone is reached, electric cars will achieve cost parity with those powered by internal combustion engines, eliminating the EV premium for buyers. Tesla is likely to announce its battery costs have dropped to less than $100 per kilowatt-hour, according to Venkat Viswanathan, a battery expert at Carnegie Mellon University. Tesla's cost could fall further to $80 per kilowatt-hour by 2025, said James Frith, head of energy storage at BloombergNEF. 2. Destination Density One reason Tesla can make cheaper batteries is because it packs more energy in less material and volume. This matters because the size of a vehicle won't change much, but the amount of energy stored in its batteries goes up - allowing electric cars to go further on a single charge. The high-end Model S boasts a range of about 400 miles per charge, the longest of any car now on the market. Currently, the most advanced batteries found in a Tesla Model 3 have an energy density of about 250 watt-hours per kilogram, according to BloombergNEF's Frith. By 2025, that could rise to as much as 400 watt-hours per kg, he said. 3. Electrode Innovation Batteries have three major components: two electrodes - anode and cathode - and an electrolyte that helps shuttle the charge between them. The materials used to make them determine how much energy batteries store and at what cost. Tesla's acquisiton of Maxwell Technologies gives it the ability to use dry-electrode technology, said Colin Rusch, a senior analyst at Oppenheimer. That can help lower the amount of energy needed for the manufacturing process. Even if Musk doesn't mention Maxwell by name, there's a good chance Tesla has adopted dry-electrode technology in some form. 'Wet' vs. Dry Electrodes: To ready the components of a battery, energy-storing chemicals are mixed in a solvent. That process helps the mixture to have a pancake-mixture type consistency, which can then be coated on aluminum or copper sheets. Once the coating is done, the sheets are passed through hot ovens to dry out the solvent before the electrodes can be packed into a battery. Dry-electrode technology does away with the use of solvents altogether by adding so-called binder chemicals, which when heated become sticky enough to hold the powdered mixture tightly onto the metal sheeting. The upshot is that dry-electrode technology can help lower the amount of energy needed for the manufacturing process and reduce the use of equipment and space on the factory floor - all ways to shave costs. In 2019, Tesla also acquired Hibar Systems Ltd., a Canadian equipment manufacturer. There's a small chance Musk may announce that Tesla is making its own batteries, according to analyst Jeff Osborne of Cowen & Co., in addition to using batteries from Panasonic, Contemporary Amperex Technology and LG Chem. While getting into manufacturing is capital intensive and thus risky, it could pay dividends in the long term. 4. Cobalt-Free? Tesla is on a mission to reduce the use of cobalt in its batteries, and Musk might have news to share about progress on that front. The reason: Cobalt is expensive, and most of it comes from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo that are known to employ children and disregard environmental norms. Panasonic, which supplies NCA (nickel cobalt aluminum) cells to Tesla, has said it plans to commercialize a cobalt-free version in two to three years. Meanwhile, CATL provides Tesla with lower-cost lithium-ion-phosphate batteries that don't contain any cobalt but are less energy-dense than NCA batteries. Musk has said Tesla also is looking for cheaper and greener supplies of nickel. 5. Spiked With Silicon Musk has said in the past that Tesla "dopes" anodes that contain graphite with a little bit of silicon. This helps because silicon has a much higher affinity for lithium, so the more silicon there is in the anode, the higher the energy density of the battery. It's possible Musk will announce Tesla has found a way to increase the amount of silicon loading in graphite anodes, Frith said, but the CEO probably won't announce Tesla has all-silicon anodes, which are still a few years away from commercial use in EVs. 6. Million-Mile Battery Tesla may follow CATL in announcing it now offers a million-mile battery, or one with as many as 20,000 charge-discharge cycles. Currently Tesla has a 150,000-mile or 8-year warranty, whichever comes first. A million-mile battery probably won't extend the warranty seven-fold, because other components of the car probably will wear out sooner. But it could allow Tesla to make fleet vehicles, such as the long-promised autonomous taxis, that rack up mileage much more quickly than privately owned cars. Cowen's Osborne also said this could allow Tesla cars to connect with the electric grid and provide services to utilities, such as absorbing excess renewable energy or reducing demands on transmission infrastructure. 7. Partnership Shift? Tesla's most longstanding partner on batteries has been Osaka-based Panasonic. The two companies jointly operate the massive battery plant outside of Reno, Nevada: Panasonic makes the cells, and Tesla strings thousands of cells into the massive battery packs for each car. But Musk has never been keen about depending on one supplier, and Tesla does have smaller-scale agreements with CATL in China's Fujian province and LG Chem in Seoul. As Tesla builds additional plants in Berlin and Austin, Texas, who will supply the batteries for them? Tesla also sells stationary batteries, which it calls the Megapack, to utility companies that need battery storage for the electric grid. Will one supplier emerge as dominant for Tesla's auto business, while another focuses on the utility market? "We expect an update on its relationships with cell partners like Panasonic and CATL," said Rusch of Oppenheimer. "Given the scale of the opportunity in both vehicle and stationary power, we expect TSLA to continue working closely with a few battery suppliers to scale production with key steps remaining in TSLA facilities."

GulfNews Technology

The Age of Electric Cars is dawning ahead of schedule

An electric Volkswagen ID.3 for the same price as a Golf. A Tesla Model 3 that costs as much as a BMW 3 Series. A Renault Zoe electric subcompact whose monthly lease payment might equal a nice dinner for two in Paris. As car sales collapsed in Europe because of the pandemic, one category grew rapidly: electric vehicles. One reason is that purchase prices in Europe are coming tantalizingly close to the prices for cars with gasoline or diesel engines. At the moment this near parity is possible only with government subsidies that, depending on the country, can cut more than $10,000 from the final price. Carmakers are offering deals on electric cars to meet stricter European Union regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. In Germany, an electric Renault Zoe can be leased for 139 euros a month, or $164. Electric vehicles are not yet as popular in the United States, largely because government incentives are less generous. Battery-powered cars account for about 2% of new car sales in America, while in Europe the market share is approaching 5%. Including hybrids, the share rises to nearly 9% in Europe, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin. As electric cars become more mainstream, the automobile industry is rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheap, and maybe cheaper, to own a plug-in vehicle than one that burns fossil fuels. The carmaker that reaches price parity first may be positioned to dominate the segment. A few years ago, industry experts expected 2025 would be the turning point. But technology is advancing faster than expected, and could be poised for a quantum leap. Elon Musk is expected to announce a breakthrough at Tesla's "Battery Day" event Tuesday that would allow electric cars to travel significantly farther without adding weight. The balance of power in the auto industry may depend on which carmaker, electronics company or startup succeeds in squeezing the most power per pound into a battery, what's known as energy density. A battery with high energy density is inherently cheaper because it requires fewer raw materials and less weight to deliver the same range. "We're seeing energy density increase faster than ever before," said Milan Thakore, a senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultant that recently pushed its prediction of the tipping point ahead by a year, to 2024. Some industry experts are even more bullish. Hui Zhang, managing director in Germany of NIO, a Chinese electric carmaker with global ambitions, said he thought parity could be achieved in 2023. Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who closely follows the industry, is more cautious. But he said: "We are already on a very accelerated timeline. If you asked anyone in 2010 whether we would have price parity by 2025, they would have said that was impossible." The Race to Build a Better Battery The holy grail in the electric vehicle industry has been to push the cost of battery packs - the rechargeable system that stores energy - below $100 per kilowatt-hour, the standard measure of battery power. That is the point, more or less, at which propelling a vehicle with electricity will be as cheap as it is with gasoline. A Renault Zoe electric car. All electric cars use lithium-ion batteries, but there are many variations on that basic chemistry. Image Credit: Supplied Current battery packs cost around $150 to $200 per kilowatt-hour, depending on the technology. That means a battery pack costs around $20,000. But the price has dropped 80% since 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. All electric cars use lithium-ion batteries, but there are many variations on that basic chemistry, and intense competition to find the combination of materials that stores the most power for the least weight. For traditional car companies, this is all very scary. Internal combustion engines have not changed fundamentally for decades, but battery technology is still wide open. There are even geopolitical implications. China is pouring resources into battery research, seeing the shift to electric power as a chance for companies like NIO to break into the European and someday, American, markets. In less than a decade, Chinese battery maker CATL has become one of the world's biggest manufacturers. Everyone is Trying to Catch Tesla The California company has been selling electric cars since 2008 and can draw on years of data to calculate how far it can safely push a battery's performance without causing overheating or excessive wear. That knowledge allows Tesla to offer better range than competitors who have to be more careful. Tesla's four models are the only widely available electric cars that can go more than 300 miles on a charge, according to Kelley Blue Book. A Tesla Model 3. The rest of the industry is still playing catchup with Tesla. Image Credit: Supplied On Tuesday, Musk could unveil a technology offering 50% more storage per pound at lower cost, according to analysts at the Swiss bank UBS. If so, competitors could recede even further in the rearview mirror. "The traditional car industry is still behind," said Peter Carlsson, who ran Tesla's supplier network in the company's early days and is now chief executive of Northvolt, a new Swedish company that has contracts to manufacture batteries for Volkswagen and BMW. "But," Carlsson said, "there is a massive amount of resources going into the race to beat Tesla. A number, not all, of the big carmakers are going to catch up." It's Not Just About the Batteries Peter Rawlinson, who led design of the Tesla Model S and is now chief executive of the electric car startup Lucid, likes to wow audiences by showing up at events dragging a rolling carry-on bag containing the company's supercompact drive unit. Electric motor, transmission and differential in one, the unit saves space and, along with hundreds of other weight-saving tweaks, will allow the company's Lucid Air luxury car - which the company unveiled Sept. 9 - to travel more than 400 miles on a charge, Rawlinson said. His point is that designers should focus on things like aerodynamic drag and weight to avoid the need for big, expensive batteries in the first place. "There is kind of a myopia," Rawlinson said. "Everyone is talking about batteries. It's the whole system." A Charger on Every Corner Would Help When Jana Hoffner bought an electric Renault Zoe in 2013, driving anywhere outside her home in Stuttgart, Germany, was an adventure. Charging stations were rare, and did not always work. Hoffner drove her Zoe to places like Norway or Sicily just to see if she could make it without having to call for a tow. Hoffner, who works in online communication for the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, has since traded up to a Tesla Model 3 equipped with software that guides her to the company's own network of chargers, which can fill the battery to 80% capacity in about half an hour. She sounds almost nostalgic when she remembers how hard it was to recharge back in the electric-vehicle stone age. "Now, it's boring," Hoffner said. "You say where you want to go and the car takes care of the rest." The European Union has nearly 200,000 chargers, far short of the 3 million that will be needed when electric cars become ubiquitous. Image Credit: Reuters The European Union has nearly 200,000 chargers, far short of the 3 million that will be needed when electric cars become ubiquitous, according to Transport & Environment, an advocacy group. The United States remains far behind, with less than half as many as Europe. But the European network is already dense enough that owning and charging an electric car is "no problem," said Hoffner, who cannot charge at home and depends on public infrastructure. Price and infrastructure are closely connected. At least in theory, people won't need big, expensive batteries if there is a place nearby to quickly recharge. (Charging times are also dropping fast.)