29 June 2010

With Tesla IPO, Has the Age of Electric Vehicles Arrived?

Tesla Motors will have its IPO today. The Nissan LEAF electric vehicle sold out shortly after it was announced, many of the orders coming from first-time Nissan customers. The Chevy Volt may even hit the showroom later this year.

It certainly seems as if the age of the electric car is upon us. But hold on a minute. Let not all the hype keep us from seeing the speedbumps -- and maybe a few roadblocks in the way of a complete transition on our roadways.

Don't get me wrong, I believe the battery electric vehicle (or BEV for short) is the vehicle of the future. But this new generation of electric vehicles will have lots of challenges, including battery technology, range, and charging.

Let's take range. Today, we are used to driving 300 miles or so before having to pull into a gas station and, after inserting our credit card, choosing the grade, and popping the nozzle in the tank, we can be refueled and ready to go before we've had a chance to clean the windshield.

Contrast that with the currently planned charging experience for electric vehicles. Drive 100 miles and you need to charge it -- the LEAF will take 8 hours for a full charge at 200 volts -- and there is currently very little infrastructure to support electric vehicle charging.

You can get around this by increasing the number or density of batteries in a vehicle, which will add weight and cost, but as battery technology improves the weight and cost, life and range will increase.

Charging, however, still remains an issue. I'm concerned about the vision of the future that imagines hundreds of thousands of charging stations around the country, in cities, parking garages, and on-the-street parking (perhaps replacing the meters that have gone the way of the parking kiosk). That seems like an awful lot of infrastructure needing to be built.

And what about that volatile mix of bad weather and high voltage. Imagine the housewife, parking in the Whole Foods lot, plugging in while she goes in for groceries. She comes out, and some idiot parking next to her has dislodged the plug. Not only does she not have the charge she needs to go pick up Junior from day care, but now she's dealing with a live wire on a wet macadam. Doesn't sound like the way to go to me.

I've even seen plans for "battery replacement stations" where you drive in and your old battery is swapped out for a new one -- the batteries are on a huge circular conveyor. The Pep Boys, Manny, Moe, and Jack, are probably salivating at that prospect. But that doesn't seem feasible to me.

Which is why I was encouraged by this video from the UK-based HaloIPT of an alternative future featuring wireless, dynamic charging based upon inductive power transfer technology.

Momentum Dynamics, a Malvern, PA-based company I've written about before on this blog, also has a technology that may help advance the vision depicted above.

As Andy Daga, CEO of Momentum Dynamics said to me recently, the battery electric vehicle industry "Needs three things: improved battery technology (this is coming), improved vehicle integration of new technologies (also in the works), and finally, improvements in the technology and distribution of charging technology."

Of course, that is what Andy and his company are focused on, and which he feels "is absolutely critical to the industry."

I hope for the sake of the electric vehicle market that the Tesla IPO ($TSLA) goes well. I have concerns that, like $AONE, it will go from 0 to 60 and come to a screeching halt, like, well, a Tesla Roadster as it approaches a speed trap. (That won't be good for future cleantech IPOs -- some companies have already pulled their plans this year).

But I have larger concerns that we are ignoring the looming issues facing the electric vehicle industry that may well prevent it from going the distance.

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