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Jul 02

A lithium-sulfur battery could give a Volt 152 miles AER* by decade’s end


*Assuming the Volt is not just a “bridge” toward EVs like Li-S could also make viable …
Note – Please don’t post June Volt sales in comments. Numbers may be out today, and as always, I’ll do a post ASAP (tomorrow in this case) – Thanks

Could it be that the laboratory that once ushered in the atomic age has developed the battery chemistry that will enable affordable electric cars with 300-400 mile range, and possibly E-REVs also with four-times present all-electric range?

These are some of the implication for Oak Ridge National Laboratory‘s solid state nanotechnology based lithium-sulfur chemistry developed between 2007-2013. As we reported last month, ORNL announced it as a patent-pending scientific success that’s theoretically safer and cheaper than lithium-ion.


At this point it’s up to a competent engineering company to license the “beyond lithium-ion” chemistry from Oak Ridge which started life in 1942 as a home to the Manhattan Project, is now the largest science and energy lab in the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) system, and appears destined to become a national park as well.

ORNL’s mission is far more benign today, but its recent invention has had several interested parties “knocking on the door” including “at least two” in the automotive business, according to ORNL’s David L. Sims, technology commercialization manager.

A $30,000 electric car later this decade or early next that could outdistance today’s $90,000-plus 85-kwh Tesla Model S would be a significant milestone surpassing more modest electric cars which today may go only 80-100 miles on a charge.

Perhaps the biggest electric vehicle (EV) news on a more-predictable horizon is a $35,000 Tesla with 200-mile range said to be pending for 2016. This however is to use a bulky Panasonic Li-ion-based pack with one-quarter the energy density of what ORNL says is ready to go commercial.

Tesla's galleries are already capturing peoples' imaginations. The start-up promises much, and roves ahead for future technologies while pushing what can be done now.
Tesla’s galleries are already capturing peoples’ imaginations. The start-up promises much, and roves ahead for future technologies while pushing what can be done now.

As things stand, four-five times today’s EV range from a more elegant Li-S battery could happen within seven years, according to Altairnano engineer and Senior Director of IP & Technology, Jay Akhave.

Of course there are no guarantees, and there are hurdles to overcome, which Akhave is just as quick to observe.

The ‘Science Problem’ Is Now ‘Solved’


After an hour-long interview last week however, we summarized the discussion saying, “This may be one of the hottest contenders to change the paradigm. If everything goes well, it could lead to a Nissan Leaf that goes 300 miles on a charge.”

“Right. I concur with that,” said Akhave who was recommended as someone knowledgeable by the head of ORNL’s project. “Lithium-sulfur is a class I think that has the potential and some good battery designers and good practical designers can make that kind of difference in the range.”

Akhave is qualified to postulate this as he’s essentially a talent scout for intellectual property and technologies for which Altairnano may want to become involved.

“I study their IP portfolios and look at the pluses and the minuses and chart out a road map for us,” said Akhave of the Reno-based company described as a leading provider of high-power energy storage systems for the electric grid, industrial equipment and transportation markets. The company’s lithium-titanate technology is built on a proprietary nano-scale processing technology that creates high-power, rapid-charging battery systems with industry-leading performance and cycle life.

“More battery companies are looking at ways to improve energy density, you know, where you have more capacity,” he added.

Akhave said only “no comment” when asked whether Altainano was one of the companies intending to negotiate a license with ORNL.

Four-times greater energy density also stands to improve range-extended vehicles. It could mean a Volt with more all-electric range than today's Leaf while still having combustion-powered backup.
Four-times greater energy density also stands to improve range-extended vehicles. It could mean a Volt with more all-electric range than today’s Leaf while still having combustion-powered backup.

In any case, ORNL is looking to give preference to a U.S. business to maximize return on taxpayer investment, according to Jennifer Caldwell, group leader, Technology Licensing.

“We want to deploy the technology as soon as possible and we do not want the technology to be shelved,” she said of intellectual property under control of UT-Battelle which operates ORNL for the DoE.

Sims said the first deal among multiple licensees working in various sectors – from automotive to consumer electronics to grid storage and more – could come later this year.

“So on this particular license, with the interest that we have so far I would hope – and again, stressing the word hope – I would hope that we could have a deal completed in two to three months,” Sims said, adding money has not yet been discussed.

Sims is confident because Dr. Chengdu Liang, the head ORNL project, is satisfied with the solid-state Li-S chemistry.

“We don’t see any problem where this battery can’t be used in all kinds of applications,” said Liang last week. “It really depends on the design of the battery, not the science. Now we’ve solved the science problem.”

The First Of More To Come?


There are other companies working on lithium-sulfur which has been challenging researchers for decades, said Akhave. These include DoE-sponsored Polyplus and Sion – which has already seen a Li-S battery used in a record-setting solar aircraft – and the UK’s Oxis.

It’s also nearly certain BMW and Toyota and perhaps others are quietly chipping away at lithium-sulfur’s technical hurdles as is the DoE-sponsored Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) project at the Argonne National Lab.

JCESR is a collaborative between top research hubs around the country. It is actually in competition with ORNL, so you see, the Energy Department has bet taxpayer dollars on multiple contenders.

A total of $120 million was allocated for JCESR to develop a battery with five times the energy density of lithium-ion in five years and capable of 500 charge cycles.

“Out of the $120 million, most of the money has gone for lithium-sulfur and lithium-air,” said Akhave of another promising contender. “Little has gone for lithium-ion. Why? Because I think they consider lithium-ion a commercialized technology, the basic research is done, mostly. Research is focused on Beyond Lithium-Ion.”

Lithium-air has potentially 10 times the capacity of lithium-ion, but lithium-sulfur is perceived as having a shorter time to market.

“The pressure to do it, and the money being put into research has already been deployed in other companies,” said Akhave. “They have their ideas on how this is going to happen. Dr. Liang has come about with his solution – an inventive solution on top of that.”

And so far in this technological horse race, ORNL’s solid-state lithium-sulfur is ahead by well more than a nose.

Sidebar: Tech 101

(This is in simplified terms, but non-techies can skip it, if desired, for a quicker read.)

Lithium-ion ordinarily delivers 100-200 milliamp-hours (mAh) per gram, up to a theoretical limit of 300-320 mAh/g. A Chevy Volt might have 140 mAh/g and a Tesla Model S may be pushing a bit more.

Lithium-sulfur at ORNL has demonstrated 1,200 mAh/g for up to 300 cycles.

“I believe that the five year goal, 500 cycle goal that the DoE has is a good one and quite do-able,” said Akhave.

Dr. Liang has thus far reported 300 charge cycles with his solid-state chemistry, but says he is satisfied with this.

“I see 300 cycles as enough to prove the concept,” said Liang. More critical, he added, is his chemistry does not self discharge when left off of a charger on a shelf.

“Self discharge is almost completely eliminated,” Liang said.

Akhave said the DoE’s goal of 500 charge cycles means “you are in business,” agrees 300 is significant, but left some ambiguity open on this topic.

Essentially a charge cycle is defined as completely draining the battery to perhaps 20-percent charge. At this point the battery management system (BMS) shuts down the party, and the battery must be recharged.

Dr. Liang holds up ORNL's lithium-sulfur coin cell.
Dr. Liang holds up ORNL’s lithium-sulfur coin cell.

If, for example, an EV has 80-miles range and you only travel 45, then plug it back in, that does not count toward the “charge cycle” count. Likewise, if you have 350-miles range, drive 100 miles and plug back in, that ought not to count either. Partial discharge may have some effect, but does not normally count toward the total.

These questions become critical when determining lifetime for an electric car. If it could be used just 300, 500 or even 1,000 times, we’d still have disposable cars only lasting a few years.

The prospect of “only” 300 charge cycles being good enough to commercialize is arguably validated given that with four or more times the energy density, the car could be realistically used for a normal lifespan. Most people will plug the car back in before depleting the battery. Plus, it appears there is room to exceed the 300 charge cycles thus far established. It’s still early, and as Liang said, the battery does not self-discharge, which he sees as most important along with benchmarks established to date.

chargedischarge mechanism

Liang is understandably hesitant to speak beyond the basic science however. He also qualified that “four-times” energy density is “gravimetric” – that is, by weight, and not “volumetric” – by volume.

In other words, a solid-state Li-S pack in the floor of, for example, a Nissan Leaf, would look a lot different than Li-ion. ORNL’s energy density is not by volume, and Liang expressed uncertainty whether this would equate to four-times the range.

Akhave cleared this up, however.

Of a hypothetical electric car, we asked: “Is it really going to have four times the energy density and therefore four times the ell-electric range?”

“It will go up, but the factor depends on a lot of other design elements,” said Akhave. “Gravimetric energy density is just per kilogram … volumetric is per cubic foot or per liter,” he said, noting “gravimetric” is also called specific energy.

“Volumetric energy density is projected to equal and go beyond lithium-ion,” he said, so if the same size (volume) of battery were used, it would have the same power energy, but Li-S would weigh less. Akhave said it thus appears likely that a Li-S battery could be designed that delivers four-times the energy density by weight.

What’s more, it’s believed engineers will be able to pack Li-S more tightly into a given volume of space than a liquid electrolyte Li-ion pack assembly. The solid-state battery may not need liquid cooling from a thermal management system (TMS) and as much air space as would Li-ion, so this too will play into the final result.

A question then becomes: “Are you efficiently using every little volume in there and packing it with energy? That’s the issue so whether you compare gravimetric or volumetric they are correlated in that sense,” he said.

Chemistries have varying material densities so a battery space (volume) choice depends upon the chemistry. Once battery volume is fixed (based on many other car  design considerations), then the amount of storage is fixed for that chemistry. One generally does not place another chemistry in the same volume and look at tradeoffs. If you change the chemistry, you must go back to the earlier step  and evaluate how much battery volume you want to now have for that new battery chemistry. At this point, assuming the same weight, it’s safe to say Li-S is four-times better than Li-ion chemistry. Actual volumetric differences remain to be seen.
Chemistries have varying material densities so a battery space (volume) choice depends upon the chemistry. Once battery volume is fixed (based on many other car design considerations), then the amount of storage is fixed for that chemistry. One generally does not place another chemistry in the same volume and look at tradeoffs. If you change the chemistry, you must go back to the earlier step and evaluate how much battery volume you want to now have for that new battery chemistry. At this point, assuming the same weight, it’s safe to say Li-S is four-times better than Li-ion chemistry. Actual volumetric differences remain to be seen.

Another detail to be worked out is the need for quick-enough recharging.

Liang has demonstrated a 2C charge rate – with C rate being measured in units of 1/hr.

“If a battery charges its entire capacity in one hour, they call it a 1C charging. Same with discharging,” said Akhave. “If a battery charges in 30 minutes, then it is a 2C rate and if it does it in six minutes, you have a 10C rate.”

Liang said shorter recharging times for a full-scale EV pack could be achieved if one heats the Li-S battery to 100 deg C. This is counterintuitive to present Li-ion designs, but conductivity goes up with heat for solid state Li-S.

This heating could be accomplished by a built-in TMS to heat the battery. The battery also heats itself during its operation, so this too could be contemplated by engineers.

A Li-ion battery with liquid electrolyte cannot be allowed to get too hot. Present Li-ion electric car batteries are usually engineered with a liquid cooling TMS to prevent excessive vapor pressures, the electrolyte from evaporating, and in worst-case, fire.

In short, Liang’s solid-state Li-S chemistry works much differently.

“With this all-solid everything, the rules are going to change,” said Liang, adding there is no assembly line in the world that could yet build Li-S packs.


What’s Next?


Presently, ORNL’s Li-S chemistry appears to be the most viable, but challenges remain and we asked its inventor if it will be part of an electric car one day?

“I think in theory it will be,” said Liang.

And Akhave does too, but said ORNL will want to take care with who it allows access to its new chemistry.

To successfully build an electric car battery pack will take “somebody who has been there, done that, and has sweated it out in terms of trying to make a practical battery work,” said Akhave noting a company experienced with Li-ion development is most qualified. “Someone who has just discovered the new lithium-sulfur solution at a chemical level will be hard pressed to convert that to a functioning battery in the industrial sector.”

Assuming the right people get the chemistry, the first thing they will need to do is research and build a coin-cell most likely, or possibly a 1-inch by 1-inch cell.

In testing, they will need to consistently demonstrate number of charge cycles – preferably over 500 – and desired operational temperature. An automobile needs a certain window of cycles and temperature.

The “skateboard” chassis design like this one for a Tesla Model S offers several advantages. The actual volume required for a Li-S battery pack is in question. This could be the best way to pack maximum energy into a Li-S architecture while giving automakers freedom to innovate suitable designs.

“That does take time. Honestly I’d be happy to see a lithium-sulfur cell performing 500 cycles with this kind of duty in three to five years,” said Akhave. “This requires solving several complex interlinked technical problems simultaneously. Once that performance is set at the research or pilot level, systems engineers don’t take a lot of time, but need to reconfirm performance at every stage of scale-up.”

Assuming their fundamental building block panned out, engineers would then build a “real world” battery. At this stage they’d test to re-confirm the performance observed at the pilot level.

Next, they’d scale up to module level, test and further confirm. These in turn would be taken by systems engineers and assembled serially or in what ever way they chose into usable battery packs for electric cars.

“At every level – cell, module, systems, you have to reestablish that and recalibrate and understand the performance,” Akhave said and this depends on “whatever design and improvements and niceties you are building in … and then you have to take the pack and put it into actual duty.”

Here’s where engineers may subject their Li-S pack to freezing Alaska or the baking Mojave. They may leave it unplugged, and otherwise test/abuse it until satisfied they have something acceptable for consumers.

In Sum


We regularly see stories where the promise of “game changing” technology is so many years away, but unlike ORNL’s discovery, none have had the chemistry, anode, cathode and electrolyte all worked out and proven.

As always, nothing is certain until it happens, and this is actually only the first of other Li-S and Li-Air chemistries that are believed likely to come along.

The road ahead looks promising, but challenges remain.
The road ahead looks promising, but challenges remain.

Quadruple the energy density would dramatically improve all sorts of things that use batteries today including electrified bikes, trucks, aircraft, watercraft, laptops, smart phones, grid storage, not to mention applications for the military.

For electric cars, it could put them over a perception hump, leave far fewer would-be consumers sitting on the fence, and this possibility now appears closer than ever.


Jun 24

2013 Toyota RAV4 Review


By Larry E. Hall

Toyota’s 2013 RAV4 EV is the automaker’s second go round of converting its small gasoline powered sport utility to an electric vehicle. From 1997 to 2003, 1,484 RAV4 EVs were leased or sold. Of those, Toyota says approximately 449 are still on the road.

This time, rather than develop the electric RAV4 on its own, Toyota joined forces with upstart Silicon Valley electric carmaker Tesla Motors to co-develop and co-engineer the latest all-electric RAV4.

Toyota was responsible for the vehicle’s design, ride and handling, safety systems and its human-machine interface. Tesla supplies the RAV’s electric drivetrain, including the battery and electric motor, which it shares with Tesla’s base Model S luxury sedan.

Developed in a remarkably short 22 months, production is completed at the RAV4’s plant in Ontario, Canada.

Based on the 2012 RAV4 – not the all-new 2013 model – Toyota says only 2,600 units will be made, with production halting at the end of 2014.

The battery-powered RAV4 is available for sale only through select dealers in California’s major metro market areas of Los Angeles / Orange County, the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and Sacramento.

2013 Toyota RAV4 EV Action Front

With a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $49,800 plus $845 destination charges, RAV4 EV customers have the option of a purchase or lease program. The vehicle is eligible for a $7,500 Federal Tax Credit and qualifies for California’s $2,500 rebate through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program as well as that state’s white sticker program, allowing a single occupant to drive in HOV lanes.

Tesla Produced Powertrain

Deviating from Toyota’s custom of employing synchronous permanent-magnet motors in their hybrid powertrains, Tesla supplied an AC induction motor. The 115-kilowatt motor’s peak output is 154 horsepower with torque output selectable by the driver.

In Normal Mode, the motor’s generated torque is 218 pounds feet and sends the electric RAV4 from zero-to-60 mph in 8.6 seconds with a top speed of 85 mph. When needed, the Sport Mode increases the torque to 273 pounds feet, decreasing the time to reach 60 mph to 7.0 seconds and increasing top speed to 100 mph.

Power from the motor is directed to the front wheels through a fixed-gear open-differential transaxle with a gear ratio of 9.73:1.

Located beneath the floor pan under the rear seats, the RAV4’s battery is a 386-volt lithium-ion pack comprised of around 4,500 cells similar to those used in laptop computers. Rated at 41.8 kilowatt hours of usable energy at full charge, maximum power output is 129 kw.

2013 Toyota Rav4 EV Motor

The liquid cooled battery pack’s 41.8-kwh capacity is nearly double that of competitive EVs Honda’s Fit EV is equipped with a 20-kWh battery, the Ford Focus Electric employs a 23-kwh unit and the Nissan Leaf uses one that is 24-kwh.

Unlike other electrics, the RAV4 EV features two charging modes, Normal and Extended. Normal charges the battery to 35 kwh providing the vehicle with an EPA-estimated average driving range rating of 92 miles.

2013 Toyota RAV4 EV ChargingIf a driver needs more driving range, the Extended mode charges the battery to its full capacity of 41.8-kwh and extends the range to 113 miles.

For the window sticker, the EPA requires averaging the two, showing 103-mile range. Comparatively, the Focus EV has an EPA average range of 76 miles, the Leaf 75 miles.

While Standard charging provides less driving miles, it does extend the life of the battery. However, regardless of the mix of charging modes, including Extended charging only, spokesperson Mario Apodaca said the battery is covered with an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

With such a large battery pack, funneling electricity to the car at 110 volts takes 44 hours for Standard mode and 52 hours for Extended mode. But thanks to a 10-kw onboard charger, using a level two 40-amp, 240-volt home charging unit reduces charging to five hours for Normal mode and six hours for Extended. That’s on par with the Leaf’s six to seven hours but more than the four hours for the Focus.

Toyota deserves a gold star for the additional driving miles from the Extended charge mode, but earns a demerit for not providing a quick-charge port.

Maximizing Battery Efficiency

2013 Toyota RAV4 EV GaugesApodaca said the development team made trips of up to 145 miles per charge. Obviously they used a judicious right foot, but engineers also devised ways to maximize the battery’s efficiency, including engineering the regenerative braking to minimize kinetic energy loss. The results of this cooperative regenerative braking are increased driving range by up to 20 percent.

Since regen braking cannot effectively stop a vehicle under hard braking, a conventional hydraulic system takes care of that task.

The RAV’s climate control system has three modes that allow the driver to select the preferred level of comfort and driving range. Normal mode provides maximum comfort, but draws the most juice, thus reducing range.

Eco Low mode dispenses a balance of comfort and extends range by automatically activating the seat heaters if necessary and reducing power consumption of the climate control system up to 18 percent. Eco Hi also automatically activates the seat heaters if needed and further reduces power consumption up to 40 percent compared to Normal. While the results are incremental, using Eco Lo or Eco Hi modes extends driving range.

Also, a remote climate control system lets owners preheat or precool the RAV4 while it is plugged-in, which conserves battery charge and EV range. The system can be programmed by a timer on the navigation display, and can be activated using a smart phone.


2013 Toyota RAV4 EV BadgeThe electrified RAV mimics other contemporary Toyotas, featuring a coefficient of drag (Cd) of 0.30 – impressive for a SUV-like contour and a notable improvement over the standard RAV4′s 0.34 Cd.

Contributing to the low Cd number are a new grille and front bumper, more aerodynamic mirrors, deeper rear spoiler and underbody cladding. The front-end changes give a more contemporary, sleek appearance to the RAV4 EV compared with the 2012 edition’s truck-like front.

New lighting isn’t just for looks. Battery power consumption is reduced by using LED low beam projector headlights with halogen projector high beams, LED daytime running lights which dim to parking lights and LED taillights.


RAV4 EV buyers have a choice of just one trim level with no options. The vehicle is basically a standard RAV4 V6 with the sport appearance package, meaning no spare tire mounted on the rear hatch.

Slip onto the driver’s seat and the interior looks nearly identical to the gas-powered model — the same seating position, same outward visibility and same bi-level dash layout with upper and lower glove boxes. Immediately noticeable, however, are new digital gauges, a restyled center stack with an eight-inch color LCD touch screen atop, the absence of control knobs and the quirky gear shifter borrowed from the Prius.

2013 Toyota RAV4 EV Cockpit

Flanking the digital speedometer are two small gauges. The left posts driving range while the right can scroll through screens to show things like trip efficiency, CO2 reduction and a driving coach with an overall driving score. Engaging the Sport mode changes the background color to red from the Normal mode’s blue.

The large touch screen contains audio controls, backup camera, a navigation system that can locate charging stations and Toyota’s Entune app system. Having to dig into the system for audio settings is somewhat annoying, but at least there’s a volume-control button on the steering wheel.

Front seats, with eco-friendly cloth, are supportive but not excessively firm, with acceptable bolsters and thigh support. A tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and six-way adjustable driver’s seat makes easy work of finding a comfortable driving position.

2013 Toyota RAV4 EV Front Seats

A relatively high seating position, low cowl and sloping hood provide excellent front visibility, while lengthy side windows eases over-the-shoulder lane checking.

There’s generous room for two rear seat adult passengers, three, not so much. Rear seatbacks recline and the 60/40 split seats slide fore or aft to optimize passenger room or cargo capacity.

Since the battery doesn’t intrude into the cabin, the 37.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row seats is the same as the gas powered model — more than enough to hold a week’s worth of groceries. For more space, a simple flip of a lever folds the rear seat flat to expand cargo room to 73 cubic feet.

2013 Toyota RAV4 EV Rear Seats

If little ones are along for the ride, rear seats can accommodate two rear-facing infant-safety seats, two convertible child-safety seats or two booster seats. Latch anchors on the outboard seats are buried in the cushions but are easily reachable. Attaching tether anchors, however, is somewhat cumbersome and requires sliding the seats forward to connect the tethers.

Driving The RAV4 EV

My time with the RAV4 EV was limited to around an hour, but the drive route north of downtown Phoenix was varied enough to walk away with a good grasp of how Toyota’s small electric SUV performs and handles on the road.

When I pushed the blue start button, the RAV electric went through a quick and silent system check, “booting up,” Apodaca said – no sounds of a gasoline engine coming to life.

2013 Toyota RAV4 EV Action

With the familiar Prius style shift lever moved to “D,” the small crossover moved silently through the parking lot. The rack-and-pinion electric power steering felt light, needing only a slight effort to turn. As speed increased, the steering became more weighted and acceptably responsive with more feedback than anticipated.

Short brake-pedal travel took a few miles to get used to. Once I adapted, I found breaking to be smooth without the grabby, jerky feel of some regenerative braking systems. Panic stops produced no surprises and there was no indication when the hydraulic system took charge to safely bring the RAV to a halt.

Acceleration is quite frisky – really frisky in Sport mode. The go pedal is easy to modulate allowing minimum electricity use during in-town driving yet, providing instant get up and go when necessary.

Ride and handling is similar to the conventional RAV4, meaning it’s close to a typical small car. The all-independent suspension did a commendable job of absorbing bumps and the infrequent Arizona potholes.

The RAV4 EV is certainly no canyon carver, but the placement of the battery lowers the center of gravity allowing even sharp curves to be taken with confidence while exhibiting only slight body roll when pushed hard.

2013 Toyota RAV4 EV Action Left

Toyota added sound insulation in the roof, doors and front fenders as well as thicker windshield glass. The result is a serenely quiet cabin with just a touch of wind and tire noise and, on occasion, a slight whine from the electric motor.

And about the driving range?

After going through the system check, the dashboard display lit up showing an estimated range of 119 miles. That was immediately reduced to 92 miles when I selected the climate control’s Normal mode to cool the interior. Hey, the RAV had been parked for more than an hour in near 80-degree heat.

After a couple, three minutes the cabin cooled, I switched to Eco Hi and the range increased to 118 miles.

The drive route included a state highway, a four-lane boulevard, residential streets and a cruise through a small town. While the terrain was primarily flat, we did encounter a four or five mile hilly stretch with some very sharp curves.

As the miles went by, the decrease in the estimated driving range stayed very close to the miles driven until I decided to try out the Sport mode, and then it was Whoopee!

Pushing the sport button was transformational. The Mr. Green Jeans personality instantly became a near silent road rocket and before I realized it, we were at 75 mph in a 55 mph zone. Not good. This was the last of the four-day press introduction of the 2013 RAV4 and the local gendarmes were out in force, having already handed out three speeding tickets.

Driving in Sport for six miles knocked driving range down by nearly eight miles but I added some juice along the way by braking more than normal. When we pulled back into the parking lot, the 48.3 run lost just 46 miles of battery range. Apparently, Toyota and Tesla have figured out battery efficiency.

A Compliance Vehicle?

Like the first RAV4 EV this latest edition is indeed produced to comply with California’s ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) mandate, a requirement that a certain percentage of vehicles sold in the Golden State must meet.

But Toyota says the electrified RAV is not just a compliance vehicle.

“The Zero Emission Vehicle mandate has been a fact of life in California for over 20 years. It’s nothing new,” said Jana Hartline, environmental communications manger for Toyota.

“We’re committed to meeting our ZEV credit requirements through a combination of plug-in hybrid, pure battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicle sales.

2013 Toyota RAV4 EV Rear

“Do we think electric vehicles will replace the internal combustion engine? No. But we do think they are an important part of our portfolio of technologies for the future.”

Toyota is also learning from its alliance with Tesla. While the company would not discuss specific technology based issues, Sheldon Brown, RAV4 EV executive program manager, said that it has been a very useful collaboration.

“In a number of areas from power train control to battery management strategies to HV system architecture, our engineering teams each brought their own experiences and understanding to the table and debated and collaborated to find the best application for the specific issue at hand.”

“In the end,” Brown continued, “it really served as a great gut check – a chance to re-consider some of our traditional practices and determine for ourselves if we need further improvement.”

One of those traditional practices being reconsidered might well be Toyota’s stance that hybrids and plug-in hybrids with small batteries are the best answer to the broad range of consumer needs rather than large battery EVs.

Reinforcing that stance, Toyota’s vice chairman, Takeshi Uchiyamada stated in February that, “Because of its shortcomings – driving range, cost and recharging time – the electric vehicle is not a viable replacement for most conventional cars.”

Digging deeper, however, it appears that Toyota’s dismissal of EVs is in the context of near term, not long term.

With little fanfare, in 2008 the company formed a research division to develop “revolutionary batteries.” It aims to commercialize solid-state batteries that will be up to four times more powerful than today’s lithium-ion batteries, followed by lithium-air batteries that will be five times as powerful. Those numbers project a driving range of multiple hundreds of miles on a single charge. Unfortunately, these new batteries aren’t expected until around 2020.

Until then, those who are giving serious thoughts about purchasing a battery-powered vehicle for the first time, as well as EV devotees, should seriously consider the RAV4 EV. With its SUV body style it offers an elevated driving position plus, generous space for passengers and cargo.

And, even though my time behind the steering wheel was short, I came away convinced that it delivers the longest driving range of the current crop of EVs. Except the Tesla Model S, of course.


Apr 05

Revived EV American maker Detroit Electric reveals its SP:01


Chevrolet, a comparatively younger company founded in 1911 and bought by GM in 1918 does not hold a candle to the original Detroit Electric with regards to its electric car credentials.

And Detroit Electric, founded in 1907 as a dedicated EV maker is back. Taking up residence in an iconic 18th floor location in downtown Detroit, with an assembly plant located in Michigan, the company is playing up its pedigree as far as it can.


Actually, the company was shuttered in 1939 while Chevrolet went on to glory for decades beyond. And Detroit Electric’s new head is actually a Brit re-purposing a Brit car with plans for more all-electric, all-American creations soon. It’s a bold development gambit not unlike the path now being traveled by a billionaire South African dreamer in Silicon Valley named Elon.


“We’re back, over 70 years on,” says Detroit Electric on its Web site. “Back in Detroit and back to reignite positive movement in the motor industry. Just as we did in 1907. Proving that we were never behind the times. We were ahead of it.”

A few weeks ago the resurrected Detroit Electric displayed a teaser image of its pending all-electric sports car, and has now wasted no time in providing glossy images of … a car remarkably like the former Tesla Roadster.

The connection should be less of a surprise given that Tesla used modified bodies supplied by Lotus – although Tesla points out the Roadster is not merely an electrified Elise – and the reviver of the EV company in Detroit has strong ties to Lotus as well.

Shut down since the days of FDR, the iconic Detroit Electric brand was “re-booted” in 2008 by former Lotus Engineering Group CEO and executive director of Lotus Cars of England, Albert Lam.

So while some may initially offer that imitation is a sincerest form of flattery, the Lotus connection is arguably as valid with Detroit Electric as it ever was with Tesla.


What’s more, the lightweight and agile rear-wheel-drive Lotus platform is a good starting point to achieve a dynamic all-electric sports car regardless of who did it first.

Called the SP:01, the sporty two-seater EV will, as was the case with Tesla, pursue the high-performance, limited-edition approach to establishing its brand.

Only 999 copies are to be produced, prices start at $135,000, and the SP:01 shares similarities and has some differences with the Tesla starting perhaps with its battery pack.

Tesla Roadster 2.5.
Tesla Roadster 2.5.

In the SP:01’s case, its lithium-polymer pack is much smaller than the Tesla’s. The SP:01′s pack is thermally managed by conditioned air and said to be rated at 37-kwh compared to a 53-kwh pack that came with Tesla’s Roadster.

But the Detroit Electric’s curb weight is lower by a not-insubstantial 13.5 percent, approximately, and its transmission options are greater, so acceleration to 62 (100 kph) is said to be in a highly competitive 3.7 seconds, and top speed is 155 mph (249 kph).

Tesla Roadster.
Tesla Roadster.

Traveling range for the battery powered SP:01 is rated on a variety of standards as coming in between 139 miles and 188 miles. And no doubt if this sportster were shuttled to a track day and allowed to flex its muscles full time, its range would be much less still – as is true of any car.

Curb weight for the carbon-fiber-clad SP:01 is said to be a scant 2,358 pounds (1,070 kg) – not far off the traditionally ideal 1,000 kg mark – and not a whole lot of bulk to push; the SP:01 should provide excellent handling and braking performance in addition to blistering speed.

Its mid-mounted AC Asynchronous motor needed to push around this altogether lightweight package is therefore not that staggering on paper.

Detroit Electric SP:01.
Detroit Electric SP:01.

It is rated at 201 horsepower (150 kilowatts), and 166 pound-feet (225 Nm) of torque.

Compared to the 403-horsepower and 959 pounds-feet torque from the part-time electric Fisker Karma, this sounds miniscule. But the Karma is a 5,300-pound behemoth, and the classic Lotus formula of lightweight will pay big dividends for Detroit Electric.

The SP:01’s power-to-weight ratio is what should be focused on, and to be sure, this car will smoke a Karma that might lumber up to 60 mph in a traction-control-limited 6.3 seconds or so, and will wallow in corners compared to the bantamweight SP:01.

Competition however between the Detroit Electric EV and the Tesla Roadster – a quicker car than even the Model S sedan – ought to be much closer of a match.

Another advantage the SP:01 has is transmission options. These include a four-speed manual, or an optional fifth gear added to the four-speed, or a two-speed auto.

The approximately 2,723-pound (1,235 kg) Tesla Roadster kept things simpler with a single-speed gearbox, and its top speed was limited to 125 mph with a single ratio low enough to launch with a comparatively quick 0-60 in 3.7-3.9 seconds from a start.

It needed more motor power too, with various spec versions rated between 248-288 horsepower, and 200-295 pound-feet torque.


The Roadster’s all-electric range was however longer as well – in excess of an attainable real-world 200 miles, up to around 244 miles or more estimated.

Recharging time for the SP:01 is said to be 4.3 hours using the quickest charger, and with a standard EU outlet, 10.7 hours. No doubt it would take much longer with a U.S. outlet supplying but 120 volts, so a fast charger is essentially required.

Rounding out the specs, the car rides on a fully independent double-wishbone suspension with high performance dampers and coaxial springs at all four corners. It specs AP racing twin-piston front brake calipers and Brembo single-pistons in the rear. Tires are 195/50 R16 in front, and 225/45 R17 in rear.

Inside the car, Detroit Electric says it’s the first to use smart phone applications to fully manage in-car infotainment system.


Called “SAMI” (Smartphone Application Managed Infotainment system), the system accesses a variety of functions, including music player, satellite navigation, interior lighting adjust and vehicle systems status – such as the level of battery charge, range to recharge and other vehicle telemetry.

Naturally, it can also be used to make mobile phone calls.

“Our research engineers at Detroit Electric have taken steps to break the mould,” said Lam. “SP:01 is more than just a sports car, it is a mobile energy unit, allowing the user to use its stored battery energy to power not just the car but even an entire home. SP:01 is equipped with bi-directional charge and discharge capability, allowing it to release its stored electrical energy to power a home.”

The SP:01 uses a patented Detroit Electric home charging and power back-up unit, called “360 Powerback.”


It is a smart home-charging and power back-up unit that enables the SP:01’s battery to be charged at the rate of 8-kwh (240 volts @32 amps). The unit can detect a grid power failure and provide the option – via SAMI and the GSM network – for the user to instruct the vehicle to restore power to the home using its stored energy.

“360 Powerback is the next level of innovation and shows our determination to provide additional value proposition through our EVs, uniquely elevating us from others in the segment,” said Lam.

Past, Present, Future


The former Detroit Electric had its heyday and went out of business 69 years before Lam and company came along, but as has become standard operating procedure for a revival of a classic name, lore and legend come with the package for the polished up, once-sleeping brand.

As did the London-based venture capital firm that purchased the name rights to the iconic Chris-Craft boat company and Indian Motocycles, Detroit Electric’s marketing copywriters have jumped in head first. Their self descriptions evoke a legacy that the present management did not earn as they wax eloquent over a company of entirely new identity albeit with a name purchased from one from long ago. They presume to state the company is “back” as though speaking with the voice of ghosts of long-dead founders who were merely away for a while. They essentially declare a sense of continuity, and essentially rest fully on their purchased laurels.

“It’s hard to imagine that back in the early 1900’s, electric cars were the most prolific vehicle. And guess who helped spark the movement,” says Detroit Electric’s Web site. “Our founder, William C. Anderson made his first Detroit Electric in 1907. By 1910 we were leading the way, selling up to 2,000 cars a year. Petrol cars were unreliable and dirty, but Detroit Electrics could be charged at home and used in an instant …”

The family resemblance to the company's newest car and this original Detroit Electric EV is just a bit elusive.
The family resemblance to the company’s newest car and this original Detroit Electric EV is just a bit elusive.

The new-start company says it produced 13,000 electric cars total – “a world record for electric vehicles in the 20th century.”

Why, even Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, drove one, says Detroit Electric’s marketers, as did also Thomas Edison, Mamie Eisenhower, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. among other notable customers.

This is certainly a distinction, and even Tesla Motors cannot claim Nikola Tesla ever drove one of its cars.

And so it goes. The approach is not unfamiliar in today’s world where bold personalities climb new heights, sometimes on shaky ground where others more conservative would fear to follow.

2011 Lotus Elise.

In any case, we sincerely hope the new-old company can pull it off, as the electric vehicle world needs more innovators and risk takers with good ideas. It would be great for this company to make it – a new American car company in Detroit dedicated to EVs!

Plans for Detroit Electric now are to launch the SP:01 by August, with more cars to follow down-market by 2014 including a family sedan for under $50,000 or so.

The company has signed a long-term lease for its corporate headquarters in downtown Detroit’s Fisher Building, and it aims to produce its cars at its new facility in Wayne County, Mich. as well.

The production facility is promised to have an annual capacity of 2,500 cars and Detroit Electric intends to create over 180 sales and manufacturing-related jobs over the next 12 months.

Its business has been “asset light” – modeled on Apple and Nike – and minimizing overhead and requirements for excess capital. It reportedly has just 17 employees thus far.

More fun than a barrel full of Spark EVs.

In question is how it will fare in what is actually a capital-intensive business. It’s starting with a pricey product that looks even more like the original Lotus Elise gas-powered car than Tesla’s Roadster – and Tesla has succeeded so far, while, speaking of history, that is where another aspirational company also headed by a non-American transplant, Fisker Automotive, seems to be slipping into.

Wishing to establish new history, Detroit Electric is looking for more investors, and of course, customers for the SP:01 which will have its global reveal at the Shanghai Motor Show on April 20.

After five years of intense research and investment in its pending product line, the company is offering signups for test drives for would-be buyers. The SP:01, priced from $135,000, will come with a three-year, 30,000-mile warranty with an optional extension for the battery to five years and 50,000 miles.

More information can be found at Detroit Electric’s Web site.


Mar 13

Will the BMW i3 with ‘not intended for daily use’ range extender meet US buyer expectations?


Yesterday I was contacted by John Voelcker, senior editor of Green Car Reports, kindly asking what I thought of a piece he wrote comparing what is known of the pending BMW i3 with range extender to the Chevy Volt.

His article ponders whether BMW is possibly setting itself up for a new variant on “range anxiety” in the North American market because the motorcycle-based two-cylinder petrol backup may not be enough to match the output of the EV it is meant to support.

In BMW’s view, the “ReX” range extender – its displacement may be 800cc but this is not official – may lead the car to dip into its 21-22-kwh battery’s energy buffer.


Power may be fine in range-extended mode on a level grade, but up long hills, or at speed, or in other taxing scenarios, the performance may tail off in range-extended mode.

The i3’s electric motor is expected to deliver 170 horsepower (125 kw) of peak power to its rear wheels. A suitable ratio for the gas-to-electric output would be 1:2. The Volt is set up this way. Its electric output is rated at 149 horsepower (111 kw), and its gas range extender is around half that at 74 horsepower (55 kw).

It’s not out of the question that an 800cc BMW motorcycle-based engine would be able to deliver half of the 170 peak horsepower of the i3’s traction motor, but that would be pushing it. A parallel twin from one of its liquid-cooled 800cc bikes is capable of 85-90 horsepower, but usually they must be spun to around 8,900 rpm to achieve peak power.

Do you think BMW will make the genset in the i3 a 9,000 rpm screamer? If not, its gas-to-electric ratio will likely be less than the Volt’s, and this is assuming it’s an 800cc. BMW also has a 650cc parallel twin motorcycle engine, so this is an open question.

What is known to date is the stated design parameters set by BMW are not the same as GM established with the Volt. The Volt, as you know, can be driven on gas alone if someone wanted to do it, but the BMW’s tiny range extender may not be able to do this as well.


“Consider, for example, a heavily loaded range-extended electric car on a 10-mile uphill grade at freeway speeds,” writes Voelcker of a situation where the i3 may come up short in range-extended mode, “Once the buffer capacity of the pack is depleted, would a 40- or 50-kw generator be enough to keep the i3 at maximum speed on that freeway?”

BMW has said it expects the estimated 100 mile or so EV range its i3 will provide will suffice, and so its range extender is there mainly like a spare gas can to get the driver to a charger if needed.

The car’s fuel tank is only expected to be 2-3 gallons which would only double the EV range. These decisions are being made by BMW in order to comply with California’s arcane requirements to still be considered a “zero-emissions vehicle” (even if it does emit some hydrocarbons anyway).

One thing that’s true of GM’s engineers is they know the American mindset, and what will satisfy drivers for the most part.

A contrast may be seen in BMW’s philosophy as evidenced by BMW’s global R&D chief, Herbert Diess, who was quoted recently saying the i3’s range extender is not designed to be used day in, day out, as the Volt’s range extender is capable of.

“The range extender is not intended for daily use. It’s for situations when the driver needs to extend the range of the vehicle to reach the next charging station,” said Diess. “Therefore, the i3 probably won’t be the choice for customers with a need for an extended range.”

Instead, a plug-in hybrid would be a better choice, Diess said. He also said BMW expects people may flock to the range-extended version at first, but as the car becomes known, those opting for the range-extended i3 will diminish from half of all buyers, to just one-fifth.

“It is more of an issue for those who have not yet had a chance to use an electric car,” said Diess of the range-extender option. “After a few days, they usually discover that a base range of [100 miles] is sufficient to limit recharging to about two times a week. In most cases where people first think they need a range extender, it actually never is used.”

BMW is making the i3 a global car aimed also at Europe and Asia where distances traveled are more often shorter, and driver requirements are different than in the U.S.

The i3 is due for U.S. delivery early in 2014, and BMW says it will lack nothing as a family member of the “Ultimate Driving Machines.”


It may be an EV, but this will be a BMW EV, and presumably more fun to drive than a Nissan Leaf. But will the BMW wilt nonetheless in range-extended mode?

That is one mystery, but as Voelcker concedes, there is room for speculation. Even the specific cost for the range-extender is not officially known. Word has been it could be an additional $2,000-$3,000 more for the car possibly priced in the $40,000 range. If this is so, this is not a lot extra for an installed engine, and frankly it sounds too low.

To be sure, we’ll need more answers from BMW, but judging from what it is saying, do you think it is misjudging the American market, and what most people would want? Why bother with a range extender if it cannot meet power supply demands in full?

GM already gave America what it thought was the best engineered compromise – an EV that can travel coast-to-coast on gas if needed – but BMW’s criteria doesn’t appear to be up to the same standard.

Is it possible the i3 with range extender will be a near-miss for most Americans? Or could BMW re-think its priorities before launching the car here in the land of high expectations?

Green Car Reports


Mar 11

Will GM offer smaller EV batteries to cut Gen 2 Voltec costs?


General Motors has been attempting to globally proliferate its Voltec technology, now having seen three short model years (2011-2013) in 28 months since the North American launch of Gen 1, and with an eye toward Gen 2.

The company has collected profuse amounts of data and customer feedback to give it a strong sense of what to offer next. While it has an intense fan base that loves the Gen 1 car, GM has also felt mild-to-intense market push-back against its arguably pricey Voltec siblings.

Aside from reducing the cost of existing components, it appears GM is at least mulling its options to offer a smaller battery pack, as evidenced by a statement made by GM’s Vice President of Strategy and Operations, Thomas Sedran, in Europe.


“In the coming years I don’t think you will need 100 km (62 miles) of electric range,” said Sedran. “Around 30 to 50 km (18 to 30 miles) should be enough to get you in and out of town and after that you still have the range-extender engine to help.”

Sedran’s comment was recorded by regarding the Vauxhall Ampera sibling to the Volt, and it has prompted speculation as to whether multiple battery size options may be a way to tailor MSRP to specific driver requirements, or whether it would mean simply cutting back the AER to that of a Ford Fusion or C-MAX Energi.

In denser communities as they have in Europe, this may be all a lot of people need, and the same could be said of individual owner requirements in the U.S. too.

Another comment by Steve Girsky, GM’s vice chairman and interim president of GM of Europe, was also noted showing GM is painfully aware of the need to find creative ways to slash costs while still, presumably, retaining profitability and expanding appeal.

“The Ampera has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any car, but it’s simply too expensive,” said Girsky. “If you want to make money it’s not about the cleverest technology, but who can deliver fuel economy at a lower cost.”

The UK generously lops off £5,000 ($7,467) from the sales price of an Ampera, but the car still starts at £28,995 ($43,301). Of that, an estimated £12,000 ($17,921) was quoted as the production cost of the battery for the UK model.

If accurate, and assuming markup for the battery, that’s basically akin to saying the “gas tank” – aka energy storage – costs somewhere around half of the car or so and consumers are aware of this, as is GM.

After speaking with GM, AutoExpress said the Ampera would be replaced in “three to four year’s time” which is further out than we’ve been led to suspect of the Gen 2 Volt.

Apparently a lot is still up in the air. Do you think multiple battery range options is the way to go? GM’s Dan Akerson has also recently said better battery tech is right around the corner, so where are we headed here?

And would it not be better to get more AER from a more energy dense battery that GM found a way to procure at a lower cost? Is merely slashing the battery size as though constrained by present economics a good indicator for a future Voltec?

One thing we hear often enough is the blatant statement by EV evangelists and other such positive-thinking proponents that high-voltage electrified car batteries will go the way of the semiconductor.

Silicon Valley has benefited from year-over-year improvements of virtually quantum scale since the advent of the personal computer.


For people to project the same future into the electrified car battery is speculation on a high order. It sounds good, but we’re talking two different technologies here. Are such prophetic utterances based on fact? Or are they a statement of faith?

If fact, and HV batteries progress like the computer industry was able to, we’d expect in maybe a decade to have so much AER that the Volt will not need a range extender. Perhaps also we’ll have ultra-fast recharging too, and EVs will promise only benefits over ICE vehicles, with no tradeoffs perceived to have to accept.

What is certain is we are all on a road we have not traveled before. And, mixed statements from GM shed little actual light on the subject. The only objective truth that can be said is we shall have to wait and see what actually comes forth in the next couple years and beyond.

AutoExpress via Gas2.0


Mar 07

GM gearing up Spark EV for European launch


By Philippe Crowe

Chevrolet’s Spark Electric battery-powered mini car is being presented to a European audience for the first time at this year’s Geneva Motor Show.

The car will be sold in select European markets as of 2014.

Chevrolet anticipates the Spark EV will set a benchmark in performance for an urban city electric car; the Spark EV is powered by the most advanced electric motor and battery system General Motors has ever built.


“The Spark EV is a fun-to-drive zero-emission city car with intelligent connectivity. We believe it will resonate particularly in some of Europe’s most technologically advanced markets,” says Susan Docherty, president and managing director of Chevrolet and Cadillac Europe. “Just like Volt, this nimble battery-powered vehicle is a proof point for Chevrolet’s ingenuity in delivering smart mobility solutions.”

The heart of the Spark EV’s propulsion system is its GM-designed permanent magnet electric motor. It delivers more than 130 horsepower (100 kilowatt) and will enable 0-60 mph acceleration in under 8.5 seconds.

The Spark EV will be equipped with a lithium-ion battery system of more than 20 kilowatt-hour that operates with the help of an active liquid cooling and heating system. The battery pack has been engineered to enable both regular alternate current (AC) and direct current (DC) fast charging.

Chevrolet said DC fast charging will allow the car to recharge up to 80 percent of its capacity in approximately 20 minutes. Moreover, the battery system is capable of handling multiple DC fast charges daily. AC recharging requires between 6 and 8 hours, using a 230V outlet.

A charging extension is standard.

According to Chevrolet, the Spark EV was designed to look edgy and expressive. Among the most prominent aspects of its stylish interior is a column-mounted instrument cluster that features one of two large seven-inch full-color LCD screens. The other display is located in the center stack and serves as the interface for infotainment, cabin climate controls and energy-efficiency data.


The Spark EV will come with the Chevrolet MyLink connected radio technology as standard, which allows users to connect compatible smartphones to the radio with its high resolution touch screen. Chevrolet said MyLink will support a number of select apps which will allow users to navigate using their smartphone, and listen to radio stations around the world through the internet. A rear-view camera will provide assistance when the car is in reverse.

In addition, MyLink users who own a compatible iPhone (4S and higher) running iOS6 will be able to utilise Siri to perform a number of tasks while they keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.