Batteries are the neglected part of the technological jigsaw that makes up electric vehicles (EVs). While most attention is focused on the development of drivetrains and the design of the vehicles themselves, the vital power pack tends to be forgotten.
Even for UK battery-development specialist Evida, energy storage is only a part of the picture - albeit, for its team, the most important one. ’We have to understand the duty cycle and the drivetrain, as well as our part of it - the energy-storage system - before we can design a battery pack for a vehicle,’ explained chief operating officer Trevor Power.
For Power and Evida’s newly appointed executive chairman, David Roberts, pure EVs are the area to focus on. ’One of the reasons I joined Evida this summer is that I can see a growing demand in the next 10 years for pure EVs, but with one important caveat: they have to be vehicles with high standards of design and manufacture, and they have to be at a good cost base for the end user,’ Roberts said.
’They’re a bit off at the moment in terms of the cost because they don’t have the volumes; that’s something of a chicken-and-egg situation. But I believe the cost will come down considerably over the next two to three years.’
Roberts has been brought into Evida after some 40 years in the automotive sector, notably with Chrysler and Aston Martin. He joined with a tranche of new senior executives, including a senior engineer and a technical sales manager; Evida’s investors are clearly setting the company on an expansion track.
However, Roberts admitted that his experience of EVs has been limited. ’I’m a petrolhead; I drive fast cars and do crazy things with them. I hadn’t been in an EV until this year, let alone driven one. But when I did, I noticed an instant change in my behaviour. It slowed me down and it made me feel better about myself and my surroundings.’
Evida’s focus on batteries for pure-electric rather than hybrid vehicles resulted from an analysis of the market, Power said. ’Hybrid vehicles have taken off quite quickly; pure electrics are somewhat behind. The use of EVs in the near future will be limited to niches: early adopters; people who are motivated to take on the vehicles and install the charging facilities so they can use them; people with a need to do relatively short journeys in metropolitan environments; people who have off-street parking so they can charge vehicles up. And that is a great thing for a small company such as us. We can latch onto the niche at the start and grow with it.’
Batteries for pure-electric cars are quite different from those for hybrids, Power added. ’They need quite different applications of battery technology. Batteries for hybrids tend to be smaller and they need to deliver a lot of power relative to their size. In a pure EV pack, the focus is very much on maximising the power you can store, because that determines your range. In a hybrid, you’re concerned more with smoothing out the peaks and the troughs in the demand of the vehicle and running the engine efficiently.’
“The use of EVs in the near future will be limited to niches and that is a great thing for small firms”
Evida’s technical centre is in the UK, with manufacturing facilities in China. However, every battery it makes is tailored for a specific vehicle. ’The technical centre [staff] talk to our customers, who tend to be OEMs, first-tier suppliers, start-ups and converters,’ Power said. ’We design bespoke packs for their vehicles to fit a specific space and provide a specific output. We don’t assemble from pre-built modules; everything is specific to the client.’
Power doesn’t believe that car batteries will ever be standardised in the way that small batteries for consumer goods are. ’There are just too many competing requirements and there have to be trade-offs,’ he said. ’Designing a battery pack is a matter of mutual adjustment between supplier and customer. A standardised battery would require too many compromises.’
Evida is focused on lithium-ion technology, which Roberts believes will be the dominant form of EV battery for many years to come. ’The technology we have now is only subject to scale,’ he said. ’My time in automotive tells me that, inevitably, the cost of a battery pack will come down, subject to one thing: volume. There will be process improvements as we go on, but as the volumes go up you’ll see economies of scale in the supply chain and that builds a momentum that brings the cost down faster. The batteries we have now are the ones that will take us into the expansion of the sector.’
david roberts biography
BSc in Economics from LSE
Roberts led the turnaround of Chrysler UK and its sale to PSA, before leading the development and implementation of a quality-assurance strategy at Aston Martin.
He is currently an investment manager at Gemini Turnaround, a UK-based specialist situation recovery fund, and was appointed chairman of Evida earlier this year.
trevor power biography
Chief operating officer
BSc in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College London;
MBA from Warwick Business School
Beginning as an engineer with Zeneca, Power’s career in automotive began with a stint as business development director with London Taxi. He has held a number of positions within low-carbon vehicle specialists including Modec, one80 and Zemotive. He joined Evida last year.
Q&A Fuelling the future
How do you think the market for pure EVs is going to develop?
DR: I think EVs are going to be a much more common sight in metropolitan areas for all sorts of reasons: noise, environment, ease of use, plug and play. Rural areas are a challenge but the big cities of the world will lead the way.
So the entry niche is for relatively small city cars that aren’t intended to go long distances?
DR: Initially, that’s my perception. They would have a range of less than 100-150km, they’d be at a price that’s attractive and they’d be easy to use and charge.
TP: It’s going to take a change in behaviour and those happen over a long time. So I think we’ll see quite a gradual take-up of EVs, primarily as a second car to start with. But once you’ve got an EV in a family, I think most of the journeys they take - which we know are the short ones - will naturally be in that. I have a suspicion that people will buy them as a second car but will end up using them as a primary vehicle and the conventional car will be kept for weekends or holiday use.
DR: I think we’ll see people come to the understanding that it’s a different car; not the car they’ve been used to for the past 70 years. You’ll have to adjust your life to reflect that. We might see people club sharing cars capable of longer distances - that would become a normal thing to do. Many people think that the ownership model will have to change too.
TP: It’s true that batteries are expensive, but that balances against the cost of running the car. You don’t buy 10 years’ worth of fuel when you buy a conventional vehicle. But some manufacturers, notably Renault, are moving towards a structure where you buy the vehicle and effectively rent the battery. I think that’s a very positive move.
Could there be mobile-phone-style tariff charging, where you pay for usage rather than for the vehicle itself?
TP: I think that mobile-phone approach is maybe 10 years ahead of its time, but some variation of that might well be the way the industry goes in future.
Where does the scepticism about EVs come from?
DR: It’s a generational thing, in part. The baby-boom generation, of which I’m a member, was brought up thinking that a car is one of the primary possessions in your life and that all the variants - model type, engine size - were important status symbols. But the younger generation thinks differently. I talk to a lot of people in the 19-23 age group and the overwhelming feeling is that theyare fine with electric cars and they think of cars in general more as a way to get from A to B than I - and others of my generation - do.
So could car makers look at marketing directly to younger drivers, to get market penetration in the same way as mobile phones did?
DR: That could certainly happen; young people have a propensity to embrace these things. But if EVs are to follow the same trend as mobiles, you really would have to look at a more pay-as-you-go-type way of paying for them.