Driving down costs

Major companies will need to pool technologies to make the electric car commercially viable in the near future, says Bosch’s Bernd Bohr

Today, we know that the car will get us from A to B in the future. But we do not know exactly how the car itself will get from A to B. At the moment, our industry is full of high expectations. They are fuelled by the hope of a new technological dawn at the end of the recession. With new business models, the vision of emission-free mobility and an endless supply of power from the socket, electromobility seems just around the corner.

The electric car will not hit the road in massive numbers and not overnight, but it will come. Increasing urbanisation is one of the reasons why electrification makes sense. By 2015, more than 60 cities worldwide will have populations of more than five million — almost twice as many as in 1995. These megacities will make the limited distances that battery-powered cars can cover more acceptable. Even today, 90 per cent of cars in Germany travel an average distance of less than 80km a day. And according to a recent survey, drivers would find the electric car appealing if it could take them more than 200km. While this is a positive response, it is not a sign of potential demand.

Looking back, there was no market for the first 80mpg cars, even though people liked the idea. At first, the electric car will also occupy a niche. It is likely to be successful in Asia’s densely populated regions and in some European and American cities. By 2015, we expect to see sales of about 500,000 electric vehicles. To achieve higher volumes, we must first improve the performance of these vehicles considerably.

Above all, this means greater energy density. To cover the minimum distance of 200km, an electric car requires a battery with a capacity of about 35kW hours, even with optimised power consumption. With current technology, a lithium-ion battery capable of storing this amount of power would weigh 250kg. We must reduce the battery’s weight and price considerably. Even in several years’ time, such a battery will still cost around €8-12,000, about the price of a compact car.

This cost cannot be sufficiently reduced if batteries continue to be produced in small volumes by many manufacturers. Rather, the considerable investments made in development and manufacturing have to be spread over the largest possible volumes.

As our experience in the mass production of complex products has shown, producing 10 times more units reduces relative manufacturing costs by three-quarters. This principle can be carried over to the batteries that we will manufacture in the future. Here too, the law of large numbers applies.

All of this requires that resources be pooled, with the help of major systems suppliers. In countries such as Japan and China, development activities for the electric drive are closely co-ordinated. This should provide food for thought. In Europe and the US, we mustn’t run the risk of fragmenting our resources. Whatever we do, it would currently be too simple to claim that the electric car is completely eco-friendly. After all, power is not only generated with renewable resources. Rather, today’s energy mix still includes power from coal-fired power stations. If we take the German energy mix and current technology as a basis for calculation, a compact electric car still emits 120g of CO2 per kilometer. In the future, this figure can be cut to less than 100g if fuel consumption is reduced. But comparable figures can also be reached by further developing the internal combustion engine. We are improving its efficiency not simply because the electric drive is still a long time coming: we are doing it because we believe that existing engine technology still has great potential for savings.

We believe that it is realistic to reduce the carbon-dioxide emissions of a 100kW engine in a compact car to less than 99g/km. To achieve this, a combination of different technology is required, including: new combustion processes and highly precise injection technology, turbocharging, downsizing and exhaust-gas recirculation… and start-stop systems and intelligent management of the consumer load.

We believe that we can further reduce the fuel consumption of gasoline and diesel engines by up to one-third. This would turn a mid-class diesel into an 80mpg car — with CO2 emissions of less than 99g/km. Thanks to lower fuel consumption, the additional cost of the more complex engines will pay off within three years.

Edited extracts of a speech by Dr Bernd Bohr, chairman of Bosch Automotive, at the company’s recent biannual automotive press briefing