Not long ago, we explored the possibility of Audi taking out Tesla with its forthcoming brace of e-Tron electric sportscars. What we didn’t realize fully at the time, is how directly VW is going after Tesla. At a recent visit to Volkswagen’s Silicon Valley Electronic Research Lab though, I was shown the slide above, which represents the battery packs for the forthcoming e-Tron and e-Up EVs… and it suddenly hit me that Tesla founder Martin Eberhard was applying Tesla’s multi-cell strategy at Volkswagen, essentially duplicating Tesla’s work with the backing of a major OEM. Now, Eberhard is talking to Autocar, and he says that his Tesla-style multi-cell powerpacks could offer 500 miles of pure electric range within ten years. If he’s right, the other OEMs who are focusing on prismatic Li-ion cells are in for a rude surprise… and Tesla had better start making some progress.
Tesla’s major technological innovation comes down to the idea of massing numerous “18650” cells in a temperature-controlled battery pack. Though many dismissed the strategy when only Tesla was working on it, Volkswagen is clearly now a believer in the approach, and they’ve got a good case for it. The main arguments for 18650 cells are that they are the most common cell type, new chemistries always debut in the 18650 format, they offer the lowest price and highest energy density, and offer the most flexibility in terms of packaging.
VW also argues that redundancies allow the multi-cell design to offer more reliability and safety… although cost is likely to have been a major issue as well. But perhaps the most important issue is the scaleability and flexibility of the 18650 approach. VW gave us a picture of the kind of progress they’re able to achieve by simply plugging new 18650s into the existing battery pack design:
Clearly progress is being made, but Eberhard’s warning that a mature electric vehicle won’t be ready until 2020 should be well-heeded. It’s not a great sign that Tesla’s founder is warning that we’re ten years away from EV maturity while his former firm is rushing an EV sedan to market in the next two years. But the real challenge of VW’s gamble on Eberhard is to the Nissans, GMs and other firms jumping onto the prismatic Li-ion cell bandwagon. VW has made a bold gamble by betting on a cell strategy that other major OEMs were content to dismiss as Silicon Valley vapor. If an affordable 500-mile EV comes out of it, fortune will have truly favored the bold.