By on December 23, 2013

Envia-400whk-battery_1

The hagiographic article by Bloomberg/Business Week on outgoing General Motors CEO Dan Akerson did exactly what Selim Bingol and the other PR honchos in the RenCen towers wanted it to do. With other news agencies and blogs amplifying the puffery and pulling quotes, the article got GM and Akerson a lot of good press. One of the quotes that got pulled the most was Akerson’s reference to a “moon shot” project giving GM’s next generation extended range electric vehicle a 200 mile range on battery power, based on breakthroughs in battery technology. It may be more of a moon shot than Akerson let on, since GM has cancelled its contract with that battery’s likely supplier, accusing it of “material misrepresentation”.

In the Business Week article, it says:

Although GM has hinted that it’s working on a next generation of electric vehicle, Akerson says it’s aiming for a compact car that can go 200 miles on a charge and carry a generator, too. While it will be similar to the Volt, engineers are working on generators that could run on gas, diesel, or natural gas. The increased electric range is coming, in part, from advances in battery chemistry. GM is planning to bring the model out in 2016, for about $30,000, according to a person familiar with the idea who asked not to be named because the plans aren’t public. It’s a project that the company doesn’t want to say much about but signifies how it’s been trying to move past inventing things to putting inventions into showrooms. “We want it to be a moon shot so we can surprise the competition,” Akerson says.

That part about the company not wanting to say much about the project and citing an unnamed source is rather cute in the context of a high profile article that was based on weeks of exclusive insider access given to the Business Week writers. What’s also kind of curious is that GM’s “200 mile battery” was not really news, so citing an unnamed source seemed superfluous. In September, at an event at GM’s Tech Center battery lab, GM’s vice president of global product programs, Doug Parks told the Wall Street Journal that the company was developing a next generation electric vehicle that has a 200 mile range and would cost about $30,000, though the cost of the batteries today would make meeting that price point impossible. Last March, Akerson himself told an energy conference about the project. “There will be breakthroughs in battery technology, they’re on the horizon,” Akerson told a session at the IHS CERAWeek energy conference which was broadcast on CNBC.com. “We’re actually developing a car today which is really anathema to the way the auto industry works: We’re running a dual play on the technology to see which one will succeed. One will result in” a 100-mile range, “the other will be a 200-mile range.”

Just like his comments in the recent Business Week article, Akerson’s remarks last spring about a 200 mile battery sparked a flurry of news reports about a potential GM EV with such a range. Many of those reports speculated that the battery in question was a lithium ion cell being developed by Envia, a battery startup claiming to use a special cathode and unique silicon carbon nanocomposite anode to produce a battery with a remarkable energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram. The level of energy density would indeed make a 200 mile range EV possible. The speculation was founded on the fact that in 2011 General Motors had invested $17 million through its GM Ventures arm to take an equity stake in Envia, resulting in GM Ventures president and GM chief technology officer Jon Lauckner having a seat on the Envia board. In late 2012 the automaker and Envia signed a contract for the battery company to start supplying GM in 2016. Because of the long lead time and validation needed in the auto industry, the contract had very tight deadlines, needing a final design for the battery by 2014.

However, the fact is that by the time Akerson, Parks and Bloomberg’s unnamed source went public with the 200 mile battery project, GM already had doubts about the Envia battery and was in the process of canceling the contract. In an extensive investigative article on the Quartz website, Steve LeVine outlines the history of Envia, how it touted the breakthrough performance of its battery design, based on research at the U.S. Dept of Energy’s Arpa-E program, though it had never manufactured any batteries. GM embraced the company, signing a multi-million dollar contract as well as investing in the company only to find their potential supplier unable to meet deadlines specified in the contract. It turns out that their battery’s outstanding performance only lasted for the first few charge/discharge cycles and then fell off, continuing to decline.

Levine shows that by March of 2013, right around the time that Akerson started touting the 200 mile battery, at their first quarterly meeting specified in the supply contract, GM expressed concern that their own testing showed the Envia battery not meeting claimed performance specs. Envia asked for patience saying that the tight deadlines in the contract weren’t giving them enough time to properly develop the battery. By July, GM’s representative was accusing Envia’s founder, Sujeet Kumar, of making “material misrepresentations during contract negotiations”. GM could not reproduce the Arpa-E results and the automaker was not happy that Envia had claimed a proprietary anode composition when in fact “the anode material is not Envia’s.” GM gave Envia “a failed grade for this quarter.”

In early August, Envia received the following in a letter from General Motors:

Envia has failed to move the project forward or replicate the results on a timetable that could conceivably support the vehicle development process. In fact, Envia was unable even to replicate prior reported test results even when utilizing the third-party anode that had purportedly been utilized in the Arpa-E test battery.

The letter continued that GM was “well within its rights to terminate the December 2012 agreement.” By late August, the contract was cancelled. Envia is currently mired in litigation with former CEO Atul Kapadia, who negotiated the contract with GM, over his firing and with Kapur’s previous employer over intellectual property issues related to battery technology.

While all of this was going on, GM was still talking about a 200 mile battery. To be fair, Akerson did say they were working on two tracks, with more than one battery supplier, and LeVine points out that it’s not likely that GM would have committed to the idea of a 200 mile range EV without having additional battery suppliers under consideration. Still Akerson’s most recent comments to Business Week seem odd in light of the backstory on Envia, almost as though he’s been out of the loop. Akerson’s subordinates recognized Envia’s shortcomings fairly early on, while he continued to reference the project as though there were no problems.

For more information on the topic, Steve LeVine examines the chemistry and physics of Envia’s battery chemistry here, and Gigaom’s Katie Fehrenbacher does her usual thorough job looking at the litigation that surrounds the company here.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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41 Comments on “Does Dan Akerson Know GM’s 200 Mile Range Battery is Vaporware?...”


  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Classic GM. The head does not have a clue about the rest of the company, and yet makes all the policy decisions. It’s astonishing that they have lasted as long as they have.

    • 0 avatar
      AlternateReality

      Suckling at the federal teat certainly reinvigorated GM, but let’s see how long they last after being weaned.

    • 0 avatar
      ash78

      If I might indulge a little lighthearted gender bias, I’m starting to think that Mary Barra — despite coming from the fairer-but-more-whimsical sex — is going to be the most grounded and realistic CEO in a long time.

    • 0 avatar
      RobertRyan

      It does not stop there. A Commercial shown in Australia about Holden still being Holden after production in Australia has enraged people it was supposed to be pacifying.

      http://www.goauto.com.au/mellor/mellor.nsf/story2/8F785CB631F36919CA257C4A00086BE2

  • avatar

    So long as an EV has a gasoline generator range extender, I could care less if the car only gets 100 miles per battery charge. For everyday driving, I’d just charge it the night before and if I forget – just put gas in it!

    • 0 avatar
      WaftableTorque

      Agreed. If they’ve already determined that 95% of American drivers don’t exceed 100 miles daily, it seems foolish to seek a longer range. They should probably look for ways to make the battery pack lighter, more compact, or better distributed within the chassis.

      I also don’t see the point of why the current generators are so big. Does the Volt really need a huge 1.4L engine? Why not a 63cc 3 cylinder or smaller?

      • 0 avatar

        Or why not a Diesel generator?

        And why would you want to build all of this in such a compact space? Why can’t EV be the size of a Impala or Chrysler 300? That’s the ONLY reason the Model S is doing so well – it’s a big car with a hatchback to hold rich people’s skis and gold statues!

        They need to build an IMAPALA EV with an aluminum frame to keep weight down and they should make it optional what kind of generator you can get. Imagine you could choose a Natural gas or diesel generator (swappable)depending on the area you live in?

        • 0 avatar
          WaftableTorque

          >And why would you want to build all of this in such a compact space?
          Because as a range extender, it’s really dead weight. So why not free up the engine space for storage, or a larger battery pack?

          >Why can’t EV be the size of a Impala or Chrysler 300?
          That’s probably the perfect application of a PHEV. I can’t see any full size cars NOT having EREV or PHEV capability within 10 years.

      • 0 avatar
        bball40dtw

        I completely agree. I ended up with a C-Max instead of a Volt. I couldn’t fit our car seat or stroller in the Volt. If I remember correctly, the Volt doesn’t have a 60/40 split foldable rear seat either. I liked the powertrain, and it may be the right car for me in 5-6 years, but it wasn’t right now. Too many compromises,

        I’m still waiting for the Volt Orlando.

      • 0 avatar
        scrubnick

        In order for a series hybrid to work, the gas engine must be capable of supplying all of the power to move the vehicle. When the engine comes on, the battery is no longer powering the car. Not only that, but the engine must be capable of supplying sufficient power to overcome the inefficiency of converting the mechanical power into electricity and then the electricity back into mechanical power to move the car. Unless the engine can be directly connected to the wheels, of course.

        • 0 avatar
          WaftableTorque

          I was thinking of a 50hp generator with a 200hp electric motor for brief spurts. It’s not like we use 250hp all the time, and the 50hp motor can be operated at a fixed RPM for maximum efficiency.

          Even if batteries goes offline when charging, they could always use an electronic controller to charge one battery pack with the ICE while another is available for acceleration. However they eventually do it, it will be an exciting decade of automotive innovations.

          • 0 avatar
            scrubnick

            Once the battery has reached the point that it needs to be charged, you can’t use it. That means that any power to move the car must come from the engine. Yes, it only takes about 20hp to move at a moderate, steady speed, but what happens if you need to accelerate? Also, if we use the example of a 50hp engine running a generator, remember we don’t get 50hp of motive power at the wheels. That’s 50hp input to a generator. They are not 100% efficient, nor is the electric motor used to move the car.

          • 0 avatar
            WaftableTorque

            I just found out that what I was describing already exists: the BMW i3 with the range extender option. I’m amazed that someone else thought of the same idea. I’m interested to see how well it works in the real world.

          • 0 avatar
            kuman

            actually if the generator also work independent of the car operation, it might be even more feasible.

            For example once the battery hits certain charge level, the generators comes to life independent of the car operation ( locked and parked or left out during lunch or toilet breaks) to charge the battery up to certain level.

            Perhaps a sensor would be required so that the generator will only automatically fire up when the car is parked on open air area.

            See it like your super sized chemically fueled portable battery charger for your mobile phone, u can charge them anywhere anytime.

      • 0 avatar
        Kinosh

        Yup, If you only need 10-20hp on the open road to maintain speed, you could make do with an engine from a lawn tractor running full out. You’ll slow down on hills, but I’d imagine the efficiency from running such a small engine at peak efficiency flat out would make up for it.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      @BTR: This is the secret behind the Prius.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      You mean, like the Volt?

  • avatar
    OneidaSteve

    Of course he knows what is going on. It is as if everyone on this forum works in a bait shop. This is a huge publicly traded quasi governmental organization, he has many constituents to communicate with simultaneously. To the developers and vendors, he is applying pressure – “we need this innovation, others will beat us to it, etc” -to his funders/shareholders/unions he needs to demonstrate forward thinking and the ability to take the risk necessary to innovate.

    To create a 200 mile battery, you probably have to fail 100 times (or more) and spend A LOT of money on RD with the best and brightest. Read about Albert Einstein. He didnt get the lightbulb on the first try….

  • avatar
    FractureCritical

    “Read about Albert Einstein. He didnt get the lightbulb on the first try….”

    lol. funny if serious or not.

    The Quark article is well worh the read and shines a light on more the structual issues at Envia and the difference between what engineers do and managers sell. A lot of potential investors don’t understand how important that difference is.

    And for what it’s worth, every_ single_car_maker_in_the_world is a quasi government organization. I would defy you to name a single brand that has not been at least in part supported at one time or another by government hand-outs.

  • avatar
    thegamper

    I will admit that 200 miles on a charge while carrying a range extender is a huge leap over the current Volt. 200 miles may be a lofty if not unattainable goal in the next product cycle, but lets not be too hasty with the hate. If GM managed 100 mile electric range while carrying a range extending engine at a cost of $30k, that would cover the vast majority of drivers daily habits at a cost that is easily within reach of most new car buyers. That in itself is an accomplishment. If the stories are pure fiction, than thay deserve the negativity, but stating goals, even if unrealistic, should get every manufacturer in hot water, not just GM.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    why is GM doing 200 miles so awesome when Tesla… exists? and has two new models coming out that will easily do 200 miles plus?

    with GM’s resources you’d think 200 miles would be easy… I put toyota in the basket too

    • 0 avatar
      thegamper

      But a model S costs twice as much as GM’s “planned” next gen voltec vehicle and the model S has no range extender. What GM wants, it would seem, is an electic car for the masses. That is the moonshot, not the range in and of itself, but a truly mass market electric car without the cost and range anxiety associated with electic vehicles currently on sale. My take on it anyway.

      • 0 avatar
        GiddyHitch

        I agree that Akerson was probably referencing the price point when describing the development as a “moonshot”, but would also say that that’s a gross exaggeration. Moonshot is a costs be damned, bet the company, all-in, etc effort to do something seeming impossible at the outset. This more accurately describes Tesla than anything GM has done in the last 50 years.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        But the Tesla Model E, which is supposed to debut in mid January is supposed to be a 200 mile car somewhere between $30k and $40k.

        GM preannounced the same thing, but with some Volt-like parts included. It sounds crazy, but two expensive reputations are on the line with these announcements, so I’m watching!

        I’ll be patient and what to hear what Tesla shows at the Detroit auto show in mid January before making up my mind. Maybe one of those breakthroughs panned out? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          Tesla is able to get 200 mile range out of its battery because it leaves virtually no slack capacity in the battery. That hurts reliability, and is already evident in the high level of battery repairs and replacements that have been needed for the Roadsters.

          The major automakers care too much about reliablity to do that. They could boost their ranges in the same way if they did, but they have brands that need to be protected, not stock that needs to be inflated and flipped.

          • 0 avatar
            mor2bz

            What kind of lowlife scum can’t afford to replace a 25K battery every few years?

            I raise my eyebrows at their quickchange
            battery stations too. Not sure I would want someone else’s battery.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Nissan’s research shows that the Leaf’s range already fits most commuters’ needs. Going 200 miles with a range extender is pointless for commuters.

    Tesla is claiming it will have a 200-mile BEV in 2016, near the $30k price point, and I believe it. Less motor, less weight, and less battery will mean less cost than The Model S.

    Unfortunately, there are no commercially viable battery breakthroughs today – they’re always on the horizon. My Leaf’s battery has 120 W/kg, and Tesla is about 140 W/kg, so Envia’s claim of 400 W/kg is unbelievable; the litigation behind the scenes seems to underscore this.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      In an pure-EV, I need more range than what’s out there, but in the Volt, I just need more space. The Volt is the only vehicle that I can do my normal commute in EV mode and then drive 200+ miles to Northern Michigan for the weekend.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        Same here. I’ve been following the Volt since it was first public in 2006, and it matches my range requirements on paper.

        But, since 2006, I’ve become a dad and now the Volt’s interior is nice, but not particularly kid-friendly. It’s a car built for empty nesters.

        I still want a Volt, or something like it, but I’m not rich enough to just buy one because I feel like it.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      Given my experience with the Volt, I’d say I wouldn’t be comfortable with an EV as my only vehicle unless it had at least 150mi of all-weather range. I’d reckon that would be at least 40 usable kWh (say 50kWh of actual battery), and I’d much prefer at least 200mi.

      I’d rather not have to put up with the bother and expense of renting, or insuring multiple vehicles for myself. I’m curious to see what Tesla will want to charge for the Model X, though unless they have a mid-generation improvement in battery density I fear it’ll still be a smidge too spendy for me to justify.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        @D.KN: Although I like the Leaf, I’m coming around to your point of view for my next vehicle (assuming it’s pure EV). Weather takes a serious toll on my range, and sometimes it’s a little too close to really enjoy the car. And even though I’m well over my initial disdain for the Volt, I still really like the simplicity of no gas.

      • 0 avatar
        HiFlite999

        Virtually all EV drivers also possess a normal gas-powered vehicle. Their “fleet” average mpg is probably worse than what I’m getting in a single Volt driven for every occasion (not involving sports car rallies …). Probably the biggest cost savings would come from getting rid of the second car.

  • avatar
    GiddyHitch

    I’m amazed that GM apparently didn’t do their due diligence and independently verify Envia’s performance claims, IP ownership, technology, etc. prior to investing millions and signing production contracts. Wait, no I’m not – this is exactly what I would expect from GM.

    • 0 avatar
      DGA

      They sort of did; the third party test was done by Crane. I think that GM went in too prematurely. The battery seems to do what they say it can, but not for too many cycles.

      “Envia said the achievement had been validated by Crane, the Indiana-based testing facility of the US Naval Surface Warfare Center, which cycled the cell 22 times”

      The ownership debacle can be argued many ways, which it will in court and soon.

  • avatar

    if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    The new GM CEO will need a lot of luck. She must know that the IQ of one MBA is enough to totally negate the abilities of at least ten engineers.

    At least Gubmit Motors no longer has the bottom-O-the-IQ-barrel Obama marshmallow majors leading the long descent.

  • avatar
    korvetkeith

    Some Indians lie their asses off to some old clueless white guys in charge. Welcome to the state of engineering in America circa 2013. No offense Sanjeev and jay, y’all are the best!

  • avatar
    SixDucks

    The man did call it a moon shot after all. The old GM would have brought it to market anyway.

  • avatar
    HiFlite999

    While it’s swell to be an EV purist and stand on the high ground, doing so, at present, is a luxury that makes no financial sense. Running my Volt as an only car, it averages about 80 mpg. For 12k miles per year, and a 40/60 electric/gas spilt, it costs about $550 in gas and $120 in electricity. A 400 mile range battery would turn that into ~$0 in gas and $280 for charging.

    Net yearly motive cost:
    Real Volt: $670
    Imaginary MegaVolt: $280

    Difference: $390/year

    There is no way to go from a 40 mile range battery to a 400 (or 200, or 100) mile range unit for an amortized cost of $400/year with known battery technology.


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