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