Controversial EV Burns, Mystery Deepens

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Back in October, a firm called DBM Energy announced that an Audi A2 fitted with one of its “alpha-polymer” (lithium-metal-polymer) batteries would drive 600km without stopping to recharge or swap batteries, a claim that caused TTAC’s Martin Schwoerer (and others) to sit up and take notice. Schowerer noted

There is nothing new under the sun. You can expect battery capacity-per-weight-unit to expand by around 10% per decade, by incremental improvement. Maybe more. Don’t put your money or stake your rep on anything supposedly revolutionary. There is no way a small four-seater electric can do 600 KM non-stop with one set of batteries (with a $500k fuel cell system: yes, but that’s something else).

Then, days later, the trip was made, and DBM’s battery was hailed as having powered the “Miracle of Berlin.” Of course, Schwoerer pointed out that there were a number of unresolved issues with the stunt, including

DBM Energy GmbH is a mailbox company.

DBM’s website states as contact a non-registered entity named DBM Headquarters, which is located in a smallish office building. In that office building, there are several small-sounding firms such as a long-term storage company, a fire-extinguisher company, and a “battery-service” company.

When companies with no reputation defy the expectations of everyone in the EV business, skepticism is going to take hold. Especially when the car in question burns to a crisp shortly after its record breaking trip.

The UPI reports that German OEMs had been highly skeptical of DBM’s achievement, which “proved” that a 770 pound battery could power a car for 375 miles at an average speed of 55 MPH.

Observers say the German automobile giants weren’t amused. The likes of Volkswagen and Daimler have invested billions of dollars in lithium-ion-based battery systems but are behind French and Asian competitors in rolling out an electric car. And then a small start-up shows them all up.

Soon after the trip, however, accusations surfaced that DBM Energy might have cheated. Why didn’t DBM Energy agree to have its battery checked out? Also, for a few minutes toward the end of the drive, the car had been out of sight, so maybe there was an illicit battery recharge? Was the trip just a big scam to lure investors?

The response?

On its Web site, the company reacted to allegations of fraud when setting the record. It provides what it says is a Global Positioning System protocol of the trip and notes that “manipulation on the car or the battery, for example an unobserved recharge, can be absolutely ruled out with this protocol.” Moreover, more than 30 witnesses joined the trip.

The German government, in a reply to questions submitted by the opposition Green Party, backs DBM Energy’s account, saying it had no reason to believe that the vehicle’s record wasn’t valid.

Then, around Christmas is happened:

the record-setting car, parked in a warehouse rented by local utility Gasag, burned. Authorities have been investigating on suspicion of arson.

DBM’s founder Mirko Hannemann claims

“We are allowed to say only this: Neither the car nor DBM Energy is responsible for this fire”… The record-setting car is now junk but the battery pack had apparently been taken out the vehicle before the fire. A non-inflammable battery was in the car, Hannemann said, countering speculation that the battery might have caused the fire. Either way, the KOLIBRI battery can be reproduced and is currently built into a new car

And though Hanneman says accusations that angry competitors burnt the vehicle are “without basis,” he mentions them in saying that the investigation is the responsibility of the prosecutor, which is a handy way of keeping the speculation alive. Of course, the real question is whether DBM’s battery was in the car that burnt or not… after all, the firm’s forklift batteries have started fires before.

So what we have on our hands is quite a mystery. German automakers have long avoided taking EVs seriously, having been more heavily invested in diesels in the short term and hydrogen fuel cells in the long term… and now a 27 year-old inventor has received government support to prove his new battery which blows away the global competition. According to the NYT

The firm expects its pack to operate for 10 years, or 2,000 charge cycles… [and] estimates that the mass-production cost of a 98.8 kWh version of the pack would range from 800 to 1,000 euros, or from about $1,100 to $1,400, which is thousands below current costs.

If these claims are true and the battery is safe, it’s no wonder that some speculate the German OEMs torched the test car. As German alt-energy expert Peter Hoffman puts itNeedless to say, if these claims for vastly extended battery ranges are proven to be true, it could change the entire ballgame of battery electric power vs. hydrogen fuel-cell technologyOn the other hand, enough questions remain about DBM, its “Miracle of Berlin,” the subsequent fire and its non-independently-tested battery to suggest that the firm is simply playing its bluff down to the last hand, allowing itself to be cast as the persecuted innovator. In any case, we’ve got one curious mystery on our hands here.
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3 of 17 comments
  • Blowfish Blowfish on Feb 09, 2011

    This at least proves the wisdom of locating DBM’s HQ in the same building with a fire-extinguisher company. Just some one had forgotten to take any along. My 380 se was a Fatherland edition, it has fire extinguisher mounted just underneath my seat. Is almost like the fighter planes from WWII, the pilot can use it to douse out any cockpit fire.

    • Zas Zas on Feb 10, 2011

      They were better off moving in next to a chocolate, marshmellow and graham cracker company since all they could have made were SMORES... (is that being too sarcastic?)

  • Michal Michal on Feb 10, 2011

    For goodness sakes, this will have the conspiracy theorists in raptures for years. Big oil killed it! Mercedes and BMW torched the car! The CIA destroyed the company! Let's look at the basic facts: the company runs a test where they refuse independent inspection of the equipment being tested. There is doubt over the legitimacy of the test data. The car mysteriously burns down and the company does not have another battery on hand to demonstrate. It screams of being an age old tactic: show something amazing, get money from investors, disappear overnight. But that won't satisfy the conspiracy theorists. I once met a very nice woman who assured me she knew someone who built a car that traveled for 750km on a single electric charge. No, she couldn't take me to see the inventor, no, scientists were not allowed to test the claims. The car was apparently confiscated by the government. Sigh.

  • MaintenanceCosts I'm generally in the "I want them to have all the new safety stuff" camp, but new cars are both too fast and too isolating these days. They mask speed enough that a new driver can get way in over his head without really realizing he's even going that fast. This is especially a concern with my youngest, who wants to do everything he does faster. (He has zero fear tearing down hills at 25 mph on his little 20" wheel bike.) I'm hoping for something that is slow and communicates speed well, although I'm not quite sure there is any such thing in today's market.
  • KOKing I test-drove a used Equus Ultimate (the one with all the back seat doodads) that was a trade-in at a Ford dealer, and although it was VERY nice to be in as a Lexus LS with Ultra Luxury, it was supposedly in a minor fender-bender that probably wasn't repaired correctly (like a pinched bus cable or something?), and random features didn't work at all.I think this car suffered the same problem in the US that the VW Phaeton did, and probably would've done better if it was badged a Genesis from the get-go.
  • Analoggrotto Tesla owners are still smarter than anyone else, regardless.
  • Wolfwagen Didnt these have an iPad for the owners manual?
  • Ollicat Another crazy thing to consider is insurance. I found out a modest NEW car with all the new safety add-ons will cost $1000 a year less to insure than a 10 year old beater, when insuring teenagers.