By on October 3, 2011

When the blogging gets tough, the tough bloggers get outsourcing, and since we’re swamped with fresh news and sales numbers, I’m going to throw this little mystery over to you, TTAC’s Best and Brightest. It’s no secret that the Obama Administration is bullish on  plug-in cars, as it seeks to put a million of the fuel-efficient vehicles on the road by 2015. And though several studies have shown that the White House’s goal is wildly overambitious and needs more money or a major spike in gas prices, and though even the DOE’s assessment shows that the goal is unrealistic, EV optimism springs eternal. So, whence cometh this profound, unshakeable belief that the EV is going to go from production-constrained curiosity to significant market player in just a few years?

A clue to that can be found in a Wall Street Journal [sub] profile of oil man Harold Hamm, the discoverer of a reputed 24b barrels of oil in the Montana/Dakota Bakken fields.

When it was Mr. Hamm’s turn to talk briefly with President Obama, “I told him of the revolution in the oil and gas industry and how we have the capacity to produce enough oil to enable America to replace OPEC. I wanted to make sure he knew about this.”

The president’s reaction? “He turned to me and said, ‘Oil and gas will be important for the next few years. But we need to go on to green and alternative energy. [Energy] Secretary [Steven] Chu has assured me that within five years, we can have a battery developed that will make a car with the equivalent of 130 miles per gallon.'” Mr. Hamm holds his head in his hands and says, “Even if you believed that, why would you want to stop oil and gas development? It was pretty disappointing.”

What makes this so strange is that the President expressed his optimism in an MPG format. It’s one thing to say EV battery prices will drop by 70% between 2010 and 2015 (even when the CEO of LG Chem says his firm is targeting 50% improvement), or even to say that US battery manufacturing will go from 2% of the global total in 2010 to 40% in 2015… these, like the “one million plug-ins on the road” pledge are straightforward targets. But 130 MPG based on some mysterious battery? There are so many moving parts in that goal, it’s not even funny. As the image above proves, you can order a car from Mitsubishi that is EPA-rated at 126 MPG in the city and 99 MPg on the highway… but it’s small, has only 62 miles of EPA-rated range, and starts near $30,000. Size, price, are all more important to consumers than an MPG rating for a vehicle that doesn’t even take gas, and these three factors all have the potential to decrease overall efficiency.

Presumably, President Obama was using a number from a briefing that used an average size, weight, range and price and projected the required battery size and power for a typical car, and found that by 2015 a 130 MPG-equivalent, average-sized EV would sell for not much more than an equivalent ICE or hybrid. But given that nearly every estimate about EVs ever given out by the administration looks wildly overoptimistic, it’s tough to take that estimate at face value. So I’m wondering, do we know how Obama came up with this number? Is he referring to price drops on traditional lithium-ion cells, or a new chemistry that is expected to be on the road by 2015? FInally, is the president referring to a battery produced by the “domestic industry” or one of the dominant foreign firms and their transplant factories? This private “130 MPG” revelation seems to underpin so much of the president’s optimism about EVs, I think it’s worth taking a much closer look at.

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36 Comments on “Ask The Best And Brightest: What Is Obama’s “130 MPG” Battery?...”

  • avatar

    I’m still trying to understand why we are hung up on an MPG equivalent. I know that it’s easier for the public to figure out, apparently, but what in the world is a “gallon” of electricity? It seems to me that it is beyond time for us to start figuring out some different language for discussing distance-per-energy unit.

    I have no background in engineering and would have to leave it up to those with more experience, but the MPG-equivalent idea is more than a little ludicrous.

    Please don’t kill me for being a little bit confusing. I tried to make my point clearly, but may have failed. :)

    • 0 avatar

      If we were as silly circa 1905 as we are now we would be driving cars rated in MPBOO) (miles per bag of oats)!

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      Much more valuable and applicable across all sorts of energy classes:

      Cents per mile.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s probably simply comparing the BTUs or watts in a gallon of gas, and then calculating how far a particular EV could go on that same number. Of course, you get into complications such as the amount of energy lost converting the source–say coal–to electricity and transmitting it to the car, and putting it into the battery, vs oil-field through refining into the car for gasoline.

      Regarding Ed’s big question, I am guessing here, but I suspect 130 mpg equivalents for an EV is not all that impressive–maybe prius-like. Pres O is throwing around such a number either because it SOUNDS impressive, or because he’s got too much on his mind to have devoted careful thought to EVs.

      Because of course, 130 mpg equivalents in an EV is not very meaningful if the battery only holds a half a gallon equivalent of usable energy, and if it takes 5 hours to put that much electricity into the battery.

      Thus, I think there may be some magical thinking going on in the administration regarding this issue. Now click your heels, and repeat after me, “there’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

    • 0 avatar

      The biggest reason is that we can immediately relate to it. Look at the chart at the top of this article. We like 120mpg. Then look at the next chart, undeniably more accurate. We don’t like 30KWH/100 miles. It feels like 30mpg to us since we have spent so much time reading MPG figures.

      Cents per mile is far superior. The only problem is that prices change. Gas prices change every minute. Electricity prices are different depending on where you live. The best thing we can do is produce a cost per mile equivalent based on average gas prices and electricity rates on January 1 (or some specific date). But that will still be wrong five minutes after the print time on the sticker.

      The most striking thing about President Obama’s remarks, though, is that they do not focus on what’s really important. An electric car is about three times as economical as a comparable gas car, right here, right now. It’s not MPG, but range, that prevents electric cars from being viable. The right thing for Obama to say is that “In five years, we will have an economically viable 300 mile range electric car”.

      Regardless of this, however, the oilman’s instincts were right. Even if we had that car tomorrow, there are millions of cars on the road that are not going to be replaced right away. We will still need all the oil and gas we can get over the next few decades.


    • 0 avatar

      My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it.

  • avatar

    “the Obama Administration is bullish on plug-in cars”

    I wonder how much of the President’s travel is in plug-in cars? I’ve got a pretty good guess…

    • 0 avatar

      I have to add “the Obama Administration is bullish on plug-in cars”
      So what? The previous administration announced that they were going to cut gas usage in America by 20% in the next 10 years and signed a bill in 2007 to give away $7,500 per EV sold.

      Why is this suddenly an issue?

      Presidents going back to Carter have been talking about reducing our dependency on foreign oil. I wonder why is it that when a Republican says this it is smart and good for the country and when a Democrat says the same thing he is cooking the numbers and messing with the free economy.

      The article asks where did Obama come up with these numbers? Probably from the same place that lead Bush to conclude that a $7,500 give-away was a good idea.

  • avatar

    From people who have an ideology and have no knowledge of science/engineering. Surely the secretary of energy knows about this (Chu). But the secretary of transportation doesn’t have a clue (LaHood-a career politician). The big guy has lawyer training and is a politician – he’s interested in “selling” the EV to the public.

    It’s a bit like light bulbs. They’ve been characterized by “watts” for a hundred years – the public equates “watts” with amount of light. There has been somewhat of trend to specifying lumens – a unit of light output – a much more meaningful measure.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Schwartz

      The worst thing is the President’s attitude: Don’t bother me with new information, I already know the TRUTH.

      A polite person, who didn’t care, would say something like: That is very interesting. Please send me some more information about it.

      A President concerned with helping a nation in a three year long depression and reaching out to find practical solutions to its problems, would have wow, that is amazing, and he would have summoned an aide right then and there and tasked him with setting a meeting between Secretary Chu and Mr. Hamm, ASAP.

      • 0 avatar

        The US has around a 20M barrel/day consumption rate. Supposing that we were in fact able to access all 26 billion barrels, it would supply us for about three years (or longer if we just displace our OPEC imports, at around 30-50% of our consumption). It’s still a terrific find, and even if we end up extracting only (say) 10% of the field it will be helpful. But it’s not a game changer,

        Without having read any article beyond this page, I’m curious whether Chu was referring to a 130 mile per CHARGE electric car by 2015, not 130 MPGe (and at some point in that telephone game the reference changed). MPGe (mostly) isn’t determined by the battery technology — as in a gas car, it’s all about weight, aero drag, rolling resistance.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert Schwartz

        Protomech: I think that an open minded person would investigate the Mr. Hamm’s statements, not dismiss them out of hand.

  • avatar

    Yeah, I’m with tankinbeans on this one – why the MPG hang up? I understand that MPG is a known quantity and all but it has no reference to how electricity is used. Range, sure, I got that and it’s a great selling point, so why brag about a useless MPG number?

    I’m also not encouraged by the rampant ideological stances from this administration. It’s like the ivory tower tweed brigade has descended from on high to tell us how to live without living it themselves, thus they simply become agenda-mongers cramming down immature technology down our throats at an insane cost. Yay.

  • avatar

    The only real measurement that is fair (and that the general public cares about) is CPM.

    Cents per mile.

    Now I know that all fuels (gas, electricity, coal, oats) vary in price across the nation. Nonetheless, averages can be computed.

    My Scion, for example, gets me 35mpg. Gas here is about $3.50/gal.

    My cost, therefore, is 10 CPM. What does a Volt cost in CPM?

    • 0 avatar

      I like it! It is the only metric that truly counts to consumers and one that can span different fuel systems. Granted, it would be tricky for electricity and highly variable local rates, but I think you’d still get the gist of it.

    • 0 avatar

      Agree that most people indirectly equate MPG with cost, so CPM could be a useful financial barometer when car shopping. But I think it is limited in practical use. Who wants to bust out a calculator every day when the price of gas changes?

      Fundamentally we need a measurement that is in terms of a consumable source of energy. MPG, for example, is backwards. One does not consume miles. “I’m green, my car gets 50 MPG”. There is no regard to CONSUMPTION. The rest of the world has it right in looking at liters/100km. Isn’t the whole intent in buying a fuel efficient car to reduce consumption? Bigger is better in the USA, so MPG makes sense from a marketing perspective and will probably stay around for a while.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      “My cost, therefore, is 10 CPM. What does a Volt cost in CPM?”

      I get 43mi/100kWh and 1kWh costs me, after taxes, 10.9 cents.

      So, that’s _roughly_ 5 cents per mile.

      And, the city of Austin has a $25/6 month unlimited l2 charging deal with Coulomb/ChargePoint, so assuming I plug in for my entire 30mi commute (600mi/month), my subsidized energy cost is about 7/10 of a cent per mile.

      Full insurance with $500 deductible averages out to be about 8-10 cents per mile.

      So, my Volt in my use case will likely cost less in fuel + insurance costs than your Scion does just for fuel.

      Also, my work parking garage has EV-only spots in prime location near the entrance along with the L2 chargers.

      • 0 avatar

        “I get 43mi/100kWh”
        How do you figure that? The Volt is reported to have a 16kWh battery and a 40 mile range. If my arithmetic is correct, that’s 2.5 mi/kWh, or 250 mi/100kWh.

      • 0 avatar
        Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

        “How do you figure that?”

        D’oh, it’s actually 43kWh/100mi, but the cost per mile is still ~5 cents.. That’ll learn me to skip caffeination..

        (plus, a couple things: only about 10-11kWh of the battery is actually in use except in emergency circumstances, and Austin has had I believe over 90 days of 100F temps this last summer)

      • 0 avatar

        Fair enough. Since neither my city nor my work offers the perks you get. You’re paying 5 CPM and I’m paying 10.

        Everything else aside, driving a Volt would save me $600/year.

        And that’s math anyone can do. For me, saving $600 per year is not a valid gain for the $20,000 additional purchase cost.

        But with CPM, *anybody* can make that decision for themselves.

    • 0 avatar

      This is probably going to be the best way to compare gas vs. electricity consumption. The trouble is of course that electricity prices vary widely based on where you are in the country, the time of year, even the time of day. For a purely back-of-the-envelope calculation, in my area electricity right now is about 13cents/kW. If I own a Volt that requires 36kW of electricity to travel 100 miles (EPA estimate), it costs me $4.68 to travel 100 miles on electricity alone. So my fuel cost is 4.68cents/mile. Compared to your Scion at 10cents/mile, the Volt will save you more than half your fuel bill.

      Here is another interesting example: if gas prices drop to $2/gallon, and you own a car that makes 40mpg, your fuel cost is 5cents/mile. The Volt is still cheaper to fuel with electricity at this point. But if you use a lot of A/C, and electricity prices increase, it becomes more costly to fuel the Volt with electricity than with gas.

      • 0 avatar

        Since folks have a drastically hard time distinguishing between kW or power, and kWh or energy, in order to keep technical people’s BP at manageable levels, I think the UK system should be adopted. They call a kWh a Unit, and sell Therms of natural gas. The electric bill is for units consumed and the average joe is happy with that.

        Here in Canada, weather forecasts on radio or TV often give wind speeds as say, 50 kilometres, leaving
        out the “per hour” at the whim of the dumb announcers, who seem to regard the “per hour” bit as superfluous even when it’s on the page in front of them. With such a resolutely technophobic society in the Western world, we should keep it simple.

        There seems to be no good reason to change electrical energy usage from kWh to BTUs or calories or joules or foot-pounds, although they’re all equivalents. Just confuse people even more. So, I nominate the usage as distance per unit, where the unit is tacitly understood by those who technically care, as one kWh.

        So it would be mpu in the US, and km/u in the rest of the world (or u/100 km for the pedants at SI headquarters)

        Since this argument is far too logical, it has no hope of success whatsoever!

    • 0 avatar

      16 miles each way commute. Last few tanks were ~60 MPG and gas has been about $3.30. So add in oil changes and figure the MPG display is slightly optimistic and round it up to 6 cents per mile. That’s summer mileage.

      It’ll drop a bit in the winter so maybe 7 cents a mile for winter? That’ll depend on if gas prices stay the same, drop, or rise.

      Oh, and that’s a 2005 Prius I bought used.

    • 0 avatar

      Window stickers already have a bold number with “estimated annual fuel cost.” That’s what your system does.

      I, for one, don’t care for including cost in the figures because it is so variable. Electricity in the Pacific northwest may be a third the price of other parts of the country. The price of gasoline can double or triple over the lifespan of your car. However, mi/fuel (or fuel/mi) is pretty constant across the country & throughout its lifespan.

      But the nail in the proverbial coffin is this: What will the official, permanently published values be? How will you compare different model years? A car rated 30 mpg will still be rated 30 mpg 10 yr from now (assuming consistent EPA test methodology). However, using cost means a 30 mpg car = $0.10/mi when gas is $3/gal, but jumps to $0.20/mi when gas doubles in price (which it will). How often will (and every other car reference) have to be updated? What about written documents that can’t be updated?

  • avatar

    Where did he get the number? Energy Secretary Chu.

    “the equivalent of 130 miles per gallon” seems like a simple shorthand way of stating that the cost of running the vehicle would be “the equivalent of 130 miles per gallon”.

    And at what point did Obama say anything about “stop oil and gas development”?

    What’s the beef here?

  • avatar

    130 mpg is not about the battery, or the battery alone. Well, unless the battery is going to have huge weight savings. To get 130 mpg out of the car, the electric motors will have to be better, regeneration better (which might have something to do with the battery), and weight savings. The other thing… electricity prices drop, which goes against what he wants to do with cap and trade.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      And, of course, the fact that the EV user is not currently paying the road use taxes that are added on to the retail price of motorfuels (both gasoline and diesel).

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    This dubious policy goal came from the same place as Obama’s birth certificate and social security card….right, Mr. Soros?

  • avatar

    It’s not that complicated. How much electricity can you buy for the same price as a gallon of gas? How far will that take you?

  • avatar

    What makes this so strange is that the President expressed his optimism in an MPG format.

    There’s nothing strange about it. The EPA expresses EV fuel economy in the form of “MPGe”. Those MPGe figures are what end up on the window sticker of electric cars.

  • avatar

    About 1970, an article appeared in Mother Earth Magazine where a guy named Dave Arthur (I think) put an electric motor in an Opel GT. He used golf kart batteries I think and charged those batteries (and ran the motor) with a generator running on a lawn mower engine. His range was unlimited (just add gas) and he got about 70mpg and 70mph. I understand the volt will run with an on board charger or a plug in charger pretty much like the 40yo back yard invention. If you are going to use a charger mpg makes sense. Cents per mile makes sense for those not using a charger. Solar charging systems would make it free for short range.

    I made a vw based trike using Arthurs technology (pretty much). I was a teacher in East Texas and did it with my science class. I never did go to the extent he did by making it a daily driver. My intentions were to buy a small diesel for charging when opportunity presented. Vandals took care of my intentions.

    This is pretty much posturing I think, on the part of most of the public people involved. An on board charger can be small, light weight, and solve most of the practical problems. I believe our government will prove capable of snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory. We could have had this years ago.

  • avatar

    Why do people still get surprised when they comment that TTAC is seriously right-wing just like Car and Driver? Car culture splits along two lines roughly, the Car and Driver types who want horsepower over anything else and consider any technological advancement or attempt at safety regulations to be an abhorrent attack on their personal freedom and the Motor Trend crowd that is in love with cars but recognize the value of safety and advancement. The article literally goes out of the way to attack President Obama on what are overly optimistic numbers but in a reasonable world would be considered just a simple faux pas at most turned into a slanderous attack on his moral fiber and intelligence.

    Nobody really thinks about the 12 years we spent from 1980 to 1992 with right-wing presidents followed by 17 years 1989 to 2006 with a right-wing congress setting mileage standards and expressly making efforts to avoid improving technology because it didn’t suit their business interests. Environmentalists while may not have been trying to save fuel as their first thought were certainly trying to create an overall more efficient vehicle and were basically laughed out of the congressional hearings about changing CAFE standards every time.

    Without a serious grassroots effort from the less than Pro-Business party (that would be the democrats)we’re going to continue to stagnate with our vehicles. Europe is lightyear’s ahead of us in terms of efficiency and that is on practically every level of size. Easily we could move standards around and welcome in direct injection diesels and get BlueTec diesels in the country but corporations are uninterested in shifting us to a more fuel-conscious society as we stand now.

    That being said, MPG is a measurement we’ve come to understand for measuring fuel versus distance traveled. Cost per mile is something we usually associate with the cost of a vehicle’s maintenance and overall gas consumption. Though as it stands I think a conversion based on energy expended converting it into MPGe does make sense.

  • avatar

    I think that as a seemingly smart president, Obama (like most administrations dealing with a population so large that you can’t realistically expect everyone to understand whats going on) knows he has to exaggerate to get his point through. If he (or whoevers in charge) says you will have 1 million plug in cars and a 130 ‘MPG’ battery by 2015, at least you might get 300k plug-ins and a 80 ‘MPG’ battery. Even if he knew ( I’m guessing he’s neither a car engineer or battery engineer, or car sale statistic major) this in advance, telling the population that you will have 300k plugins and a 80 ‘MPG’ by 2015 ,it would only lead to you having 100k plug-ins, and a 50 ‘MPG’ battery. It’s called governing. You won’t understand ;)

    • 0 avatar

      If he (or whoevers in charge) says you will have 1 million plug in cars and a 130 ‘MPG’ battery by 2015, at least you might get 300k plug-ins and a 80 ‘MPG’ battery.

      As I noted above, the EPA already uses a measure called MPGe. For the sake of comparison, the Mitsubishi MiEV is rated at 126 city/ 99 highway/ 112 combined. Using that as a benchmark, only modest improvements would be required to achieve an MPGe of 130.

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