The challenges of making battery-operated electric cars
ANY doubts that electric cars are the future are rapidly blown away within minutes of driving a Tesla Model S. It is not so much the rapid acceleration, but the smooth and relentless supply of power from its electric motor. That is the thing about electric motors: they produce a twisting force called torque instantly. So much torque, in fact, there is no need for a gearbox. This saves weight and makes more room for all the toys, such as the giant touchscreen that dominates the Tesla's centre console. It is a shame then that Levi Tillemann did not crown this car the winner in his book "The Great Race", instead of wimping out at the end by declaring the quest for the car of the future is a "race we all run together".
Mr Tillemann's book is about the car guys, mostly those employed by the giant carmakers in America, China and Japan, and their titanic struggles to bring electric vehicles to the market (and, at one point, in the case of General Motors, trying to kill them). Yet it was Tesla, an upstart from Silicon Valley founded by the PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, that took the laurels by building electric cars that run rings around the others. Teslas use improved versions of industry-standard lithium-ion batteries, rather than any exotic concoctions put together by the battery guys. These players are running in a different but parallel global race described by Steve LeVine in "The Powerhouse" about the visionary attempts to develop a battery that would "save the world". The world is still waiting.
Both books have the crunchy detail required for a compelling insight into the technological, corporate and political machinations that one day will, no doubt, deliver vehicles and batteries that actually do change the world. Not just electric cars, but driverless ones, too. And, again, it was Silicon Valley that put autonomous cars onto the roads with Google's fleet of test vehicles.
Better batteries would give electric and hybrid cars even better performance and increased range, which would improve their appeal. But the batteries also need to be cheaper for the mass market. These batteries would have other uses, such as storing energy on the grid. As the sun does not always shine nor the wind always blow, better batteries could squirrel away surplus energy produced by renewable sources for when demand peaks.
Mr Tillemann, an energy expert, writes about the car guys with the grasp of an insider. This seems to have been gained from founding a company which tried to bring a low-emission car engine to market and by the rigour of having led negotiations with Detroit. Fluent in Chinese and Japanese, he is able to take the adventure to the heart of the world's other automotive powers.
Mr LeVine, Washington correspondent for Quartz magazine, gained unusual access to Argonne National Laboratory, a secretive centre outside Chicago which has led America's efforts to produce an advanced lithium-ion battery. His story, though, is also global and traces an international group of scientists along with their squabbles and power-plays.
There are intriguing twists and turns in both stories, and these will continue as both races run on. The latest wrinkle is the fall in oil prices. When lower fuel costs are combined with petrol engines now providing unprecedented levels of efficiency, old technology fights back against electric cars and batteries. How will the car guys and the battery guys respond to this? The crash in oil prices was too late for both authors to explore. It would, anyway, be worth more than another chapter. Perhaps another book.
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