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For Electric-Vehicle Development, Automakers Haven’t Yet Agreed on the Basics

By: · November 2, 2017

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EVGiven the ramp-up of electric vehicle sales necessitated by regulatory changes in China, Europe, and the United States (okay, the ZEV-mandated, California-aligned part of the U.S.), automakers have a vested interest in sorting out and making profitable the massively expensive development work that goes into these vehicles. A looming issue in this mission, as suggested in a new report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, is that automakers aren’t focusing on foundational basics and that many of the EVs now on the market remain works in progress.

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Teaming with the benchmarking company A2Mac1, McKinsey did physical teardowns of 10 electric-vehicle models that together, according to the firm, account for about 40 percent of all EVs ever produced. The findings included myriad sources for parts, which in turn means scattered supply chains and inconsistent thinking about which components to develop and assemble in-house. The models torn down were the 2011 Nissan Leaf, 2013 Volkswagen e-Up!, 2013 Tesla Model S 60, 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV, 2014 BMW i3, 2015 Volkswagen e-Golf, 2015 BYD e6, 2017 Nissan Leaf, 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, and 2017 Opel Ampera-e.

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How can automakers rectify the current situation? The report offers three pieces of simple advice: Build the vehicle to be an EV, not a conversion; standardize components; and invest in batteries, not exotic lightweight materials.

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Little Agreement on Battery and Configuration

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The three lithium-ion battery format types—cylindrical, spherical, and prismatic—vary quite a bit in their cost, energy density, and packaging and cooling needs. And among other core components in EVs, automakers can’t figure out what they should handle within their own R&D departments versus source from supplier companies, and there’s very little consistency across the industry. “There is at present no convergence toward a unique technology or solution,” the McKinsey report summarized.

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Likewise, approaches toward battery cooling vary dramatically. Some automakers aren’t cooling them at all, while others are cooling the battery packs separately or in combination with powertrain components or with the air conditioning. They can’t agree on how to warm the batteries, either (which aids performance in very cold weather); some don’t do it at all, while others use waste heat from the electric motor or power electronics, and still others use resistive heating.

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McKinsey - Native EV platforms vs Conversions

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Despite those varying approaches, McKinsey found a trend in its analysis: Models with native platforms—meaning vehicles built on unique architecture that was designed to be electric from the start—have a couple of big advantages without driving up the vehicle’s price. Such models offer up to twice the driving range versus converted internal-combustion-engine models, and they have up to 10 percent more interior space (by statistical regression) compared to either non-native electric vehicles or internal-combustion models.

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Time to Start Managing Cost

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Automakers aren’t designing EVs to a cost, and that’s another issue. EVs must be priced higher than corresponding internal-combustion models because of the high cost of batteries, and that compels their makers to package in more features. The McKinsey report says that automakers will have to reshape their business models, perhaps to more closely resemble what Tesla has already done, leaving features virtually the same across models but pricing vehicles based on driving range and performance.

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Tesla Ludicrous mode

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On a cost basis, battery upgrades—not lightweight materials—are the more effective solution for increasing range, the firm found. McKinsey points out that while every pound does count in conventional vehicles because of regulatory targets for carbon-based emissions and fuel efficiency, EVs don’t have such pressure. Across only the models covered in this analysis, it found energy density (by weight) to have increased 30 percent from 2011 to 2018.

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The decision to prioritize batteries—and thus driving range—is one that simply makes sense in light of tremendous recent improvements in lithium-ion affordability, which Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently projected will drop dramatically to just $73 per kilowatt-hour by 2030, from today’s $273.

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Filed under: Battery,News

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