Electric cars are perhaps the hottest item in the car industry. While Ford remains uninterested in deploying an electric car, the other two major U.S. automakers, General Motors and Chrysler both have large electric car projects set to commercialize in 2010. GM's hopes in particular are riding heavily on its electric car program, with the Chevy Volt becoming the crux of its advertising campaigns. While there have been some slight hiccups, such as the missteps of Tesla Motors, few can disagree that even amid a weak economy the plug-in business is booming.
If there's one component most critical to electric cars' performance and success, it would have to be the batteries. The batteries determine the weight, the electric-only mileage, and most importantly the cost of electric cars. Better batteries will make a better electric car. For that reason tech giant General Electric (GE) is betting heavily on electric cars and battery technologies.
GE has aggressively invested in an attempt to position itself as the clear battery leader. It invested in A123 batteries, one of the two startups that is competing for the Chevy Volt battery contract. With a $30M USD second round of investment in A123, GE cemented its relationship and controlling position over the startup and with it increased its position in the battery industry.
It also invested in A123 partner Think Global, which is debuting a small plug-in car in 2009: the Think Electric town car. The little car, available in limited quantities resembles a Smart Car ForTwo in styling and size. It will surely be a hot seller, if it’s able to meet its release date, beating the Chevy Volt to the market. GE is working with its two partners to develop the vehicle. Think Global plans to ship 50,000 units to North America in 2009 which will retail for $30,000 without tax credits. The car has a top speed of 65 MPH and can go 110 miles on a charge.
Mark Little, senior vice president and director of GE Global Research, says the new battery efforts follow closely with GE's Ecomagination initiative which seeks to cut carbon dioxide emissions, and conserve water and fossil fuels. The program is expected to grow 21 percent this year, with revenue reaching $17B USD. GE is planning on rolling this money back into its R&D efforts, increasing these expenditures by $1.4B USD.
Mr. Little praised electric cars, saying that they will lead to lower energy prices and smaller carbon footprints. He states, "My own view is that even if 5 to 10 percent of vehicles become electrified, that's a huge opportunity."
He is championing another key battery effort, which sees GE partnering with Chrysler on a Department of Energy-sponsored research project. The new project will explore designing better batteries for passenger cars. The details of the project are still being arranged.
Another important effort is GE's research into adapting sodium-metal chloride batteries to automobiles. This type of batteries are used in trains and could offer lower prices and higher efficiencies if optimized. It is also experimenting with using ultra-capacitors as a battery alternative.
GE also has ongoing projects to develop large-scale power utility battery storage. If can do this, it would be a great help to some forms of inconsistent alternative energy, such as solar PV or wind power. Its ultimate goal is to provide the grid with several hours of storage capacity nation-wide.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising GE is looking to lead the industry in battery efforts -- after all, one of its engineers built one of the first electric cars, built in 1914.