Do We Really Need 500-Mile Electric Car Batteries?

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Back in January, we told you about IBM’s quest to build a rechargeable lithium-air battery that could theoretically let an electric car travel 500 miles on a single charge

Since then, more firms have joined IBM on its Holy Grail adventure, leading to a flurry of stories heralding the end to range anxiety and a future where charging your car only takes place once a week. 

But do we really need a 500-mile electric car battery? Or do lithium-air batteries offer something much more useful? 

200, 300 miles, not 500

As most Americans what they think of as the limit of how far they can drive without stopping, and they’ll say somewhere between 200 and 300 miles. 

That’s because your average person needs to visit the bathroom after 4 hours, especially if they’ve consumed too many high-caffeine road-trip drinks. 

At an average speed of 75 mph, on a perfectly clear freeway, that 4 hours equates to 300 miles. 

Highway rest stop - AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Highway rest stop - AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Enlarge Photo

Admittedly, rapid charging, currently capable of offering an 70 percent recharge to cars like the 73-mile EPA-rated 2012 Nissan Leaf in 30 minutes, takes longer than going to the bathroom. 

After 4 hours however, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll immediately return to your car after visiting the bathroom. More likely, especially if you have kids, will be a 20-30 minute break for food or drink. 

And that gives you at least 30 minutes to recharge. 

Longer range... 

Because lithium-air batteries rely on the chemical reaction between the lithium-ions and oxygen in the air, lithium-ion batteries have a higher energy density than traditional rechargeable batteries which rely on chemical reactions between two stored metals within the battery. 

In a nutshell, this means that per pound of weight, lithium-air batteries can store more energy, which equals longer range.

Remember however: that longer range wouldn’t be needed for 95 percent of all daily driving

Isn’t that just extra complexity and cost for nothing? 

or better efficiency?

There’s a problem however. Weight. The heavier something is, the more energy is needed to push it along.

At the moment, lithium-ion battery packs used in modern electric cars account for their increased weight when compared with conventional gasoline cars.

Take the 2012 Nissan Leaf for example, where the battery pack and its control module weigh a massive 660 pounds. And it’s that weight that accounts for the Leaf’s 73-mile EPA-approved range per charge. 

Reduce an electric car’s weight by using a more energy-dense battery, and it will travel much further using the same amount of stored energy as an electric car with a less energy-dense battery pack. 

Smaller, lighter battery = lower cost

Tesla Motors - Model S lithium-ion battery pack

Tesla Motors - Model S lithium-ion battery pack

Enlarge Photo

If rechargeable lithium-air battery packs become commercially viable, the reduced physical battery pack size could help reduce the overall cost of building and buying an electric car. 

And with less weight, it should cost even less to operate an electric car with a lithium-air battery compared with a traditional lithium-ion battery of a similar energy capacity. 

Reduced manufacturing costs and better efficiency on the road should then translate to lower sticker prices and faster adoption -- even if electric vehicle range remains somewhere between 150 and 200 miles. 

You choose

Ultimately, lithium-air batteries may offer the holy grail of 500-mile per charge range. But ask yourself this: Do you really need it? 

Or would you rather have a lighter, more agile electric car that costs less to run? 

Let us know in the Comments below.


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Comments (38)
  1. Safe road trips: 2 hours of driving - 15 minutes rest. So for an EV to have the same practicality for road trip as an ICE vehicle ideally it should be able to pick up some 150 miles worth of energy in 15 minutes. Also about 100 miles of reserve capacity would be nice, just to build in some flexibility in your charging pattern. So I reckon about 250 miles of range (~85KWH batterypack) would do the job, provided a very dense network of super fastchargers along the highways and batterytech/chargers that can pick up/deliver ~50KWH in 15 minutes.

    About IBM: they have announced that their technology won't hit the market until somewhere between 2020 and 2030 which sounds like a diplomatic way of saying "sorry but we have nothing sofar".

  2. A network of battery swap stations, along the lines of the Better Place plan would still be more practical that lots of high-voltage chargers.

  3. I disagree. Anything where building large amounts of infrastructure prior to practicality is going to face resistance in adoption. The only reason Better Place works in Israel is that it has a government mandated monopoly on EVs in that country.

    There is also the sticky issue of ownership of batteries being swapped out. You're stuck with a lease/subscription model which increases the price of use in hopeful exchange for a lower up front cost.

  4. "Ultimately, lithium-air batteries may offer the holy grail of 500-mile per charge range. But ask yourself this: Do you really need it?"

    I think speed of charging should be the goal, not so much range. After all, 100 mile range in the Leaf is much easier to live with if you can recharge in 10 minutes, as promised by Nissan's new DC chargers, rather than 7 hours on L2. A car that would have about a 200 mile range and recharge in 5-10 minutes would be the ideal sweet spot, balanced between range and cost and convenience.

  5. Yes charge time is actually the problem, no one in a gasoline car cares about their range because all they need to do is find a gas station and then they're done filling in five minutes. Range anxiety isn't a fear of how far you can go, it's the fear of a 6 to 8 hour charge if you run out far from home.

  6. Yes, I would really need a 500 mile battery on occasion.

  7. Having a 500 mile range will help quell the "range anxiety" for those that want to compare ICE (300 to 500 miles).

    I recommend the consumer choose what pack they want - 200, 300, 400 or 500 and pay accordingly.

  8. I agree with Randy. Instead of telling people what they want, why not offer them options. Everyone is different and so are their driving goals.

    I just want to be able to drive to San Diego and back, so 200-300 miles would be great. 100 miles comes up short.

  9. It's not really 500 miles that are needed as much as the power density of these batteries. The power density of these batteries would allow us to make larger vehicles like delivery trucks and emergency vehicles. So yes a normal car might get 500 miles out of these batteries, but cars and trucks that need more energy because of their size or performance would be able to work as well as comparable gas or diesel vehicles do now do.

  10. Sorry, vehicles do now.

  11. I agree, ideally I want a truck that I can use to tow my boat to the lake with my dirt bike in the back but still get good milage when driving around the city in the winter. With current tech that means a plug-in hybrid but no one is doing that for tow vehicles...

  12. I've driven plenty of cars that didn't have a 500 mile range. If the recharge can be accomplished in roughly an hour or so, I see no crying need for anything greater than a 300 mile range, unless the battery prices are very low.

  13. It's a little big like gold, it's only valuable because people think it's valuable. With that concept in mind, we do need a 500 mile range, because people think we do.

    I for one want to be able to take my new EV home to show off to my friends and family, to be an EV ambassador of sorts. Home is about 420 miles away, so either 200-300 miles with a quick charge option in between, or 500 miles without. I won't consider buying an EV with less than 200 miles as I consider that under achieving.

  14. little "bit", not little big...

  15. 500 miles is traditional gas tank range. For daily going to work car, most does not need 500 miles range. Only on occasional long distance traveling need 500+ ranges. It will be good idea if the electrical car battery can cascade or add as need base. On everyday use, will keep 150 miles range battery. When travelling long distance, can add battery up to 1000 miles range with light fast charger.

  16. I know I need at least 300 miles before I would buy an EV.

  17. It's all about convenience. People are willing to do things in a different way as long as it isn't too inconvenient. If charge times stay high then, yes, you need a 500 mile battery pack. But as others have said, if you can cut the recharge time down to 1/2 an hour to an hour then smaller packs and shorter distances would be okay to the general consumer.

  18. Activity is growing around induction charging. By adapting "on the fly" dynamic wireless induction charging for the interstates, you could have unlimited range there, and battery range only requied for the shorter distances traveled off the interstate. First application of this will be electric vehicle racing tracks.

  19. Given that the U.S. has a backlog of tens of BILLIONS of dollars (if not hundreds of billions) in simply keeping its roads, bridges, and tunnels in a state of good repair, it's hard to take seriously the notion that we should tear up tens of thousands of miles of Interstate to put wires in them.

    Come back to me once we've figured out how to get consensus on paying for a STATE OF GOOD REPAIR on the roads we've got. Since raising ANY tax for any reason is Communism. Or socialism. Or something.

    In any case, we have total gridlock on transportation funding--Congress just extended the old program for a few months for the umpteenth time--and until we figure that one out, this is a pipe dream.

  20. "pipe dream"? and the IBM battery isn't?

  21. I'll bet you dinner anywhere on the planet that we see lithium-air batteries in production before we have widespread inductive charging built into U.S. roadways.

  22. Well,... all I can say is there is a test road in Korea with inductive charging but I don't know of test vehicles with large li-air batteries. But I certainly wouldn't that bet because in any case we would have to be paying for dinner with our Social Security checks :)

    But I would be interested to know about the relative cost of
    1) having inductive charging on one lane of each Interstate combined with a 16 KWH battery pack in each vehicle versus
    2) having 80KWH battery packs in every vehicle in the USA.

  23. Anything helping the average person in the United Corporations of America, is a "pipe dream" until we get a third party congress.

  24. 1.) you don't need a 500 mile range anything. EV's can serve a very useful niche that meets 95% of daily driving with a 100 mile range. It may take more planning which no one likes to do. You just charge it everynight like your cell phone/laptop computer. No big deal.
    2.) Li air batteries have some very significant challenges, since they carry high energy density & are potentially dangerous in a safety event and nobody in car industry went to LiCo batteries in cells phones (except Tesla who does not know better) since in a failure mode, you have raw Li metal in your battery which is highly reactive. The first thing IBM needs to address is how to handle raw Li in batteries in an automobile environment. Put a nail thru cell phone bat.

  25. Everyone is hoping for a solution to maintain our ability to travel as we have. Has it ever occurred that this freedom may not exist in future due to cost or social changes. Super sonic flight was available to everyman for twenty seven years but eventually failed in 03 for economic reasons and has yet to return. Young people are increasingly shunning cars either due to prohibitive cost or because their social life is satisfied by smart phones or the net. We are evolving and doing things differently,shopping and working from home etc.
    Nothing has ever stayed the same throughout history so why do we think the EV has to provide the same performance as an ICE vehicle? Will it even be necessary with our changing way of life?

  26. its all relative. having done more than a dozen drives over 1000 miles, i can say that 500 mile range is something that would be rarely done in a day if ever by the average driver. But, suppose one did it once a year. that means for 364 days a year, he is carrying the extra weight of batteries that will not be used. Unlike a gas car where you can drive on the bottom half of the tank (did it all the time in my truck to increase gas mileage) an EVer does not have that option.
    What we really need is more QC stations and L2 stations. a 250 mile range vehicle that can be recharged in an hour or swapped in 5 minutes is more realistic. What Tesla currently offers is all one really needs but the charge time is still too slow

  27. I think for several years, most people should just think in terms of pure electric cars as being the second car in the home, that way you still have the option for that 5% of the time. And, besides, most homes are 2 car homes.

  28. I would say at least 200 miles of range with fast charge time of 45 minutes and everyone would be able to ditch their ICE cars. I for one am not a fan of 75 mile range vehicles since they are severly comprimised sin you can run them totally out of range in just over an hour on the interstate highway.

  29. Electric airplanes would become a possibility, I suppose.


  31. A 500 MPC battery would be great, but a 250 MPC battery will do, if this country would get off their ass** and get quick charge stations installed. For a couple of years now, Nissan has had a quick charger that can charge you car in less than 15 minutes. Why aren't we using it? We can make car frames and bodies out of carbon (see Rockey Mountain Institute of engineering) (and you know that we have a lot of carbon) and that would allow for the heavier 500 MPC battery. I want all the range I can get, whither I use it or not and I don't want it to cost me a fortune to replace, and it doesn't have to.

  32. 250 MPC (miles per charge) @ 75 mph would be my number. Traveling at 60 would give you around 300 MPC. I only drive from Miami to Orlando, the Cape, Naples, and Key West. So never more than 220 miles so I would have a bit of breathing room. Even that I would most likely stop at a rest stop eat lunch with the kids and take that time to charge up...

  33. If there is a charging station at every rest stop, then the 200-300 mile at half an hr charge time is ideal, but as it is, not every state is jumping on the bandwagon on adopting charge station, at least not right away. But until they do, the 500 miles charge rate will do for the time being. Me personally, I would buy the 500 mile charge car no matter what. I think they should allow for options as previous posters also suggested.

  34. If there were points at every rest stop this does not mean you could just arrive and charge up since they may be in use. Your wait could double or triple if there was a line.How long would people endure this?
    Its difficult to predict the direction recharging will take since the technology is in a state of flux. If it doesn't deliver comparable ICE range we just may have to accept the EV as limited/local use transport. With this scenario and widespread adoption a fast charge infrastructure would be viable that would allow longer travel with some caveats such as delays at stations.

  35. I'd agree that it's difficult to predict the direction recharging will take. But to your point about arriving at a charging station only to find it in use, most electric-car makers expect that drivers will be able to "reserve" a lot at a charging station through their telematics system as the car's range depletes while they're heading toward it. The car will provide a set of options for charging locations and offer to make a reservation for one.

  36. That's great in an ideal world but its up for abuse where individuals are concerned. What if someone reserves a slot time then gets distracted and has lunch or is delayed by traffic or minor accident without cancelling.Does this mean the charger would be inactive until a default period of time had elapsed,not very efficient. You've heard of road rage I predict there will be EV charge rage eventually over public charge points, there has already been the odd unplugging of cars being charged.

  37. why cant they design a two seperate battery system.While one is being used the other is being charged by solar roof panels and high output alternators ,Then when the one being used falls to low levels it automaticaly stwitches back to the second charged battery and so on.It is possible folks!!!!

  38. My last road trip was 18 hours of strait driving at an average speed of 72.25 miles per hour before my first rest stop. That included 1 fuel stop and a remaining trip of over 900 miles to go. I do this twice to four times per year. An electric car would make this trip impossible. Plus I drive through Wyoming and Colorado where there are few if any places to get diesel much less a battery charge and the freezing weather (-22 at times) makes a battery powered vehicle laughable even with a stated 500 mile range. What would the range be with the heater cranked up and 20 degree average air temp. 300 miles 289? Imagine driving 18 hours plus 16 to 24 hours to recharge both ways. Batteries are just not energy dense enough.

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