The consumer electronics industry, he said, already has made most of the advancements that are possible in lithium-ion batteries, which also power devices such as cell phones and laptop computers. The next frontier may come in technologies such as lithium-air and lithium-sulfur batteries.
“The incremental improvement right now is literally like wringing out a rag that has been squeezed so tight,” said Jeff Bocan, managing director of global investment firm Beringea, which has invested in battery technology.
“There does need to be a substantial leapfrogging of the technology to get electric vehicles to be competitive from a performance and cost standpoint.”
Sales of hybrids and electric vehicles are expected to remain low for the rest of the decade; they’re projected to rise from 3.4 percent of the U.S. market in 2012 to 7.7 percent in 2019, according to J.D. Power & Associates. That’s doable, but it’s a stretch as long as gas prices stay near or below $4 a gallon.
Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, said one way to lower the Volt’s cost would be to design a special vehicle platform to accommodate its T-shaped battery pack. The Volt is based on the architecture used to produce GM’s global compact sedan, the Chevrolet Cruze.
“If we get a car that is built to carry a battery and with the right knuckles and brakes, that are sized exactly for the car, you could decrease the size of the battery pack, the size of the electric motors and get equivalent range at much lower cost,” Reuss said.
While automakers are investing in their own battery research, some of the most promising technology is being developed by startups.
For example, Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Sakti3, a spinoff from the University of Michigan, is developing a next-generation manufacturing technology to improve the production process for batteries.