Most of us simply can’t shell out more than $70,000 for a Tesla. But comparatively affordable electrics like the Nissan Leaf still travel only about 80 miles on a charge—not far enough to dispel the dreaded “range anxiety” that such a low number provokes in most American drivers. A 2013 study by the California Center for Sustainable Energy found that only 9 percent of consumers said they would be satisfied with an electric car that can go 100 miles on a charge. Increase that range to 200 miles, though, and 70 percent of potential drivers said they’d be satisfied. ... over the past couple of years, a number of major automakers—General Motors, Nissan, Volkswagen—have lined up with plans to offer an electric car with (yep) approximately 200 miles of range, for a price somewhere around the average cost of a new American car, about $33,000. They all hope to do so quickly, as fuel efficiency requirements are ratcheting up every year. And they all hope to get there before media darling Tesla does. Musk—billionaire, celebrity, space and solar-energy mogul, would-be colonizer of Mars—has said since 2006 that Tesla’s “master plan” is to work toward building an affordable, long-range electric car. ... In short, the electric car business has taken the form of an old-fashioned race for a prize—a race in very soft sand. There’s no Moore’s law for batteries, which are chemical not digital. Cell development is all slow, arduous trial and error. When your goal is to drive energy efficiency up while driving costs down on a mass industrial scale, there aren’t many shortcuts or late-night inspirations to be had. But now it looks pretty clear who the winner will be. And it ain’t Tesla.
CATL, which had capacity to produce 7.6 gigawatt hours of batteries last year according to Goldman Sachs, says that by 2020 it plans to produce more than the gigafactory, the Tesla Motors and Panasonic joint venture that opened in Nevada in January and is expected to be the largest producer in the US. That would potentially make it the biggest battery factory in the world. ... Backed by aggressive government policies —ranging from subsidies for electric vehicles to restrictions on foreign rivals — China’s battery companies are beginning to dominate an industry which has been led for three decades by South Korean and Japanese manufacturers such as Panasonic, which makes the battery cells for Tesla cars. ... As carmakers invest more heavily in electric vehicles the lithium-ion battery will be a key technology for at least the next decade ... worth $40bn by 2025 and dominated by China.
Already, the four companies that in 2015 provided 88 percent of the world’s lithium can’t keep up: Lithium contract prices have increased from $4,000 per metric ton in 2014 to as high as $20,000 today. ... That’s why a host of junior entrants are scrambling to get into the game. Whoever can figure out the extraction and chemistry required to get lithium out of the ground and into batteries stands to capture a significant share of the market. But as with any commodity, it’s a precarious business. ... Lithium can be mined from rocks, as in Australia and China, but in Clayton Valley and the lithium triangle it’s extracted from briny aquifers. ... The best hope new entrants have of catching Albemarle lies in a process being developed by Tenova SpA, an Italian engineering company. This method, which strips the lithium using an ion-exchange system and returns the water to the ground, would allow companies to skip evaporation ponds, slashing production time from months to hours while yielding a higher concentration of lithium.
On March 13, 2004, a gaggle of engineers and a few thousand spectators congregated outside a California dive bar to watch 15 self-driving cars speed across the Mojave Desert in the first-ever Darpa Grand Challenge. (That’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s skunkworks arm.) Before the start of the race, which marked the first big push toward a fully autonomous vehicle, the grounds surrounding the bar teemed with sweaty, stressed, sleep-deprived geeks, desperately tinkering with their motley assortment of driverless Frankencars: SUVs, dune buggies, monster trucks, even a motorcycle. After the race, they left behind a vehicular graveyard littered with smashed fence posts, messes of barbed wire, and at least one empty fire extinguisher. ... What happened in between—the rush out of the starter gate, the switchbacks across the rocky terrain, the many, many crashes—didn’t just hint at the possibilities and potential limitations of autonomous vehicles that auto and tech companies are facing and that consumers will experience in the coming years as driverless vehicles swarm the roads. It created the self-driving community as we know it today, the men and women in too-big polo shirts who would go on to dominate an automotive revolution.
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