Navigant Research Blog

Tesla Looks to Fuel a Battery Revolution

David Alexander — June 18, 2014

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, stunned the automotive world with his announcement that he was making all his company’s electric vehicle (EV) patents open source.  “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology,” he said on his blog.  Musk explained that he decided to do this because the “world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.”

Automotive companies are well-known for developing proprietary solutions for almost anything in an effort to get one step ahead of the competition, even for a short time.  But this approach means that often the opportunity to share in the rapid growth of a new technology is lost, and suppliers can miss out on the potential for much higher volumes.  Some have speculated that this change in attitude to patents is a move to create bigger demand for battery cells from Tesla’s planned Gigafactory.

Weight and Range

Conventionally powered vehicles are still the main business of all major automakers, which are continually investing in new ways to make these vehicles more efficient.  One of the current trends is to develop stop-start technology to capture some of the efficiency gains of a full hybrid at a fraction of the cost premium.  Full details on the latest developments are discussed in Navigant Research’s 48 Volt Systems for Stop-Start Vehicles and Micro Hybrids report.

When designing an electric or electrically assisted powertrain, manufacturers have to weigh a number of characteristics for each particular model.  Not all hybrid vehicles and EVs are optimized for economy.  Some use the stored energy to boost power or drive an additional pair of wheels.  Bigger batteries cost more and also add weight and take up space, but they provide greater electric-only range.  Small, light vehicles can travel further per kilowatt-hour of battery capacity than larger, heavier vehicles.  These compromises are difficult to resolve, and battery manufacturers have a role to play.

Step Up

Anticipated sales of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are projected to be large enough to lead the demand for lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries in the automotive world.  Even though sales numbers of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) dwarf those of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and BEVs, a much larger battery capacity means that at least 60% of the Li-ion batteries made for automotive use will end up in a BEV over the next couple of years.  That percentage will increase slowly until the end of this decade, after which stop-start vehicles will begin to influence the distribution.  Maybe this move from Tesla will be an incentive for the established carmakers to put more effort into their BEV product range.

Navigant Research expects that the overall market for vehicle Li-ion battery revenue will reach $26 billion by 2023, and that revenue could exceed that if newly emerging 48V micro hybrid technology delivers on its promise of fuel efficiency at a low-cost increment, and a significant number of original equipment manufacturers choose to implement it with Li-ion battery packs.  In addition, the expected steady lowering of per-kilowatt-hour cost will encourage the market if manufacturers pass the savings on to customers.  Full details of the automotive market for Li-ion batteries are covered in Navigant Research’s report, Electric Vehicle Batteries.

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