Navigant Research Blog

Tesla’s Patent Giveaway Paves the EV Freeway

— June 26, 2014

Tesla’s move to open up its patent portfolio is undoubtedly risky, and it could erode Tesla’s competitive advantage.  But the potential rewards outweigh the risks.  The thinking behind Elon Musk’s move is that by allowing the major automakers to use Tesla’s technology, it will help lead to Tesla’s ultimate goal: a comprehensive network of cars, batteries, suppliers, components, and charging stations that utilizes electricity for transportation.  In other words, since Tesla is one of the top electric vehicle (EV) players currently in the market, the company stands to benefit from a vastly expanded network of EV infrastructure based on Tesla’s technology.  The more people that are connected to a network of vehicles relying on electricity, the better it is for Tesla.

Rivals and Collaborators

BMW and Nissan have already expressed interest in collaborating with Tesla on their supercharger technology to potentially create global vehicle charging standards.  BMW has also reportedly considered lending its expertise in carbon fiber technology in exchange for powertrain development and supporting infrastructure.  A partnership between BMW and Tesla could prove to be very powerful, bringing together the highly successful Model S with BMW’s electric city car, the i3, and its soon to be released i8 plug-in hybrid supercar.  Currently, Tesla, BMW, and Nissan account for roughly 80% of the world’s plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) sales.

Car charging companies are also looking to benefit from the technology transfer, with Car Charging Group, Inc. announcing its intention to integrate Tesla’s EV charging technology into its Blink EV charging stations.  Car Charging Group is one of the largest owners, operators, and providers of EV charging services in the United States and is also the owner of the Blink Network, one of the most extensive EV charging networks.

On the Sidelines

While the patent release by Tesla will surely increase collaboration with the major car manufacturers already producing EVs, it’s much less clear that open patents will move the dial on the major automakers that have largely steered clear of EVs in the past.  Toyota, GM, and several other major players are hedging their bets on EVs, and Tesla’s patent release is unlikely to change their position.

Navigant Research’s report, Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment forecasts that cumulative global sales of electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) will reach 25 million units by 2022.  Increased collaboration between the major EV players could lead to this figure being achieved ahead of schedule.

Cumulative EVSE Unit Sales by Region, World Markets: 2013-2022

(Source: Navigant Research)

 

Tesla Looks to Fuel a Battery Revolution

— 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.

 

Six Questions Regarding Tesla’s Gigafactory

— February 27, 2014

This week, Tesla revealed the first details about its plan to build an enormous battery factory to provide cells for its future electric vehicles.  Among the revelations: the factory will be powered primarily by its own solar and wind power parks; it will produce more than 50 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of battery packs a year; and it will cost $6 billion to build.  To kick things off, Tesla also filed to sell $1.6 billion worth of convertible bonds today.

While these are intriguing details, there’s still a lot to determine about what this factory will actually look like.  Here are my questions about the Gigafactory:

Why isn’t California one of the states being considered for the plant?  The company named Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas as potential host sites.  To build the batteries in a different state and then ship them to California, even by rail, will add considerable cost to the batteries.  Why not locate the factory at or near the company’s vehicle assembly plant in Fremont, California? My guess is that environmental regulations for such an enormous factory are one negative factor weighing against California.  That leads to a second question: Where will the cars be built?  The batteries coming from this factory will be going into Tesla’s next-gen passenger car, not the Model S or Model X.  That means that a car factory could also come along with the battery plant.

How much wind and solar will be needed to supply power to the plant? A battery factory making 50 GWh of batteries will require enormous amounts of electricity – some for the actual making of the batteries and some for the initial charging of the batteries that is the last step in the manufacturing process.  This could require as much as 1 GW of renewable energy projects.  Is the price of those installations factored into the stated $6 billion cost of the factory?

Where will the extra 15 GWh of batteries come from? In the slides that Tesla distributed, the manufacturing capacity of cells was stated as being 35 GWh.  But the manufacturing capacity of packs was stated as being 50 GWh.  So where will the extra 15 GWh of cells come from?  From other battery company factories throughout the world? From more Gigafactories?

Why is this factory so cheap? $6 billion doesn’t sound very cheap.  But it actually pencils out to a little more than two-thirds the cost, on a per GWh basis, of other large battery factories.  Clearly, the large scale of the factory will make equipment purchases cheaper.  Nevertheless, the estimated cost of the factory seems extremely low and brings into question whether Tesla and its battery partners have some new manufacturing innovations up their sleeves.

Why wasn’t Panasonic mentioned in the news release? Most observers assume that Tesla will build the factory with Panasonic, which makes all the cells for the Model S and the upcoming Model X.  However, the news release only stated that the car company’s “manufacturing partners” will help finance and build the factory.  Is it possible that another battery supplier is inserting itself in between Panasonic and Tesla?

How much will the cells cost once the factory is up to scale? Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stated in the past that Tesla buys its cells for between $200 and $300 per kilowatt-hour (kWh).  The slides distributed with the Gigafactory announcement claim that the facility will be able to cut the costs of the battery packs by 30%.  But how much of that comes out of cell costs versus price cuts in the other equipment in the pack?  Does this get Tesla down to $175 per kWh? To $100 per kWh?

There’s no denying that this is a bold venture.  If the company manages to follow through on these plans, it will construct the biggest factory in the world (not just for batteries, but for anything).  And it will yet again echo Henry Ford’s spirit with a 21st century version of the original megafactory, the River Rouge complex.

 

Why Tesla Should Sell Trucks

— December 13, 2013

If you want to attract media attention for an idea, attach Elon Musk’s name to it.  Any technology he proposes taking on instantly attains a higher profile, whether it’s autonomous vehicles, high-speed public transport, or space travel.  Musk is also not afraid to buck conventional wisdom: he announced that Tesla would explore battery swapping immediately after battery swap pioneer Better Place declared bankruptcy.  Now, you can add electric pickup trucks to the list of challenging new transportation technologies that Musk wants to tackle.  A Tesla pickup truck would not have quite the same cachet as a Model S, but Musk says he wants to develop one because of their popularity in the United States.  He has mentioned modeling a Tesla electric pickup after the best selling Ford F series pickups.

The pickup truck vehicle segment actually seems like a good target for better fuel efficiency in the United States.  In spite of the move toward more fuel efficient passenger cars, pickup trucks continue to be among the top-selling vehicles in the United States, with the Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram set to join the Ford F series among the top 10 best-selling cars in the United States in 2013.  Some of this may be due to pent-up demand, as these are quite likely to be work vehicles for contractors, landscapers, and other businesses that have been in a belt-tightening mode following the global recession of 2009.  But since pickup trucks are consistently big sellers in the United States, they represent an obvious target for any efforts to reduce overall transportation fuel consumption.  Musk specifically says he isn’t interested in developing an electrified commercial truck, like those used by Fedex or UPS, since that market is much smaller.   In 2012, the Ford F series, Dodge Ram, and Chevy Silverado combined for sales of 1.36 million.  By contrast, Navigant Research projects that U.S. sales of all medium and heavy duty trucks – the primary models sold to commercial users ‑ will be just over half a million in 2013.

Thanks, No Thanks

However, as I found researching for an update of the forthcoming Navigant Research report, Hybrid and Electric Trucks, U.S. automakers are not terribly interested right now in electrifying this vehicle segment.  GM announced it will be discontinuing all of its hybrid truck models in 2014.  Chrysler produced 35 Dodge Ram truck plug-in hybrids for testing with utility customers but has not announced any plans for commercial production.  Ford has announced that it is working on a hybrid system for its rear-wheel-drive pickups and SUVs; however, the company does not plan to introduce a commercial version until the latter part of this decade.

The reason is simple: low sales.  GM reported 2012 sales of around 2,800 Silverado, Tahoe, Escalade, and Yukon hybrids.  The major challenge for this market is that the businesses buying these cars are very price-sensitive and have rigorous performance requirements.  Edmunds found that the 2013 Silverado hybrid had limited towing capacity and fuel economy compared to the (non-hybrid) Dodge Ram, which cost thousands less.

The main companies in this space now are XL Hybrids and VIA Motors, both startups.  XL Hybrids is developing a hybrid drive that can be retrofit onto a Chevy Express van chassis or a Ford E Series chassis.  VIA Trucks has developed a plug-in hybrid powertrain to be integrated into Class 2 light trucks and vans, like the Chevy Silverado and Chevy Express van.   The company just announced it was beginning production in its factory in Mexico.  These two companies are still in the very early stages of producing commercial products, and it remains to be seen if they can succeed where the big OEMs could not.

No doubt Elon Musk will learn from these examples.  Succeeding in this market will require a vehicle with impeccable performance and significant fuel savings benefits, at a reasonable price point.

 

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