The Future

Ranges will of course improve with better batteries. In the short term (<5y) battery experts expect an improvement of about 8-10 % per year without any fundamental technical innovation. Tesla Motors collaborates with Panasonic for the development of the next battery generation. In December 2014 Elon Musk announced a new battery for the Roadster. Deliveries began early 2016 and push range to about 550Km (Tesla Roadster “Range Mode, Ideal Miles").  The latest version (P100D) of Teslas (2016) Model S also reaches practical ranges around 500Km (613 Km, NEDC cycle test). Martin Eberhard stated 2010 that he expects 800 km (500m) ranges within a decade and 2018 Tesla demonstrated with its new Roadster that even that can be bettered. 

It is currently not clear whether larger and fewer cells than Tesla uses will become the better option. The very large number of these “18650" cells produced worldwide  (over 2 billion p.a.) has supported a lot of development for those cells and their production technology. Smaller cells incidentally facilitate thermal management considerably as they can present a very large surface to a cooling or heating medium. Tesla Motors believes in view of  their experience and tests that the smaller cells are in addition inherently safer than large prismatic cells. The new 21-70 cells produced by Teslas new “Gigafactory” are larger than their currently used “18650” cells. The “pouch-cells” by LG-Chem used in the 2019 Jaguar I-Pace and presumably or as expected in some “announced” cars will soon have to demonstrate their capabilities.

In the lab a few cells (Lithium-Air cells e.g.) promise a ten-fold improvement at the cell level. Recent developments at IBM are promising. A summary of progress to date (March 2016) can be found in IEEE Spectrum.

Also other approaches could have considerable potential such as e.g. the recently presented Proton-Flow Battery concept or so called Supercapacitors that could be recharged very quickly. Batteries using new and different cells will not appear overnight. Batteries and other electricity storage devices for cars have to fulfil many requirements and lengthy tests have to prove their resistance to tear and wear, as well as their safety on the road. 

If we look at markets and driving habits, there are of course very large differences from Hawaii to the Trans-Siberian Highway in midwinter. Tesla showed that with their models practical ranges “marketable” products can be produced and their sales success is well deserved. So far no other purely electric vehicles perform as well and most have not made it beyond the prototype stage, let alone having passed all hurdles towards full road worthiness (e.g. with crash tests of car and battery).

There is probably a range most drivers would be happy to limit themselves to, or in other words a maximum range they are willing to pay for. In Central Europe that range could be reached from about 500 km. With two 1-2 hour recharge stops, say one over lunch and another for tea, up to 1000 km could be driven in a day and the forced rest stops would contribute to road safety on these once or twice a year longer trips. Following similar thoughts the “Battery 500” project aims at a 500 mile (800km) range. More on recharging I noted here

Personally I like the analogy with the history of cell phones: Once the cell phone lasted a workday, interest in second batteries waned. Hardly anyone buys nowadays a second battery and the phones are not built for easy battery swapping. Exactly the same could happen with the electric car: Once the range covers reasonable daily needs, few will be prepared to pay for more. The car is just plugged in when not in use. What pattern will emerge is not certain. Investing in battery swapping facilities and a vast public recharging network may not necessarily turn out to be the only route.