Expert: Lithium Ion Batteries Will Help Hybrids More Than Electric Cars

It’s commonly reported that lithium ion batteries will usher in a new era of electric cars and plug-in hybrids. Not exactly, says John German, the engineer who literally wrote the book about hybrid cars for the Society of Automotive Engineers. After 11 years at Honda, German now serves as a senior fellow for the International Council for Clean Transportation. In an interview with, German said the next wave of lithium ion batteries will not significantly reduce the cost of electric cars, but they could make conventional hybrids ubiquitous.

Power vs. Energy

A quick refresher course on the difference between power and energy, and why it matters.

In German’s view, the chief benefit of new lithium ion batteries is their greatly enhanced power capabilities—the rate at which energy can go in and out of the battery. “But they don’t store any more energy than the current lithium ion batteries do,” said German, “What we are looking at is a battery which is perfect for conventional hybrids.” Why will the new breed of lithium ion batteries be a bigger benefit to conventional hybrids rather than plug-in hybrids and electric cars?

German: The next generation of lithium ion batteries will reduce the cost of the battery pack for conventional hybrids, but they’re not going to reduce the cost of the battery pack for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. In effect, these batteries will increase the cost differential between conventional hybrids and plug-in hybrids. That’s going to make it harder for plug-in hybrids to compete with conventional hybrids.

Walk me through the energy and power requirements for the two different categories of vehicles.

For plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, it’s all about the range. You need a certain amount of energy to drive a certain distance [before needing to recharge]. That’s independent of the battery chemistry. If the new lithium ion chemistry doesn’t store any more energy than your old lithium ion chemistry, then you need just as much battery to drive that distance.

And with conventional hybrids, you don’t need nearly as much energy.

The battery packs in all existing hybrids, up until the new BMW ActiveHybrid 7, are oversized. The reason they’re oversized is that with nickel metal hydride [the technology used in today’s hybrids], you’re limited in how fast you can take energy in and out of a battery without causing significant deterioration. So these batteries are not sized for the energy [storage] requirements. They are sized for the power requirements, so they can deliver enough power without significant deterioration. As a consequence, they hold a lot more energy than they really need to.

With the new high-power lithium ion batteries, they can cut them down to their actual energy requirements and still get all the power they need.

So, with the new lithium ion batteries, the difference in cost between conventional hybrids and gas-powered vehicles could come in line?

In another 10 to 15 years, we should be at the point where the mainstream customer, the average customer, will accept the cost of a hybrid system.

Meaning, maybe a couple of hundred dollars more than a conventional car?

Well, $1,000 to $1,500 more. There’s enough benefit for mainstream customers to accept it.

How rapid will the transition from nickel metal hydride to lithium ion batteries be for conventional hybrids?

It’s a function of sales volume. The current generation of lithium ion batteries is not any cheaper than nickel metal hydride. And they’re not proven. With a lot of the lithium ion chemistries, just sitting and doing nothing in hot weather will degrade the battery pack. The batteries will not last as long in Phoenix as Minneapolis. There’s risk with durability and reliability.

In lower volume applications, new hybrids just coming out, carmakers know they’re not going to be able to capture larger market share right away. So they’re going to be lithium ion batteries starting tomorrow [See Mercedes S400 Hybrid and BMW ActiveHybrid 7]. You don’t have a large volume, so your risk is minimized and you’ve gained experience. It’s going to be cheaper in the long run, and you want to gain experience. So, you’ll see very few new hybrids using nickel metal hydride.

The problem is with high volume existing hybrids. When you’re selling hundreds of thousands of Priuses globally every year, if you encounter something wrong with the lithium ion battery pack, your exposure is enormous. The high volume hybrid applications are going to go to lithium ion last. But even the high volume ones will get there by 2015 or so.

What’s your feeling about the cost per kilowatt-hour of lithium ion batteries? What are they now and where do they need to be?

I thought they were $1,000 per kilowatt-hour, but I’m hearing that it may be more like $700. It’s hard to determine the long-term price potential. They shouldn’t have much trouble getting down to about $320 per kilowatt-hour. It’s going to take a while, but with higher volumes and better production methods, $320 is achievable in the 2018 to 2020 time frame.

The real question is how low can you drive it. I’ve seen some people suggest that the lowest could be $250 to maybe $175.

At $250, doesn’t mean that plug-in cars become affordable?

No. At $250 per kilowatt-hour, the pay back is roughly similar to the hybrid vehicles of about five years ago. So there’s your market, about 3 percent.

If lithium ion batteries bring the plug-in market to 2 or 3 percent, where will conventional hybrids go?

I’ll stick my neck out and say that by sometime around 2025 or 2030, conventional hybrids will be over 70 percent of the market.

And a fairly steady ramp up from now until then?

Yes. It will be a curve. Something like a doubling of hybrid sales every three to five years. There’s no doubt in my mind that by 2030 that hybrids will be in more than half the vehicles sold in the US. I would be astounded if they weren’t. By 2020, I would say we’d be somewhere in the 10 – 15 percent range.

And President Obama’s goal for 1 million plug-in hybrids by 2015?

It’s not likely.

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  • Charles Hall

    I’m no expert, but I don’t find this explanation convincing. This kind of thinking would never have brought the Prius to market in the first place. You have to factor in some motivation factor for Arab oil embargoes, global warming, saving the planet, etc. Now if this fellow had predicted GM’s bankruptcy or something, I’d cut him some more slack. But this kind of unimaginative number-crunching with numbers that are highly speculative never seems to add up to actual reality.

  • Less NOx

    He also didn’t factor in other incentives or future govt regs here or abroad that could prod automakers to increase production sooner.

    Having spent the last 11 years at Honda doesn’t exactly prove his predictive credentials since they seem to have gotten the market wrong on every hybrid they launched.

  • Christof

    Have to agree with the posts so far. The analysis is narrow, and appears to be locked into conventional, narrow concepts of cost.

    For example, it doesn’t appear that the strong possibility of radical cost increases in oil in the next five to 10 years are even on the radar screen in terms of this analysis.

    There’s absolutely no doubt that gas prices will rise astronomically by 2020 as countries like China and India ratchet up consumption, and as the world’s oil supply — which is clearly finite — dries up.

  • JohnM

    Important technologies normally require 20 years from when the product first goes to market, to ubiquitous. E.G. personal computers, internet, and compact florescent bulbs. The Prius just passed 12 years (10 for US). It still has a small market share, and it will be another 10 years before people will have justify a decision not to buy one.

  • Mr. Fusion

    Mr. German’s timeline numbers are inflated, linear and overly conservative. He’s talking about batteries, cost and hybrids in 2020 and 2030 and extrapolation is not part of his vocabulary.

    He’s not “sticking his neck out”, he’s sucking it back into his shell. If we stick to this turtle’s timeline, we’re all driving nothing in 2030.

  • Carl

    It’s clear that none of you understand the difference between energy and power.
    Just a bunch of whiners.

  • Jeff

    I agree with the whiners and have a hybrid automotive background. I was surprised to see such a dour outlook where even $250/kWh won’t be economical. Take the case of a 10 kWh/$2500 pack that cuts gas expenses roughly in half for a 30 mpg pass car. This would save about 2500 gals of gasoline over the vehicle life ($1/gal saved). I also expect with China and India coming online to see petroleum price pressure. They are ramping up vehicle production…

  • John K.

    All I will say is that I hope that EEStor comes through w/their product.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    A lot depends on what parameter the battery designers optimize: Power capacity or Energy capacity.
    companies such as A123 and Altairnano (anyone hear anything about Altairnano for a while?) have been focusing on increasing power density. This is probably because of the large, existing hybrid vehicle market that will support a less-risky business case. Hybrids need more power capacity and more cycle life while pure EVs need more energy capacity.
    In the long run both are moves in the direction of reducing our oil dependence and pollution, however, ONLY pure EVs have the benefit of being able to eliminate the need for oil or fossil fuels altogether.
    German definitely supports the slow-moving, don’t-threaten-the-status-quo approach. But what would you expect from an ICE industry lifer whose paycheck comes from companies that are nearly completely invested in ICE technology and manufacturing capability?
    I particularly like German’s silly quote “No. At $250 per kilowatt-hour, the pay back is roughly similar to the hybrid vehicles of about five years ago. So there’s your market, about 3 percent.” He insinuates that the only reason hybrid vehicles only made up 3 percent of the auto market was because of their greater cost compared to pure ICE. He completely neglects the fact that every hybrid built was sold almost immediately, with no serious advertising, at MSRP or above, with now factory incentives, in very few body styles or colors, some of them (Honda) were cheaply engineered so that you lost significant trunk space, etc.
    Remember, GM is quoted as saying that they “could only sell about 1000 EV1s” when they shut down the factory after building about 1000 of them, before they even started leasing them.

  • Samie

    Taking Jeff’s idea and adding to it..

    “This would save about 2500 gals of gasoline over the vehicle life ($1/gal saved).”

    If 2,500 gals. of gas are saved we could assume that the real cost of petroleum is $4.00 a gal. (military protection, environmental costs, political liabilities, subsidies, ect….) So taxpayers would save $2,500 (10,000 – 7,500). Simplified but to illustrate savings beyond conventional costs….

    As for the expert, I think it is merely a business as usual approach to forecasting. What I did not see in this article was the variables or conditions that he thought would happen to support his facts. I don’t care about the prediction, what is more important is how he came up with his ideas. Anyone can be a expert but a real expert gives you conditions of the market or future changes such as global warming policies, reduction of petro subsidies, ect… will have on the market. I have been skeptical of anyone who does this type of forecasting after the financial meltdown when so called experts did not take into consideration any changes in market conditions. I think the media has done a poor job of getting to the heart of the question, instead glossing over the issue while messaging someones ego and dumbing down messages for a general audience. Predicting uncertainty and forecasting it is not easy but anyone who is a “expect” should be required to explain their ideas, that is if they really are a expert.

  • AP

    Samie, what you also see from this expert is the recognition that no matter how much customers clamor for something, when the product comes out, it had better be safe, reliable, etc., and deliver on its promises. An engineer’s job is quantifiable-if things don’t work, people know. Engineers deal with reality, not rhetoric or good wishes.

    Unlike politicians, bureaucrats, and activists, engineers don’t have the luxury of ignoring negative factors about a certain technology, blaming someone else when something doesn’t work out as planned, or freedom from litigation when the SNAFU of legislative mandates, customer desires, and special interest group demands converges to create an outcome that’s unsafe.

    It’s easy to criticize, but when the rubber hits the road, one guy takes responsibility…..and the criticism. That’s the reward for actually doing something instead of just talking about it.

  • John K.

    How about an occasional article on non-electric hybrid technologies, such as the Flybrid system (flywheel), or hydraulic hybrids (3x as efficient as battery systems and no degradation of storage unit (or weird chemicals))?

  • ex-EV1 driver

    John K,
    Flywheels and compressed air (which is how hydraulic systems actually store their energy) have good specific power (Watts/kg) and power density (Watts/liter) but poor specific energy (WattHours/kg) and energy density (WattHours/liter).
    The energy storage capability means that it takes a lot of weight to be able to travel very far. The power capability means that you can expel the stored energy very fast without adding a lot of weight.
    I’ll add that capacitors and springs are other energy storage mechanisms that have similar properties to flywheels and compressed air.
    What this means is that these high power devices might be good at providing a few seconds of extra acceleration or recovering braking energy but they probably aren’t well suited for making a car go a long way.
    Perhaps good long-term hybrid solutions might use a combination of high power devices for performance and batteries for long range.
    Formula 1 racing is looking at what you describe and calling them Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) to allow race cars to get up to speed quickly when coming out of turns on a Grand Prix track.

  • John K.

    ex-EV1 Driver:

    Thanks for your reply. Yes, I know that. I should have mentioned that those alternatives are good for certain applications. For example, UPS is getting 7 hydraulic hybrid trucks to test for its fleet. Garbage/waste trucks, school buses, and other heavy vehicles that do a lot of stop and go driving (perhaps even mail trucks), are where they excel (actually recovering 3x the energy of chemical batteries). If you combine them w/Pickens’ CGN ICEs, they could REALLY help lower our carbon footprint/dependence upon foreign oil. They might even help out big rigs.

    Flybrid’s flywheel would help w/high performance sports cars where heavy and bulky batteries limit their appeal.

    Ultracaps are similar.

    Ultracaps/Flybrid could act as a “buffer” taking the excess energy that NiMH or even Li ion cannot recover during hard braking in a combination hybrid. I should also mention that for a EV, having a small Li ion battery pack a high power “buffer” (both during acceleration and recovery during braking), combined w/a much larger and cheaper NiMH battery pack for total energy, seems to me like a smart idea for PHEVs/EVs in the near term (next 5 to 10 years).

    Of course, if EEStor comes out w/a product that lives up to its claims, all bets are off, the game has changed.

    Re. this article: I wonder if when Toyota starts selling Li ion Prius PHEV they’ll also switch the non-PHEV Prius to Li ion? If so, that would reduce the size and weight of its battery pack improving its dynamic handling, braking and acceleration.

    Anyone know if the upcoming Honda CR-Z will have NiMH or Li ion batteries?

  • ex-EV1 driver

    John K,
    We’ve been waiting for years for anything solid from EEstor. I’m still counting it as snakeoil until something is demonstrated with credible, independent confirmation. The longer we wait, the more credible, independent confirmation it will take to convince me.
    It looks like Li-ion and NiMH are the tools we’ll be using for serious energy capacity storage in the foreseeable future, adding flywheels, capacitors, and compressed air for KERS.
    Fortunately, there are huge advances in automobile performance and efficiency that can be done with the right combination and implementation using these.
    Personally, I suspect that compressed air and capacitors will win out over flywheels, primarily because of the issues at overcoming gyroscopic effects as Rosen Motors experienced in the ’90’s. FWIW, Rosen motors’ CTO, JB Straubel, is currently Tesla’s CTO. I’m sure that, knowing what he does about flywheels, he’ll use them if he sees an application.

  • John K.

    I’m not focused on EEStor, but I think everybody should know about it and keep it in the back of their minds when thinking about all of this.

    Search “Flybrid Systems technology”. From that webpage: “This technology is not new. Flywheel energy storage has been used in hybrid vehicles such as buses, trams and prototype cars before but the installation tended to be heavy and the gyroscopic forces of the flywheel were significant. Flybrid Systems have now overcome these limitations.

    The key difference with the Flybrid device is the flywheel speed. Rotating at more than 60,000 RPM the flywheel can be very much smaller and lighter than has previously been possible and the gyroscopic forces are also reduced to a level that can be considered insignificant. This advance in speed has been made possible by several key inventions for which patent protection has been applied.”

    FWIW, I think Li ion may help Honda’s IMA, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, and heavier hybrids (e.g., SUVs), more than they’ll help EVs and PHEVs. Li ion may help mainstream hybrids even if they don’t help make EVs/PHEVs mainstream. For those, I keep EEStor in the back of my mind. . . .

  • Glenn Mercer

    I am a bit surprised by all the negative commentary above. Most of the commentary focuses on German’s low estimate of PHEV penetration. One can certainly argue with that. But on the other hand he estimates conventional hybrid penetration at 70% by 2025 or so! That is a remarkably high estimate! So it seems like many commentators are just miffed that, while German predicts VERY high hybrid penetration, he doesn’t predict high penetration of their preferred version of hybrid, the plug-in. Then they attack him for not taking into account rising gasoline prices, etc… but those factors also drive CONVENTIONAL hybrid penetration, too. So one can hardly say at the same time that German ignores rising fuel prices when looking at PHEVs, while he absolutely takes it into account as regards HEVs.

    I have always been troubled by the “sectarian warfare” within the green car movement: the fuel cell people think EVs are evil for delaying “the transition to hydrogen,” the PHEV people think HEVs are mediocre solutions, Elon Musk says flat-out “gasoline is evil,” the diesel people think Americans are idiots for not adapting the European solution, Californians tend to hate diesels, ethanol fans love energy independence, ethanol detractors point out the carbon intensity of plowing land for ethanol, etc. In my view all these efforts are generally positive and we will see many “winners” going forward. Maybe EVs for city cars, PHEVs for suburban use, HEVs for general use, diesels still for highway freight trucks, etc. All the sniping among the various green camps only delays acceptance of any of these solutions, as the average customer listens in and says “Well, since the experts can’t agree, I guess I will just stick with what I have now, plain old unhybridized gasoline…”

  • NorthenPiker

    This article should not be taken at face value unless you consider Honda and other automakers to be grossly stupid. However, they are human and, therefore, resistant to change and prone to go to great lengths to avoid confronting it.

    They will not publicly acknowledge that we are running out of cheap oil, without which the ICE market is doomed. Basically, they just want people to continue to buy ICEs because they are not ready to deliver EVs in volume with sufficient quality at a low enough price. Consequently, the automakers’ party line is that EVs will not be ready for prime time for at least another 20 years and that their customers should continue to buy ICEs like they always have.

    I do agree with John German’s implication that PHEVs and BEVs will compete with HEVs. However, his market share prediction at a battery cost $250 per kWh is suspect, particularly if Europe is considered.

    A HEV (Prius) will get 50 mpg and an equivalent PHEV (CalCar’s Prius conversion) will get 5 miles / kWh. This displacement of 1/10 of a gallon of gas per kWh should be a good approximation for a goodly range of vehicle sizes. At $250 per kWh and a typical claim for li-ion EV battery cycle life of 2,500, the cost of storage is 10¢ per kWh. The cost of electricity per kWh averages 11¢ in the US and about 15¢ in Europe. It means that for an all-in cost of 21¢ and 25¢ per kWh, one can displace 1/10 of a gallon of gas which costs about 30¢ and 70¢ in the US and Europe, respectively.

    If the gas savings occur over a 10 year period (an average of 250 cycles annually), then the ROIs on $250 of battery investment would be 13.8% and 54.3% in the US and Europe, respectively.

  • joe pah

    First insightful discussion I’ve seen on the future of EV’s and PHEV’s. Hybrids are cost effective (#1 feature for most buyers), proven technology, and don’t require a huge infrastructure investment that drains our tax dollars. Plus the market penetration for hybrids could extend all the way into cars, light duty and medium duty trucks and SUVs.

    As a nation, we would benefit a lot more if we could raise the gas milage of most of the new vehicles (SUVs and trucks) from 15 to 25 mpg using hybrids, than increase the efficiency of economy cars from 40 mpg to 100 mpg using PHEV or EVs.

  • Priciyana Edison

    The lithium ion has attracted attention because of its potential for use in hybrid electric vehicles. The market for lithium ion batteries is growing as an alternative to the batteries of nickel-metal hydride, which were used in the hybrid market to date. In addition to its small size and lighter weight, lithium-ion batteries offer performance that helps protect the environment with features such as increased loading efficiency with no memory effect. In an environment where demands for motor vehicles, including the reduction of exhaust gases and fuel for a better economy are widespread, it is expected that the practical use of hybrids, electric cars and fuel continue to rise.

  • tapra1

    So these batteries are not sized for the energy [storage] requirements. They are sized for the power requirements, so they can deliver enough power without significant deterioration. Host News

  • Monster High Dolls

    No doubt lithium batteries are one of the best batteries available

  • miana tonzal

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  • lanzee toler

    You don’t have a large volume, so your risk is minimized and you’ve gained experience. It’s going to be cheaper in the long run, and you want to gain experience. So, you’ll see very few new hybrids using nickel metal hydride. text spy

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