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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Calling Ahead - The March of Mobile Phone Progress on EV Tech

Motorola then-CEO Ed Zander jokingly introduces the '80s-era Motorola DynaTAC 8000, the first commercially available hand-held mobile phone, during a keynote address at the 2007 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Looking at the incredible smartphones that many of us carry around today, it might be hard to imagine a time when mobile phones were big, clunky, and didn't have Internet access.

Forty years of innovation took phones that were mocked for their short talk times and made them an indispensable part of our lives.

What will 40 years of incremental progress look like for electric vehicles? In just the few years that the Nissan Leaf has been on the market, we have seen improvements: heated seats, more efficient cooling, lighter weight, better aerodynamics... These are minor improvements, but they compound over time. Imagine a decade of improvements applied to Motor Trend's Car of the Year 2013, the Tesla Model S.

One of the major factors that made mobile phones better is battery improvements. This directly applies to electric cars as well. Energy density of batteries has been improving by about 8 percent per year since we landed on the moon and used battery powered lunar rovers to explore the lunarscape. And battery tech advancements don't show any sign of slowing down. There are many new technologies under development that will continue the gradual march forward, including Lithium-air, Zinc-air, graphene, and ultracapacitors, to name a few.

There is, of course, no guarantee that battery technology will continue at this rate. Each advancement is hard fought and the result of many R&D dollars and toiling engineers.

Let's assume this advancement rate continues. Today the 2012 Nissan Leaf is EPA rated with a range of 75 miles. If this range were to increase 8 percent per year, it would hit 150 miles in 10 years, 200 miles in 14 years, 300 miles in 19 years, 500 miles in 26 years, and 1000 miles after 35 years. Apply this same improvement scale to the 85 kWh Tesla Model S and in 40 years, you have a 5000-mile vehicle.

This is not a prediction, it's just a demonstration of the potential of compounding improvement. Many of the advancements will be used to reduce prices rather than increase the range.

Here is what I will predict: Forty years from now, the majority of cars on the road will be electrically propelled. Like the '80s mobile phone, in 2053 we'll be able to look at today's plug-in vehicles as a quaint start. The occasional 2050 sighting of a purely gas-powered car will be as anachronous as a rotary phone is today.

From Bell to Tesla, let the future ring  

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