More Satisfied Customers? DOE Battery Research Could Make Driving Easier for Me – and Other Electric Vehicle Owners

For two years in a row, the Chevy Volt has ranked #1 in the Consumer Reports customer satisfaction survey, with a whopping 92% of vehicle owners saying they’d buy the same car again.

Count me in. I signed a lease on a Chevy Volt in September, and have been enjoying the car’s quiet ride, superior handling, and off-the-charts fuel efficiency ever since. I’m averaging about 75 miles per gallon, switching between electric battery power for short trips (38 miles per charge) and a gas-powered motor for longer drives.

The author, with his leased Chevy Volt.

I prefer to use zero emission, lower-cost electric power when I can, so operating a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) winds up like driving a big cell phone. I’m often thinking about when I might run out of juice, and keeping an eye out for a place to charge when I’m away from home.

(My favorites so far, near where I live in Southeastern Michigan: The public library lot in Ferndale, just north of Detroit, where charging is included with 50c-an-hour parking, and the MGM Grand Casino downtown, where the parking – and the electrons – are free.)

Life could get even easier soon for me and other PEV drivers, thanks to a $120 million battery R&D program announced last week by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and multiple academic and industry partners in Michigan and Illinois. It’s a Manhattan Project-style collaboration, joining basic research with practical development in a rapid push to accelerate a key fuel-saving technology.

The Argonne National Laboratory, outside Chicago, will head a five-year effort designed to boost power and lower the cost of electric batteries. The goal, says Randy Thelen of Lakeshore Advantage, a Michigan economic development official, is to make batteries that are “five times more powerful, fives time less expensive, and to do so in five years.”

Sweet! In my Volt, a battery five times more powerful would yield an electric power driving range of nearly 200 miles ‚Äì which means I’d almost never have to use a drop of gas. Cutting the cost of batteries by one-fifth would mean a much lower price for the Volt and other PEVs, which would surely bring more of them into the market.

Americans bought more than 45,000 plug-in EVs through November of 2012, twice as many as 2011. The Volt alone accounts for more than 20,000 sales — despite the fact that the car has become — as GM CEO Daniel Akerson has observed — a “political punching bag,” with conservative lawmakers attacking the Obama administration’s public investments in advanced vehicle technology. DOE’s new battery effort, by contrast, is attracting bipartisan support.

Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin lauded the announcement of the Joint Center for Energy Storage and Research (JCESR) as did his Republican colleague Mark Kirk, along with GOP Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois. The state of Michigan and Illinois have each pledged $5 million to support JCESR, with Illinois prepared to kick in another $30 million over the next five years.

JCESR’s operating principle is to bring together the smartest people working on PEV batteries, regardless of where they work, to get cost-effective solutions to market as quickly as possible. Key features of the program include:

  • Argonne’s track record of putting advanced research into the hands of private firms, including current licenses for battery technology to GM for use in the Volt and to Envia, a Silicon Valley start-up.
  • Industry partners Dow Chemical, Johnson Controls, Applied Materials, and Clean Energy Trust.
  • Two new research facilities in Michigan, one at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, and another at Michigan State University’s Bioeconomics Institute in Holland.
  • Academic partnerships with the University of Illinois, University of Chicago, and Northwestern University.

If the JCESR team is successful in achieving greater range and lower cost for PEV batteries, we’re likely to see a lot more PEVs on the road. That will mean even easier driving for me and other PEV owners. It will also lead to a significant drop in overall U.S. fuel consumption and vehicle emissions. And ‚Äì if PEV manufacturers continue to get it right on quality and performance ‚Äì it can also mean more satisfied customers.

Roger Kerson is a Michigan-based media consultant for labor unions and environmental organizations. He was formerly the director of public relations at the United Auto Workers.


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