Cheaper, faster electric cars by next year?

Faith Merino · September 13, 2010 · Short URL:

A lithium-ion battery developer raises $4.2M and may bring better performing EVs to the road

A new era of mass-produced, elecric vehicles for the average driver is upon is, and the venture capital industry is trying to embrace it.

To wit: Sakti3, a developer of next-generation lithium ion batteries, last Friday announced that it raised $4.2 million in funding from General Motors Ventures and Itochu Technology Ventures. Two days before that, Coulomb, a company that specializes in electric vehicle infrastructure, announced that it raised $15 million in funding, led by Rho Ventures and Voyager Capital, among others. These financings come just months before a new fleet of all-electric and electric-hybrid cars become available this December.  

Sakti3, GM Ventures’ most recent investment, is adeveloping a solid state lithium-ion battery that promises to be smaller, cheaper, and give cars greater range than current lithium-ion batteries.  Anne Marie Sastry, Sakti3 CEO and a professor at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has explained that the new batteries replace the standard liquid electrolyte and electrodes with solids, which have the potential of doubling energy density and allowing for smaller, lighter batteries that give vehicles greater range.

“The technology that Sakti3 is working on is very innovative,” said G.M. Ventures president Jon Lauckner in an interview with The New York Times. “It’s quite different from standard electro-chemical cells, and it’s a technology not in the marketplace today. It has the potential of being a real game changer going forward.”

It is not clear when Sakti3’s batteries will be commercially available, but General Motors plans to be among the first to use them for its vehicles.

GM Ventures initiatives

General Motors Ventures was created in June 2009 with the aim of identifying and investing in new automotive technologies. The subsidiary got off the ground with a $100 million investment.  Known for its supersized SUVs and the infamous Hummer (useful if you have to roll into hostile enemy territory or a Wendy’s drive-thru), General Motors has garnered a reputation for producing gas-guzzling behemoths -- a reputation that came crashing down on top of the company when it filed for bankruptcy in 2009. 

When the price of gas was peaking at over $5 a gallon, General Motors was widely criticized for failing to adapt to the changing market.  SUVs were moving out. Hybrids were moving in. And, General Motors had missed the memo, resulting in an industrial catastrophe that had global repercussions (8,300 jobs throughout Europe were vaporized and by 2012, G.M. plans to eliminate 31,000 U.S. positions).  But now it looks like the auto-manufacturing giant is trying to clean up its image. 

[Watch Bambi Francisco's interview, asking Tesla CEO Elon Musk what he would do if he ran GM. See What GM can learn from Tesla)

On top of the $3.2 million invested in Sakti3, in August the G.M. venture capital arm also announced a $5 million investment and strategic partnership with Bright Automotive, the maker of the Bright Idea electric hybrid fleet van, which is promised to get 100 miles per gallon.  The van, which has a body made out of composite materials and aluminum to make it light and aerodynamic, has 180 cubic feet of storage space and will use a battery to power the rear wheels and a gasoline engine to power the front wheels when necessary, or when the battery starts to run out.  The Bright Idea van is expected to be out on the streets by 2012.

General Motors is not the only manufacturer rolling out big new electric surprises.  In December, Nissan will be unveiling the Leaf, the first mass-produced all-electric vehicle that will be affordable for the average driver.  Unlike previous attempts at all-electric vehicles, which have usually resulted in a car that can only go a couple of miles down the street, or can only reach a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour, the Nissan Leaf will get 100 miles on a full battery and will be capable of reaching speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.

The all-electric Coda sedan will also be rolling out this December.  The Code promises to get between 90 and 120 miles per charge, a top speed of 80 miles per hour, and will be capable of going from zero to 60 miles per hour in 11 seconds. 

And with new investments in infrastructure, electric vehicles will be easier than ever to own and maintain.  Coulomb Technologies is one of many electric vehicle infrastructure companies turning up to meet this need.  Last week Coulomb raised $15 million to continue expanding its network of electric vehicle charging stations, known as the ChargePoint Network.  The company anticipates shipping out between 25,000 and 35,000 charging stations throughout the United States next year, compared to only 700 in 2009.

Nevertheless, there are still some kinks to work out.  The all-electric vehicles debuting this fall will get 100 miles per charge, but only under ideal weather conditions.  If the driver uses the air conditioner or the heater, the car will get less range.  And then there is the question of charge time.  The Coda sedan will get up to 120 miles per charge, but a completely depleted battery will take six hours to charge.

In answer to this, Better Place, another electric vehicle charging service, is developing a swap-out system with the Hawaiian government so that drivers can simply switch their used battery for a new one. 

The kinks will still cause many to cast a wary eye on the all-electric vehicle, but as the technology continues to develop and the infrastructure strengthens, the possibility of an affordable, low-maintenance, high-performance electric car available to the average driver will soon be a reality. 

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