Thanks to improved battery technology and a specialized electric architecture, electric vehicles will soon be able to travel as far as combustion engine vehicles.
The anticipated range for electric vehicles entering the market in the next two years lies at around 500 kilometres. How do you explain this significant increase?
Jochen Hermann: Thanks to the continuous development of lithium-ion technology, the energy density has improved each year, so that the industrial standard keeps rising. Furthermore, vehicle manufacturers are developing new architectures specifically for electric drive vehicles—like our new EQ family. The focus is on battery integration and battery management in the vehicle. The efficiency of the electric motors has also drastically improved in the past years. That's how we can achieve ranges of up to 500 kilometres. In the upcoming years, we believe that this value will represent a key threshold, even though most customers actually require far less on a regular basis and will most likely never use the full range of the vehicle, except a few times per year. With the first wave of EVs, range and the availability of an appropriate infrastructure will be important topics. Later, customers will likely realise that they can easily get by with a smaller range.
With which specific measures will batteries be able to achieve this new range?
Hermann: The energy efficiency is increased by altering the chemical composition, through an improved production technology, tailored to these highly complex battery systems, and an improved battery management system. Besides utilising custom-sized cooling systems, we are placing as many cells as possible in the construction space. Lastly, key characteristics of the vehicle, such as air resistance value and weight, also play an important role in optimising the range.
How will the range develop in the long-term? Will there be a parity with the combustion-engine models?
Hermann: Electrical ranges of around 500 kilometres are already within reach today. In the future, there will surely also be electric vehicles which can offer an even larger range than that of modern-day combustion engines. In the future, vehicle models will probably be separated into two categories: vehicles with a large range for long distances and models with a shorter range, such as for urban areas.
Currently, only lithium-ion batteries are used to store energy. How long will these batteries still be used?
Hermann: Though one can read reports in the media about ‘super batteries’ on a regular basis, lithium-ion batteries will still be with us for some time. The whole industry agrees that it will be possible to increase the energy efficiency and density by ten percent or more each year. The question is, however, how long these investments will remain feasible from an economic standpoint. And then there is another question: When the totally new ‘post-lithium’ technology comes into use and turns everything upside down, what will it look like? So we have quite an exciting time ahead of us.
If solid-state batteries actually present a viable alternative at some point, it could completely change the game, since a whole new level of energy density would be possible.
With solid-state batteries, a range of 1,000 kilometres or more is supposedly possible. What is your take on this technology?
Hermann: If solid-state batteries actually present a viable alternative at some point, it could completely change the game, since a whole new level of energy density would be possible. Ranges of 1,000 kilometres or more would then be possible. However, the issue also begs the question what kind of range we humans actually require. A greater range also means more weight—and costs. We're also working on this. But things are going to take a while.
Besides range, many drivers consider long charging times an obstacle for electro mobility. Are there any developments to improve this aspect?
Hermann: Whether at home using a Wallbox, while shopping, at work or rapidly charging during a motorway stop, there are many options to supply electric vehicles with energy. We're taking a holistic approach here, as there are various use cases to keep in mind. If I'm frequently on the motorway, I want to be able to charge as quickly as possible. We're working with other manufacturers to establish a suitable Europe-wide infrastructure so that batteries can reach an 80 percent charge in almost half an hour. That's not too different from driving a vehicle with a combustion engine, in which case you also need to stop at the service station to refuel. The rapid charging technology involves high-performance battery modules which are capable of quickly processing large quantities of energy. This scenario of course only applies to DC charging systems. For the typical commuter, however, charging the battery when the car is not in use should be sufficient. A Wallbox with a 20 kW charging output can charge a 100 kWh battery in about five hours, assuming it was completely discharged initially.
How can batteries be reused, when they are no longer fit to be used in vehicles?
Hermann: The life cycle of a battery doesn't have to end when vehicles can no longer use them; they can also be used for stationary energy storage. In this case, a marginal decrease in battery performance does not matter as much, so that batteries can used for at least another ten years operating under industrial conditions in a stationary energy storage. When pooled in large stationary battery stores, these batteries can still fulfil a variety of purpose. For example, they can replace emergency electricity generators still widely used today, ensure a continuous flow of industrial productions, or could even be sold on the market for control reserves. Furthermore, valuable raw materials used in batteries can also be recycled and reused. From the outset, we develop the batteries so that the raw materials can be reintroduced to the production cycle.
Mercedes-Benz looks very closely at its supply chain—to such depth, in fact, that we also inspect our second and third level suppliers to ensure that our environmental and ethical criteria are met.
Many materials in the batteries are obtained under unbearable conditions in Africa. Are you looking into how one could replace these materials?
Hermann: Mercedes-Benz looks very closely at its supply chain—to such depth, in fact, that we also inspect our second and third level suppliers to ensure that our environmental and ethical criteria are met. We take this very seriously and also discuss this topic with future suppliers, such as with cell technology.
Daimler does not produce its own battery cells. How do you define the requirements for the suppliers of the cells?
Hermann: An electric vehicle battery is a highly complex system. I like to compare the cells with injection pumps, which we also do not produce. And still, we build excellent combustion engines—among the best in the world. We define the requirements for the cells in advance and discuss these with the respective suppliers. We use a multiple supplier approach, which allows us to remain flexible, while the free market allows us to find an optimal match. Even though we do not have our own cell production facilities, we continue to conduct research on battery cells. This is also a strategic consideration. Having the necessary know-how is key. And this, we have.
In the upcoming years, lithium will remain the basic material of choice with battery technologies. Some people believe the reserves are insufficient.
Hermann: A proper management of raw materials will of course remain necessary. But we will likely see a change in technology before these raw materials run out.