About 10 years ago, I was sitting in a not very impressive conference room at Tesla Motors in Freemont, California. I was making my rounds of the major battery companies in the United States to explain to them the idea behind NAATBatt. Tesla had just started, or was about to start, the production of its first automobile, the Roadster. As I sat and talked to members of the senior management team at Tesla, I distinctly remember thinking to myself that these were some of the smartest people I had met in the industry. It was just a shame they were going to be out of business in six months’ time.
What concerned me about Tesla was that they had bet on the wrong technology. Unlike General Motors, Fisker and, later, Ford, Tesla was betting on full electric vehicle technology, rather than on the plug-in hybrid electric. Fully electric cars were going to be too expensive and would not address consumers’ understandable range anxiety.
Fast forward 10 years and one of the many reasons why Elon is a billionaire and I run a not-for-profit trade association has become apparent. In the technology race that underlies vehicle electrification, the full electric vehicle has won out over the plug-in electric hybrid. Nothing underscores that victory more than General Motors’ announcement last month that it is discontinuing the Chevrolet Volt program.
The death of the storied Volt and the victory of full electric drive over hybrid marks an important victory for advanced battery technology. The slow but steady progress of battery scientists and engineers in increasing energy density and decreasing cost is impacting consumer sentiment in ways unthinkable only 10 years ago. The range of some of the most recent electric vehicles now rivals those of many gasoline-powered vehicles. As battery costs continue to fall, the argument to drive electric will become ever more compelling to consumers.
For me the death of the Chevy Volt and the rise of the full electric vehicle illustrate an important lesson: Do not underestimate the effect of battery technology improvements over time. What the next 10 years may hold for the future of electric drive is hard to predict. The factors that are likely to be major drivers of change—cheaper, more powerful batteries and the rise of vehicle sharing and autonomous drive—are easy to appreciate now. But what the actual impact of those technologies will be on consumer demand in 10 years’ time is hard to see and may be easily underestimated.
Amara’s Law says that we tend to overestimate the effect of technology over two years but underestimate it over 10. Battery technology is a clear example of Amara’s Law at work.