With battery-electric cars now on the market for five years, and perhaps 200,000 on U.S. roads, we now know more about how the cars and their drivers behave in the real world than we did when they first arrived. One learning is that an undercurrent among some electric-car buyers that suggests they fully expect carmakers to offer future battery upgrades that provide significant range boosts. This, it seems fair to say, both startles and baffles automakers. Those buyers, used to upgrades in their mobile phones as often as every 18 months, seem to view their electric cars not as automobiles but as consumer-electronics devices. And they expect the pace of change in technology to be far more rapid for electric power-trains than for conventional internal-combustion engines.
While battery technology does not improve at the same rate as that of microelectronics (famously codified in Moore’s Law), lithium-ion cells have a historic rate of cost-performance improvement of roughly 7 percent over more than 20 years. Automakers, however, have spent more than a century designing, testing, building, and selling cars and then thinking about them as little as possible. And future upgrades to vehicles simply haven’t been a design consideration. Consider the response by a Ford Motor Company executive when asked about whether its new Sync 3 system could be retrofitted into cars of the last three years equipped with the earlier and much-reviled My Ford Touch system.
“The upgrade path,” he said firmly, “is a new vehicle.” Nissan, similarly, offers no provision for fitting its new 30-kilowatt-hour battery pack from the 2016 Nissan Leaf (rated at 107 miles) into earlier Leafs that came with 24-kWh packs, even though the form factor appears to be identical. Nissan representatives in several countries have said the company has no plans to offer retrofits. It has said it will offer replacement 24-kWh packs using the latest heat-resistant chemistry for $5,500, but they are not upgrades. The only electric cars for which battery upgrades are available now, in fact, are roughly 2,000 Tesla Roadster 2.0 or 2.5 models.
They can be upgraded to a new “Roadster 3.0” pack that fits in the original space that will provide “over 35 percent more range” for $29,000. In part, this is because all makers design their packs to last the life of the car at least 10 years, and generally as much as 15 years. Packs are customarily warranted against failure for at least eight years, but warranties against anticipated capacity loss are rarer and vary by manufacturer. But what if battery packs were not designed to last for 10- or 15-year vehicle lifespans?