SAN JOSE, Calif.—Slow, steady improvement in battery technology over the past several decades as brought the world to the cusp of a tipping point that will lead to greater adoption of electric vehicles (EV) that could help curb civilization's reliance on fossil fuels, according to JB Straubel, chief technology and co-founder of Tesla Motors Inc.
Delivering a keynote address at the DESIGN West event here Wednesday (March 28), Straubel said that while critics often point out that there is no equivalent to Moore's Law in terms of battery technology improvement, battery technology has slowly improved over many decades, resulting in an average of 7 to 8 percent per year improvement in energy density.
Straubel said battery technology has improved to the point that EVs can offer a driving range of 200 miles or more under normal driving conditions on a full charge. Batteries will continue to improve to offer higher ranges, better performance and potentially lower costs, he said. "Cost is still the most important challenge for batteries," Straubel said.
Tesla was founded in 2003 with a mission to help drive the world toward sustainable transportation, Straubel said. He said that transportation is currently driven almost entirely by fossil fuels. In the U.S., he said, 96 percent of all transportation is drive by petroleum.
"We cannot keep doing that for decades to come," Straubel said. "Certainly not centuries."
Straubel said future generations are likely to wonder why so much of the world's finite supply of petroleum was squandered on relatively short car rides, which he said could relatively easily be replaced with using electric vehicles. In the U.S., he said, about half of petroleum use comes from people who commute 20 to 50 miles per day. While such commuting is easily within the range of EVs from Tesla and others, replacing the petroleum used for longer trips and especially for things like airplane flights is still far beyond current technology's capabilities, Straubel said.
When Tesla got started, there were no active EV programs at any major car companies, Straubel said. Many have since come around and are developing and marketing EVs. Straubel said he finds it ironic that when Tesla was launched, the founders were often asked why if EVs were such a good idea no one else was building them, but that, now that other automakers are offering EVs, Tesla is often asked if it can succeed when so many are working on EVs.
Straubel said Tesla applauds the fact that major automakers have come around. Making a real dent in fossil fuel consumption requires that all automakers offer EVs, he said.
"If we'd launched out to sea and no one followed, if the whole industry sort of stood on the shor and watched, that would have been a really difficult place," Straubel said.
Straubel noted that Tesla has been putting the capability it has developed for making EV components to use for other automakers, including a 2011 deal with Toyota Motor Corp. to supply EV power train systems for use in electric versions of Toyota's Rav4, expected to be available later this year.