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Cox Automotive acquires battery health company Spiers as ‘EVs take center stage’

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Cox Automotive is getting into the electric vehicle battery lifecycle business.

The company said Wednesday it acquired Oklahoma City-based Spiers New Technologies (SNT), a business that provides repair, remanufacturing, refurbishing and repurposing services for EV battery packs.

The two companies did not disclose the terms of the deal. Cox said the acquisition will help it establish its battery servicing offerings, particularly as “EVs take center stage.” It added that electric vehicles have completely difference service profiles than their internal combustion engine vehicle counterparts, and much of that comes down to the battery. EV battery support is particularly critical as the battery pack itself can comprise as much as 40% of the vehicle’s cost.

Even as federal investment in electric vehicles grow, and more automakers announce billions to build out their EV businesses, public skepticism remains. Eight out of 10 people not considering purchasing an EV are skeptical about the value of the battery and its useful life, according to research conducted by Cox.

This is not Cox’s only foray into EV battery management; the company also build a battery health diagnostic tool with SNT that uses Spiers’ software platform, Alfred. Cox said it would use the diagnostic tool to push greater confidence in electric vehicles, likening it to the way that Kelley Blue Book has provided greater transparency about ICE vehicles’ condition for consumers.

The acquisition will also give Cox a stake in the battery repurposing business. Spiers is one of a few companies that specializes giving EV batteries a “second life” after they are no longer fit in a vehicle. Around 80% to 90% of the batteries SNT receives are from OEMs, with the rest from auto dismantlers, the company told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year. It’s a business segment that is likely only to grow as more EVs come off the roads, so the transaction is likely giving Cox a stake in end-of-life purposes as well.

Bill Gates offers direction, not solutions

By Danny Crichton

Bill Gates has solved many problems in his (professional) life, and in recent decades, he’s been dedicated to the plight of the world’s poor and particularly their health. Through his foundation work and charitable giving, he’s roamed the world solving problems from malaria and neglected tropical diseases to maternal health, always with an eye toward the novel and typically cheap solution.

It’s that engineering brain and mode of thinking that he brings to bear on climate change in his book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need” (yes, it’s italicized on the cover — we really do need them). Gates describes a bit of his evolution from software mogul to global health wizard to concerned climate citizen. If you look at challenges like neglected tropical diseases, for instance, climate change abundantly affects the prevalence of mosquitos and other vectors for infection. No one can avoid climate change when analyzing food security in developing nations.

With this early narrative, Gates is attempting to connect perhaps not with climate change skeptics (it’s hard to connect with them on a good day anyway), but instead to build a bridge to the skeptical-but-ready-to-rethink crowd. He admits that he didn’t think much of the problem until he saw its effects first hand, opening the door to at least some readers who may be ready to undertake a similar intellectual journey.

From there, Gates delivers an extremely sober (one could easily substitute dry) analysis of the major components of greenhouse gas emissions and how we get to net zero by removing 51 billion tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year, which in chapter order are energy production (27%), manufacturing (31%), agriculture (19%), transportation (16%), and air conditioning (7%).

Gates is an engineer, and it shows and it is marvelous. He places a great emphasis throughout the book on understanding scale, of constantly trying to disentangle the numbers and units we hear about in the press and actually trying to understand whether a particular innovation might make any difference whatsoever. Gates offers the example of an aviation program that will save “17 million tons” of CO2, but points out that the figure is really just 0.03% of global emissions and isn’t necessarily likely to scale up more than it already has. With this framing, he’s borrowing the approach of effective altruism, or the idea that charitable dollars should flow to the projects that can provide the biggest verifiable improvement to quality of life for the least cost.

Unsurprisingly, Gates is a capitalist, and his framework for judging each potential solution is to calculate a “Green Premium” for their use. For instance, a carbon-free cement manufacturing process might cost double the more normal carbon-emitting one. Compare those added costs with the actual savings these substitutions would have on greenhouse gas emissions, and voila: you have an instant guide on the most efficient means to solving climate change.

The answer he comes up with tends to be quite portable in the end. Electrify everything, decarbonize electricity, carbon capture what’s left, and be more efficient. If that sounds hard, that’s because it is, and Gates notes the challenges in an aptly-named chapter entitled “This Will Be Hard” which begins with the line “Please don’t let the title of this chapter depress you.” I’m not sure you needed to buy the book to figure that out.

Gates ends up being an end-to-end conservative figure throughout the book. It’s not just his general approach of protecting the status quo, which is obviously latent in solutions which are essentially substitutable tweaks to our way of life and shouldn’t be surprising given the messenger. It’s also the surprising conservatism of his views on the power of technology to solve these problems. For a person who has quite literally invested billions in clean energy and other green technologies, there is surprisingly little magic that Gates proposes. It’s probably realistic, but considering the source, it can feel like pessimism.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

Read in concert with some of the other books in this group of climate change reviews, and one can’t help but feel a sort of calculated naiveté on the part of Gates, a sense that we should just keep playing our cards a little while longer and see if we get a last-minute royal flush. There are early signs of solutions, but most aren’t ready for scale. Some technologies are already available, but would require prodigious outlays to retrofit cars, homes, businesses, and more to actually impact our emissions numbers. Then there’s everyone outside of the West, who deserve access to modern amenities. It’s all so easy, and yet, so out of reach.

The book’s strengths — and simultaneously its weaknesses — is that it is apolitical, fact-laden and ready to be read by all but the most ardent climate change skeptics. But it also acts as a gateway drug of sorts: once you understand the scales of the problem, the scopes of the solutions, and the challenges of Green Premiums and policy implementation, you’re left with the feeling that there is no way we are going to do this in the next few years anyway, so what’s really the point?

Gates ends the book by saying that “We should spend the next decade focusing on the technologies, policies, and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050.” He’s not wrong, but it’s also an evergreen comment, in a world that won’t be evergreen for much longer.


How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates
Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, 257 pages

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Ample raises $160M to scale its battery swapping service

By Aria Alamalhodaei

San Francisco-based Ample has raised a $160 million Series C to scale its battery swapping service, the largest round yet for the 8-year-old startup that wants to completely rethink how we use electric vehicles.

Ample’s approach is relatively straightforward: Cars equipped with the company’s modular battery pack can drive into one of Ample’s automated charging pod locations and swap out their depleted batteries for ones that are fully charged. The swapped-out batteries are then recharged in the pod and ready to be reinserted into another vehicle.

Although Ample’s battery swapping model is simple on paper, the company is proposing thinking about EV batteries in a completely different way. Instead of an EV battery being something that needs to be recharged, like an iPhone, Ample wants to turn them into things that can be swapped out, like batteries in a digital camera.

This latest nine-figure funding round is a sign that investors are paying attention. The internationally funded Series C was led by Moore Strategic Ventures with participation from PTT, a Thai state-owned oil and gas company, and Disruptive Innovation Fund. Existing investors Eneos, a Japanese petroleum and energy company, and Singapore’s public transit operator SMRT also participated. Ample’s total funding is now $230 million.

“We realized that there’s this big elephant in the room with electric vehicles and [it’s that] nobody is that excited about spending an hour, two hours or three hours charging their vehicle,” Ample co-founder John de Souza said.

Industry’s response has been to develop technology like DC fast chargers, which have managed to shave charging time down to only 20 or 30 minutes. But de Souza said that improvements in charging time don’t get rid of fundamental problems: “[Fast charging] generates a lot of heat; the grid doesn’t support it,” he said. “Even if you could have batteries you charge in five minutes, you’d need chargers that were massively powerful and you’d need power plants around every corner to do it.”

Ample is currently focused on fleets – it operates five battery swapping stations in the Bay Area for participating Uber drivers, and it also locked in a partnership with Sally, an EV rental company for taxi and last-mile deliveries in New York City. But the company sees its battery swapping service as suitable for consumers, as well. Ample co-founder Khaled Hassounah said battery swapping could also be useful for personal consumers who don’t have a good charging solution available to them, like people who live in apartment buildings. “We’re really a lot more focused on the cars that are coming on the road” rather than EVs that have already been manufactured, Hassounah added.

Image Credits: Ample. Ample co-founders John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah. 

The company says that its modular system means that drivers only need to carry around as much battery as they need. For Ample, that means less battery waste and less weight in the vehicle.

Much of Ample’s vision relies on buy-in from automakers. For example, the company is imagining that when a person goes to buy a car, the OEM could offer either a fixed battery option or a vehicle equipped with an Ample battery system.

Ample says it has validated its approach with 10 different car models by working directly with OEMs, and that none of them have required making modifications to the vehicle. That doesn’t mean that there are no interfaces between the battery and the car that need to be altered — there are things like voltage cables or a cooling line, for example — but that the actual architecture of EVs is simpler than one might think.

“The marketing departments at the OEMs want to tell you that … ‘This is a super-duper battery that is very well integrated with the car; there’s no way you can separate it,’” Hassounah said. “The truth of the matter is they’re built completely separately and so true for almost — not almost, for every battery in the car, including a Tesla.

“Since we’ve built our system to be easy to interface with different vehicles, we’ve abstracted the battery component … from the vehicle,” he added.

Ample said it’s working with five different OEMs right now, “some of the largest OEMs out there,” de Souza said, though he declined to specify which ones. He added that growing demand from fleets goes hand in hand with conversations with OEMs, which are eager to sell vehicles.

It could be an attractive proposal because much of the cost of an electric vehicle is its battery system. The market has seen a version of this idea from Chinese automaker Nio, which offers consumers the option of purchasing a vehicle with or without a battery (for the latter option, Nio leases the batteries). Under the leasing option, drivers shave ¥70,000 ($10,800) off the price of a vehicle. Nio has already completed more than 2.4 million battery swaps for Chinese drivers, founder William Li said in May.

Looking to the future, Ample is focused purely on scaling: deploying with large customers in new cities. Interestingly, de Souza added that the company is getting a lot of interest from governments who want to shift to electric transportation but don’t have the requisite charging infrastructure.

“The question is, how can we get more miles and be electric, rather than build more infrastructure?” Hassounah said. “If you go and deploy a million fast chargers and no one uses them, we haven’t achieved anything.”

Tesla, BHP ink supply deal for nickel ahead of demand surge

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Tesla will secure nickel from the commodity production giant BHP, the automaker’s latest move to secure direct sources of raw materials that are projected to surge in demand before the decade is out.

BHP’s Nickel West division will supply an undisclosed amount of the mineral from its mines in Western Australia. The two companies also agreed to work together to increase battery supply chain sustainability and to identify ways to decrease carbon emissions from their respective operations using energy storage paired with renewable energy.

Nickel is a key mineral in lithium-ion batteries, and a cornerstone of Tesla’s next-gen battery chemistry. While many lithium-ion batteries have cathodes made from nickel, manganese and cobalt, Tesla is taking a different tack. At Tesla’s Battery Day 2020, Musk said the automaker would invest in a nickel-rich, cobalt-free cathode for some models, citing greater energy density.

Tesla also hasn’t been shy about its own intention to increase battery cell production in the coming decade, aiming to produce 100 gigawatt hours of batteries by 2022, to a staggering 3 terawatt hours per year by 2030.

To that end, the company is moving fast to secure purchase agreements with leading nickel producers. Earlier this year, the automaker announced a partnership with a nickel producer in the French Pacific territory New Caledonia. Just a few months later, Tesla chairperson Robyn Denhlm confirmed that the company was looking to purchase around $1 billion per year in battery minerals from Australia alone.

Musk has repeatedly urged miners to produce more nickel. On an investment call last July, he told producers, “Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way.” At Battery Day, he reiterated his position: “In order to scale, we really need to make sure that we’re not constrained by total nickel availability,” he said. “I actually spoke with the CEOs of the biggest mining company in the world and said, ‘Please make more nickel, it’s very important.’”

But finding an environmentally friendly nickel source is a challenge. Some of that has to do with issues endemic to present-day recovery and smelting techniques; others are more directly manageable by mining companies. For example, nickel mining operations in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of the metal, have come under fire for their reliance on coal and their waste disposal techniques.

BHP claims its operation is one of the most sustainable in the world, and Tesla’s decision to partner with it could be seen as something of a confirmation of that fact. The commodity producer in February said up to 50% of the electricity to power one of its nickel refineries would come from solar energy resources.

The vast majority of the world’s nickel supply is currently consumed by the steel industry. While nickel demand in the EV and energy storage sectors is currently relatively small, the International Energy Agency estimates that will increase more than 4,000% over the next 20 years – from 81 metric tons in 2020 to 3,352 metric tons by 2040.

Nickel West has historically been a tiny fraction of BHP’s overall business, dwarfed by its iron ore, copper and petroleum businesses. The commodity producer tried to sell Nickel West a number of times since around 2015, but it appears to have changed its tune with the forecasted groundswell of demand from the EV and energy storage sectors.

Industry analysts Benchmark Minerals estimated the deal with Tesla could be worth up to 18,000 tons of nickel annually.

Mercedes-Benz to build eight battery factories in push to become electric-only automaker by 2030

By Kirsten Korosec

Mercedes-Benz laid out Thursday a 40 billion-euro ($47B) plan to become an electric-only automaker by the end of the decade, a target that will push the company to become more vertically integrated, train its workforce and secure the batteries needed to power its products.

The company has already taken action, announcing Thursday it acquired UK-based electric motor company YASA and has determined it will need battery capacity of more than 200 gigawatt hours. To hit meet those needs, Mercedes plans to set up eight battery factories with partners to produce cells.

The new plants, one of which will be located in the United States, is on top of the company’s already planned network of nine factories that will be dedicated to building battery systems. The company said it will team up with new European partners to develop and efficiently produce future cells and modules. That “European partners” designation is strategic and one that Mercedes says will ensure the region “remains at the heart of the auto industry.”

Mercedes said it has partnered with Sila Nano, the Silicon Valley battery materials startup that raised $590 million earlier this year, to help it improve its next generation of batteries. Specifically, SilaNano is helping Mercedes  increase energy density by using silicon-carbon composite in the anode, which should boost range and allow for shorter charging times.

Mercedes is also looking into solid-state battery technology and said it is in talks with partners to develop batteries with even higher energy density and safety.

The plan unveiled Thursday piggybacks on previous goals to build and sell more EVs. Back in 2017, Mercedes said it would electrify — which means gas-hybrid, plug-in hybrid or battery electric — its entire lineup by 2022. The German automaker said Thursday that by next year it will offer battery-electric vehicles in every segment that it serves.

Its EV-only plan will accelerate from there. By 2025, the company said its three newly launched vehicle architectures will be electric-only. The company said it expects that all-electric and hybrids will make up 50% of its sales. Customers will also be to choose an all-electric alternative for every model the company makes.

Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG CEO Ola Källenius said the company’s goal marks a “profound reallocation of capital.” He stressed that the company’s profitability targets would be safeguarded and met despite this hefty investment and shift away from the internal combustion engine.

To meet this target, Mercedes is launching three electric-only architectures which will form the basis of all of its new vehicles. It’s so-called MB.EA platform will be used for its medium to large passenger cars, while AMG.EA will underpin its performance Mercedes-AMG cars and the VAN.EA will be dedicated architecture for electric passenger minivans and light commercial vehicles.

Developing. … 

Auto giant Stellantis to invest €30B in electrification through 2025

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Stellantis, the global automaker born out of a merger between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and French automaker Groupe PSA, will invest €30 billion ($35.5 billion) in electric vehicles and new software over the next four years as part of a major push to transition away from internal combustion engines.

The world’s fourth-largest automaker joins rivals such as General Motors and Volkswagen in earmarking billions toward EV investments through the first part of the decade. Among the company’s plans are manufacturing an electric Dodge muscle car and an electric Ram pickup truck, both by 2024. Stellantis also said it would offer an electric or plug-in model in every vehicle segment under its Jeep brand by 2025.

The ultimate aim, CEO Carlos Tavares said during the company’s inaugural EV Day event on Thursday, is to hit sales targets for low-emission vehicles (including plug-ins) of 70% in Europe and 40% in the U.S. by 2030.

Stellantis has been slower to electrify than some of its rivals, perhaps due in part to its lineup’s best-sellers skewing toward performance and heavy-duty models. The company designs and manufactures cars across over a dozen brands, including Jeep, Chrysler, Ram Trucks and Dodge. Its major brands in Europe include Peugeot, Vauxhall, Citroen and Fiat.

In order to deliver on its electrification strategy, Stellantis executives said that the company will also manufacture 130 gigawatt hours of battery capacity by 2025 and around 260 gigawatt hours across five factories in North America and Europe by 2030. The company will use two battery chemistries by 2024, with the goal of developing solid-state battery technology by 2026.

The car giant is also developing a portfolio of four dedicated electric vehicle platforms: Small, for city driving; Medium, for premium vehicles; Large, for performance and muscle models; and Frame, for trucks and heavy-duty vehicles. The platforms will have a range of up to 300 miles for Small and 500 miles for Large and Frame. The aim is to decrease battery costs by 40% by 2024, Stellantis CFO Richard Palmer said.

Porsche to make high-performance batteries in joint venture with Customcells

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Luxury sports car manufacturer Porsche AG is going into the battery business. The automaker said Monday it plans to open a new factory that will produce high-performance cells through a joint venture with lithium-ion battery developer Customcells.

Porsche invested in “the high double-digit millions” in the new joint venture, dubbed Cellforce Group GmbH, executive board member Michael Steiner told reporters in a media briefing ahead of the announcement. The factory also benefited from a €60 million ($71.4 million) investment from the German government and the state of Baden-Württemberg, where it will be located. Chemical company BASF SE was selected to supply the cathode materials.

The batteries will use silicon as the anode material, which Porsche says will significantly boost the energy density and their capacity to withstand high temperatures — both important variables for racing cars, which must be recharged quickly, but challenging in battery production (batteries don’t tend to like getting very hot).

For that reason, the factory will be small-scale, at least compared to other automakers such as the 35 gigawatt-hour “gigafactory” capacity at the Tesla and Panasonic joint facility in Sparks, Nevada or even its parent company VW’s plan to bring 240 GwH of production to Europe by 2030. Porsche and Customcells’ aim is an annual capacity of 100 megawatt-hours, or around enough batteries for 1,000 vehicles, starting in 2024. The initial workforce is expected to grow from around 13 people to up to 80 by 2025.

The automaker has no plans to scale the technology for use in Porsche’s more mainstream lineup of vehicles, Steiner said, though he noted that there may be a chance for higher volume in the future if the company sees a potential to bring down production costs. “In this market, we are looking for special purpose cells for high-end cars and motorsports, and this is not available in the market today,” he said.

It may be a challenge to scale this technology to passenger vehicles. The silicon anode-based cell chemistry has not shown the capacity to function in very cold conditions or to remain stable over many charging cycles, Porsche said in a statement. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a Porsche vehicle benefited from technology developed for the race track: its leading electric model Taycan borrowed many of its technical features from the Porsche 919 Hybrid racing car.

Although the first vehicles to use these batteries will be Porsche-made, Steiner said the technology will be made available to other brands in the Volkswagen Group, like Lamborghini or Bugatti.

“The battery cell is the combustion chamber of the future,” Porsche CEO Oliver Blume said in a statement Monday. “This joint venture allows us to position ourselves at the forefront of global competition in developing the most powerful battery cell and make it the link between the unmistakable Porsche driving experience and sustainability. This is how we shape the future of the sports car.”

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