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Tesla bets on the present while the future races on

Scott Tong Sep 5, 2014
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Tesla has just made a big bet in the battery space, an investment in a $5 billion factory to produce at scale and push down the price.

Company founder Elon Musk promises it will lead to a more affordable electric vehicle — but technology always brings surprises.

For starters, a future of better, cheaper and smaller is no guarantee.

“If you look at the number of announcements, promises, high hopes, explorations to the number of things that actually deliver and ship, it’s a pretty narrow funnel,” says Boston-area clean energy investor Matthew Nordan of MNL Partners.

But let’s say step-change does happen. Streamlined costs could chop the price of a $14,000 electric car battery in half, or more.

Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere could develop batteries one-third the size of current models. That would boost the electric vehicle’s driving range substantially.

“It would be awfully nice to have a fully charged vehicle that could take you say three or four hundred miles in a single charge,” says University of California, Berkeley, chemist Steven Visco, founder of battery startup PolyPlus.

Of course, these forecasts assume drivers maintain the same relationship they have with their vehicles today: that each person owns one, refuels it, and cares about what’s under the hood.

Perhaps.

“Maybe we all just call an Uber or a Google car,” says University of Maryland business professor David Kirsch. “And we don’t care how it’s powered, or how much it costs. We’re kind of predicting marginal changes. We may be missing the radical change.”

Historians recall the unforeseen radical change that steam engines brought, as well as semiconductors and petroleum.

As far as next-generation batteries, leaps in energy storage could perhaps turn our homes into baby power plants. Or electrify an economy of drones that deliver packages and monitor crops.

Sound ridiculous? Berkeley’s Steven Visco recalls a conference in the early ’90s where this crazy question turned up.

“‘Is it possible that we’ll see lithium-ion batteries in power tools?’ And it was immediately reviled as a crazy idea. There’s no way. It’s dangerous.”

Today, of course, we’re drilling away, cordless.

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