Illustration by Ted McGrath
Illustration by Ted McGrath

“All four wheels have to stay on the ground at any one time.”

It is the only instruction Kevin Layden has for me as I get ready to take his new electric car for a spin just outside of Detroit. Layden is a 26-year veteran of Ford Motor Co. who, after spending time in 20 different countries, wound up as the company’s top engineer in charge of electrification, an increasingly important position. Two weeks before my visit, the company released its first all-electric car. Visitors embraced the peppy Ford Focus Electric so enthusiastically, one of them managed to tip it on its side on the closed track.

“It’s a nondisruptive technology,” Layden explains. As best I can tell, this is news to everyone who watches the industry. But his case makes sense: “We’ve got the infrastructure required to support plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles.” Unlike cars powered by fuel cells or natural gas, which will require whole new fueling systems, electric-power vehicles can use the electric grid that’s already there. Moreover, Layden contends, an evolutionary pathway is in place for the cars, too.

Hybrid electric cars such as the Toyota Prius, already mainstream, are letting engineers and developers learn about and improve engines and batteries. Next will come plug-in hybrids, which combine twin gasoline and electric engines to propel cars further on electricity while keeping gasoline around for longer trips. The final stage, already being rolled out in small numbers, would be the pure electric car.

Basic Hybrid

It is the basic hybrid, though, that has really started to crack the old skepticism. While the Prius has been around for barely a decade, the idea of a hybrid car that uses twin gasoline and electric engines is a lot older. The first patent for a hybrid system appeared in 1905, and at least one commercial model was sold in that decade. The basic concept hasn’t changed since.

For most of the next century, though, hybrid electric vehicles had dim prospects. Engines were complex and expensive, and hybrids needed two, adding to both cost and weight. When, in the 1970s, high oil prices entered the equation, hybrids ran into another hurdle: enthusiasm for battery-only cars. Hybrid cars were caught in a no man’s land -- too strange for oil boosters and too traditional for people seeking alternatives.

Some progress was made, nevertheless. In 1972, Victor Wouk, a researcher trained at the California Institute of Technology, modified a 1972 Buick Skylark into a successful hybrid. His prototype could reach 85 mph while slashing fuel consumption. In 1976, a Ford experiment demonstrated that hybrid engines could improve fuel economy by 70 percent. But Wouk’s Environmental Protection Agency-funded project was cut short for lack of long-term government interest.

More typical were hybrids that showed the technology’s limitations. The Hybrid Test Vehicle (HTV-1), the Energy Department’s only prototype during the decade after the first Arab oil crisis, weighed close to 2 tons -- almost 1,000 pounds heavier than other cars on the road at the time.

Private companies’ designs didn’t do much better. Briggs & Stratton Corp.’s 1979 prototype hybrid needed six wheels to handle the extra battery weight. Its electric motor took 10.5 seconds to accelerate from 0 mph to 30 mph, and the car’s top speed was 55 mph. A 1982 report from the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment lamented that “substantial penetration by electric and/or hybrid vehicles (EHVs) before the end of the century is unlikely, and doubtful even thereafter.”

Government Investment

Nonetheless, some persisted. In 1993, President Bill Clinton announced the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a research consortium among the U.S. government, Ford, General Motors Co. and Daimler-Benz AG. Its goal was to create an 80-mile-per-gallon car by 2004. This was perhaps the first time that the U.S. government made a substantial investment -- $1.25 billion -- in hybrid-technology research.

The program was canceled in 2001, before the milestone could be met, but in 1995, while it was still under way, Toyota unveiled its Prius hybrid at the Tokyo Motor Show. This car made its U.S. debut in 2000 and, by 2012, it occupied the No. 3 spot in global car sales, behind only the Ford F150 truck and the Toyota Corolla.

The surprising success of hybridization has made many people bullish on fully electric cars. But a crucial piece is still missing: batteries that can store enough juice to power cars over hundreds of miles and deliver acceleration in powerful bursts, yet that are still small and light enough to be easily carried in a car.

Mark Schulz, recently retired from one of the top positions at Ford, has been looking at batteries for a long time. “California mandated zero-emissions vehicles, so we had to do electrics,” he explained over iced teas at a country club outside Detroit, as he reflected on heavy lead acid-type batteries of the early 1990s. “You could dial in whatever performance you wanted,” Schulz said. “A lot of the young engineers thought this was great. You could dial in zero to 60 in five seconds. But your cruise range would go from 35 miles to 4.”

Batteries have come a long way since then, but they still aren’t ready for prime time, at least not at a tolerable price. The Focus Electric has a range of only 76 miles, and that’s after using up what looks like half its trunk space for electric cells.

Atul Kapadia, a Silicon Valley battery executive who proudly drives a natural-gas car, is determined to change that. Kapadia worked most of his life in the information-technology business, but moved to a company called Envia Systems Inc. in August 2010.

Technology Challenge

“We were convinced that oil prices are not going to go back down to $20 a barrel, as it was 15 years ago,” he said, “and we were convinced that A123 was not going to succeed.” In his view, A123 Systems Inc., then the hottest battery company on the planet, had misunderstood the challenge in focusing its efforts on driving down the costs of manufacturing. To Kapadia, the bigger challenge was still technology: “We needed to increase the amount of energy we encapsulate in a battery because each ounce of energy determines how many miles you can drive that car.” Envia aimed to double or triple the amount of energy generated per unit weight of the car.

(By 2012, A123’s share price fell to less than 50 cents from a high of more than $25 after it went public in 2009.)

“The only risk now is the demand,” says Kapadia, a sentiment that is widely shared but understates the challenge of bringing down the electric car’s cost. Kapadia’s approach is to begin with the smallest battery possible and, as the cost falls, gradually increase its size to lengthen the car’s range. Whether this evolution can happen rapidly -- Kapadia would like to have a 250-mile range, at a modest cost, by 2020 -- is yet to be revealed.

Layden is optimistic that technological progress will be faster than many skeptical analysts believe. He remembers being happy to be able to get 10 mpg from an engine he worked on back in 1986, and how impossible it once seemed to make fuel-injection technology affordable. A quarter-century later, when engineers list 100 reasons why inexpensive but powerful batteries cannot be made, it all sounds familiar to him. “Then we go away and put a team together and do it in about half the time you thought it was going to happen and a third of the cost,” he said.

All the excitement makes Schulz, the old-school executive, a bit nervous. “You can get some academic to come up with some vehicle made out of toothpicks and it’s lightweight and it’s the same size as an SUV,” he said. “But in the car industry you gotta make millions of them.”

Car companies also need to deal with mundane things, such as warranties and liability.

“I look at these Teslas,” Schulz said. “They’re from Silicon Valley and they’re smarter than Midwesterners and all that good stuff.” But if Tesla has one safety recall, he said, “they’re done, they’re toast.” His own message was clear: Electric cars are far from being a mature technology, and many unforeseen problems could still throw them off course.

(Michael Levi is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is the last of three excerpts adapted from his new book, “The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future,” which will be published May 2 by Oxford University Press. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

To contact the writer of this article: Michael Levi at mlevi@cfr.org

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net