Would you buy a 500-mile range electric car that charges in one minute?

Musk unveils a roadster with a 620-mile range, "a hard-core smackdown to gasoline cars”

Electric vehicles will soon be superior to gasoline-powered vehicles in every single respect — with longer range and possibly even faster fueling. That’s the key takeaway from the latest product announcements by Tesla’s Elon Musk and other car companies.

Major media coverage in recent days has focused on Musk’s unveiling of a sleek new electric truck with a 500-mile range. But the news of the last week also includes Musk rolling out the Tesla “Roadster” with a 620-mile range “to give a hard-core smackdown to gasoline cars. You’ll be able to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back” without recharging.

A 500 to 600 mile range–which is over double the range of most current electric cars–means you could do almost any kind of typical driving and then recharge overnight, either at home, or a hotel, or a shopping mall–or even a rest-station during dinner, since Tesla and other super-chargers can already do a major recharge in a half hour.

To much less fanfare, however, Fisker Inc. (formerly Fisker Automotive) filed patents last week on a solid-state battery that “delivers 2.5 times the energy density of typical lithium-ion batteries, with the potential of costing one third of the 2020 projected price of those batteries,” Green Car Congress reported. Such batteries could be charged in one minute. Many other companies including Toyota are working on solid-state batteries (see below).

Why are these such game-changing announcements? Why are electric car sales soaring around the world, with a stunning 63 percent jump in third-quarter sales this year versus last, as Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) reports? Why are countries from the U.K. and France to India and China planning to ban gasoline-powered cars in the next decade or two? Here’s why.

Modern EVs (electric vehicles) have key advantages over traditional vehicles, like faster acceleration, lower maintenance costs, and no tail-pipe emissions. And they are the only alternative fuel car with a much lower per-mile fueling cost than petrol cars —  even when running on carbon-free fuel. The sticking points have been the high initial cost and the short range, due to expensive and bulky batteries.

Now, driven by smart government policies  — including a massive push by China and a big bet by President Obama’s Department of Energy (DOE) on a once-obscure Silicon Valley start-up named Tesla  — rapid drops in battery cost have brought us to this revolution, as this 2016 BNEF chart shows:

The result is that “a price and energy cost analysis of conventional, hybrid, and electric vehicles illustrates that the EV has the lowest lifetime cost, even in a low-oil-price environment,” as the author of a GTM Research report on EVs explained last year.

Both BNEF and the International Energy Agency (IEA) now expect we will see EV sticker prices directly competitive with that of gas-powered cars within a decade. Yet, the EVs will offer superior performance and zero total emissions (running on renewable energy), and will be far cheaper to operate, especially as solar and wind power prices continue to plummet.

The one final roadblock to mass-market success of electric vehicles has been “range anxiety”  — the concern that you’d run out of juice in the middle of your trip with no quick way to recharge. That problem stemmed from the fact that batteries have historically been bulky, heavy, and slow to charge.

But the energy density of the batteries (the storable charge per unit volume) has been improving as fast as the price has been dropping.

CREDIT: IEA

That’s why the range has been increasing so rapidly, and multiple automakers are planning on vehicles with ranges of 300, 400, and even 500 miles.

And the cost and performance gains are projected to continue rapidly for many years, if not decades, especially with so many car companies working on solid-state batteries. As Chemical & Engineering News explained Monday, “by getting flammable liquid electrolytes out of lithium-ion batteries and replacing them with solid electrolytes, solid-state battery makers hope to usher in an era of safer, more compact, higher-capacity energy storage devices.”

Last year, Boston-based SolidEnergy Systems announced it had developed a virtually “anode-free” lithium metal battery that was twice as energy dense but longer lasting and potentially safer than lithium-ion batteries, as ThinkProgress reported. The batteries replace the traditional graphite anode with a “very thin, high-energy lithium-metal foil.”

Historical thickness and performance of lithium chemistry batteries. Credit: SolidEnergy System.
HISTORICAL THICKNESS AND PERFORMANCE OF LITHIUM CHEMISTRY BATTERIES. CREDIT: SOLIDENERGY SYSTEM.

Last month, Toyota said the solid-state battery it was developing could be an EV “game changer with the potential to dramatically improve driving range.” It will also reduce charging time. Toyota said it plans to roll out those batteries in EVs in the early 2020s.

Fisker says that its solid-state batteries will be ready for automotive-level production in 2023. Again, these batteries promise long-range, lower-cost, superfast-charging.

Which car companies end up on winners in the soaring EV marketplace is still unknown. Tesla, which really launched the EV revolution, is burning through cash — “nearly half a million dollars every hour” — and is far behind on meeting production targets for its mass-market Model 3.

But it’s clear that there will be many winners as EVs increasingly replace gasoline cars as the car of choice around the world.