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Batteries are keeping electric vehicles from taking off

Cost and the limited range they offer are among the issues still driving buyers to gasoline-powered cars. But experts are hopeful that innovation and cheaper prices are on the way.

August 28, 2011|By Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times
  • Batteries for the Nissan Leaf.
Batteries for the Nissan Leaf. (Courtesy Nissan North America…)

Unless battery technology improves dramatically, most experts doubt that electric vehicles will overtake gasoline-powered cars.

Batteries are often the most expensive component in an EV and also the most difficult part to construct. Many rely on increasingly costly rare-earth metals, pushing up the overall cost of the car.

Few have the range that gasoline users want, usually powering the car for less than 100 miles on a single charge. The batteries with more capacity tend to be much heavier and bulkier, weighing down the vehicle and leaving less room for passengers.

The life span of the average battery is unknown, and replacing one could cost thousands of dollars and pose a recycling conundrum. And because there aren't enough data on how batteries perform after years of wear and tear, engineers have taken extra precautions with their designs, raising prices even more.

The complications have caused many potential EV drivers to remain with fossil fuels, which they view as comparatively cheap, plentiful and reliable.

But as battery plants crop up around the country, experts are hopeful that innovation and cheaper prices are on the way.

The Department of Energy estimates that more battery manufacturing could lower the average cost from about $33,000 in 2009 to $17,000 by 2013 and $5,000 by the end of the decade. An average battery with a full-charge range of 100 miles currently costs about $20,000 — more than half the manufacturer's suggested retail price of a Nissan Leaf.

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