With zero tailpipe emissions and reduced dependence on fossil fuels, electric vehicles (EVs) have emerged as a promising way to mitigate climate change and improve air quality. As demand for EVs increases, so does the need for new cost-saving innovations to make the cars affordable for all. One critical area of opportunity lies within the batteries that power these vehicles.
Lithium-ion (Li-ion) has been the prevailing battery technology in EVs but has serious drawbacks, such as supply chain constraints, stubbornly high costs, and flammability risks. As a response, innovators are working to develop cheaper, safer batteries that can be manufactured in the US using domestic raw materials. Reducing the cost of EVs will make them accessible to more people, and improving battery safety can significantly diminish fire incidents and enhance consumer confidence. Further, domestic production of EV batteries will help support the American economy, reduce reliance on imports, and strengthen national energy security.
Lithium-Ion Cost Barriers
One of the primary factors contributing to the absence of mass EV adoption is the cost. According to Autoweek, EVs have become more affordable in recent years but still carry a higher price tag than gasoline-powered cars. The average EV costs nearly $60,000 (25% – 30% more than the average internal combustion engine vehicle), and high-performance EV models are even more expensive, often priced at $80,000 and above.
Up to 50% of an EV’s total price is related to the battery pack. Battery prices have been volatile in recent years, making it difficult to predict future trends accurately and posing challenges for automakers and consumers alike, as it affects the overall affordability of EVs.
The production of lithium-ion batteries relies heavily on overseas sourcing of minerals and materials. This dependence on foreign supply chains introduces risks such as supply disruptions and increased price points due to transportation and importation. Reliance on imports can drive up the prices of EVs, further exacerbating economic challenges in the automotive market. For example, the base model Ford F-150 Lightning had an MSRP of $40,000 when it launched in 2022. A year later, the same truck had an MSRP of $60,000 after a series of incremental increases. According to Ford, the 50% increase is due to rising battery prices.
Critical Safety Risks
Safety concerns around toxicity and flammability are another lingering obstacle. Lithium-ion batteries suffer from fire risks due to their chemical composition. High energy densities and the presence of flammable electrolytes and combustible materials within the battery make for an explosive environment. Any compromise to the battery’s structure, such as through physical damage or overheating, can lead to a thermal runaway reaction.
While EVs catch fire at a much lower rate than internal combustion engine vehicles statistically speaking, EV fires are much more dangerous and difficult to extinguish, and batteries can reignite hours (or even days) after a fire seems to be completely over. In one notable example, several Ford F-150 Lightnings ignited while not in use, highlighting how different and unpredictable these fires are compared to gas-powered cars.
Further, the lack of firefighter preparedness to deal with these fires is becoming more apparent. When asked about the F-150 incident, Michael O’Brian of the International Fire Chiefs Association stated, “We’re now dealing with two-plus-hour incidents, and we can’t actively extinguish this fire when the battery pack is involved, so fire crews are really forced with two major options — do we actively cool the battery pack, which is trying to stop that propagation within that battery pack, or do we just let it go?”
Accompanying the lack of preparedness is the lack of training and resources for emergency personnel responding to these fires (especially volunteer firefighters), emphasizing the need for specialized approaches due to the double-threat nature of lithium-ion battery fires. The proximity of these incidents to buildings or charging stations amplifies the potential for additional damage and danger to human life.
Supporting Improved Battery Technology
Through ongoing research and development, scientists and engineers are working to improve beyond lithium-ion battery technology to offer the benefits of battery storage technology but without the slew of risks.
Inherently non-flammable battery technology is crucial to guarantee safety across use cases, particularly in EVs. Further, reducing the cost of battery production and materials by using readily available alternatives and existing infrastructure is also essential to achieving broader market appeal.
With increased awareness of their benefits over lithium-ion, the industry can expedite the production of new, cheaper battery chemistries to speed the transition to cleaner transportation. To meet the growing demand for EVs and overcome the challenges associated with lithium-ion, industry heads and government leaders must prioritize the development of safer, cheaper, and domestically produced alternative battery technologies. The cost, supply chain dependence, and dangers associated with lithium-ion highlight the urgency for improved technology. Together, private and public sectors can accelerate the production of new battery solutions and pave the way for cheaper, safer, American-made EV batteries.