The burgeoning ubiquity of electric vehicles in the United States, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere around the world is attracting the attention of technology companies, automobile manufacturers, venture capitalists, and consumers. The massive untapped market means competition in the development and mass production of the best batteries for electric vehicles will be one of the great innovations of our present chapter in history. The companies that achieve this end will have set up their businesses to succeed well beyond the foreseeable future.
Surprisingly, the United States has only one car in the race. Outside of QuantumScape, a California based company, every company with a major part to play in the coming story is Japanese or German.
The electric vehicle industry in the United States sits in a precarious position at the moment. The price and supply of fuel is not as worrisome as it was five years ago. Advancements in electric vehicle battery technology have stalled. Outside of the familiar small, hybrid models, no electric car has demonstrated an ability to send reverberations through the market. The catalyst positioned to release this deadlock is the successful production of a solid-state lithium battery. It is the only technology with significant chances of truly altering the landscape of the electric vehicle industry in the United States.
Based on their relationship to Volkswagen, QuantumScape is likely the company that will be America's most vibrant representative in the industry going forward.
What Is QuantumScape?
QuantumScape is a battery technology company formed in 2010 as a spinoff of Stanford research and talent. The company stands out amongst other companies developing similar technologies because it is valued at more than a billion dollars despite its lack of a consistent revenue stream or a plurality of deliverable products. This discrepancy is explained largely by the company's numerous investors, including Volkswagen which recently invested $100 million in the company, and its experienced, battle-tested board of directors.
QuantumScape has emerged as a major player in the race to develop a more commercially viable, and hence more profitable, battery for electric cars. The company hopes to achieve a substantial breakthrough in the production of solid-state lithium batteries, a technology being monitored and invested in by a wide variety of companies from Dyson to Toyota. Since the inception of the lithium-ion battery by EXXON in the 1970s, no company or state actor has been able to successfully produce a viable solid-state lithium battery.
The development of such a battery is imperative to the advancement of electric energy, especially in cars, because current lithium battery technology is highly reactive and hence the technology is perceived by consumers to be unsafe. The currently unavailable solid-state alternative ensures more stability, safety, and consumer confidence.
QuantumScape's Long-Term Goals
Volkswagen has been working in coordination with QuantumScape since 2012 to develop a solid-state lithium battery, but their collective goal for mass-production is not projected to launch until 2025. The length of this time frame underscores the difficulty of the task. Positivity regarding progress in electric vehicles has slackened in recent years as scientists and researchers have struggled to make traditional lithium battery products more efficient.
To bridge this gap would mean irreparably changing the trajectory of the electric vehicle market in the United States. Solid-state batteries offer greater safety, faster-charging intervals, a more compact product, and most importantly greater energy density
Lithium Batteries vs. Traditional Fuel
The transition from traditional fuel to electric power in our vehicles is assured; the timeline on which this shift occurs, however, is not. Currently, advances in battery technology are insufficient to bring a vehicle to market that would inspire sufficient confidence in consumers to facilitate a large-scale transition from fuel to electric power in vehicles around the world, and especially in the United States. Constraints on a vehicle's range present the most onerous challenge for companies that develop battery technology to address in the near future.
The Stubborn Advantages of Traditional Fuel
The stasis in battery development has been met by a resurgent traditional fuel industry brought back to life by an increased supply, primarily from the United States, falling prices, and increased fuel efficiency in vehicles using traditional fuel. Furthermore, there is lingering resistance to costs in infrastructure changes necessary for the proliferation of electric vehicles. These trends have obfuscated the threats of energy insecurity and permanent environmental damage posed by the continued use of fossil fuels.
The Limited Achievements of Lithium-Ion Batteries
In reference to the electric vehicle industry, battery technology has been widely successful in disseminating products that enable consumers to buy hybrid electric vehicles at commercially viable prices and drive their electric vehicles regularly without significant impediment. Vehicles powered solely by electricity, on the other hand, are too expensive for the average consumer and come with a limited range that makes a large segment of consumers uncomfortable.
Without a wider range and a more palatable price tag, electric vehicles cannot hope to make substantial inroads in the market for family vehicles in the United States: the most significant segment of the market for any company hoping to maintain a robust presence in the United States.
Solid-State Lithium Batteries
Solid-state lithium batteries differ from lithium-ion batteries in that a lithium-ion battery requires a liquid electrolyte to facilitate movement between electrodes within the battery. A solid-state battery, like the one being developed by QuantumScape, would achieve the same movement between electrodes with a solid electrolyte. This improvement promises to improve the energy density of the battery which in turn increases the range of the vehicle being powered by the hypothetical solid-state lithium battery.
Additionally, the energy density of a solid-state battery would provide a greater tolerance to high temperatures, less reactivity to dangerous materials, and a more compact product. These advances could take the electric-only powered car from an outlier to the norm.
Best Smart Cars of the Future
Even as fuel has become more readily available, the transition to electric vehicles is a palpable facet of the modern automotive industry. The companies that bring the future of high-quality, accessible electric vehicles to consumers first will be watching their enterprises grow for untold decades. With the stakes this high, the competition is thick. BMW, Honda, Hyundai, and Nissan have all invested in solid-state lithium battery research.
For QuantumScape and their partner Volkswagen, Toyota may be the fiercest competitor. Toyota has been working with Panasonic since 2014 to develop a solid-state lithium battery, a relationship that reflects the Japanese counter to nascent Chinese competition in the industry. QuantumScape's value as a company compared to the declining market share held by Panasonic indicates Volkswagen may have the slight edge.
The Golf is currently Volkswagen's best selling model and is particularly popular in European countries where the small, fuel-efficient vehicle accommodates consumers desire to save on expensive European taxes on fossil fuels. Volkswagen is eager to bring the e-Golf to the market, an all-electric iteration of its namesake powered with a solid-state lithium battery which would increase the range of the vehicle to between 700 and 750 kilometers, or roughly 450 miles.
This achievement would win a massive market share in Europe where consumers could circumnavigate fuel costs and the incumbent taxes altogether. In the United States success would be more limited. The size of the Golf precludes the vehicle from becoming a staple in the United States where consumers value room for the comfortable transport of an entire family of four, at least.
Electric Concept Cars
In an effort to cater to a global market looking for a vehicle that provides more than basic transportation without an exorbitant cost, Volkswagen is developing four fully electric cars in which the company hopes to use a solid-state lithium battery. These vehicles are all family-friendly, four-door vehicles, one of which is modeled on the classic Volkswagen Bus, and all would have comfortable interiors and driving ranges for consumers in the United States looking to make a complete transition to electric vehicles.
The e-Golf's success will be an important step in the advancement of QuantumScape's technologies and Volkswagen's market share in the United States but dominance cannot be achieved without a range of products that can be readily marketed to middle-class families who want reliable, comfortable vehicles regardless of the energy source.
QuantumScape's development of an ostensibly viable solid-state lithium battery makes the young company a likely torchbearer on the road to a complete transition to electric vehicles in the United States and around the world. Despite a tempered resurgence in the viability of traditional fuel, the popularity of electric vehicles, particularly hybrid-electric vehicles has continued to increase. Market gains have been most severely limited by stagnant improvements in battery technology.
The most promising possibility for release from stalemate is the development of a solid-state lithium battery which would increase the energy density of the batteries used in electric vehicles, expanding their range. In collaboration with Volkswagen, QuantumScape seems poised to take a serious run at a large segment of the electric vehicle industry in competition with Toyota and their partner, Panasonic.