Published on May 5, 2009

Last month, I wrote about the increased interest in electric car technology that seems to be persisting despite steep declines in the price of oil and gasoline since last summer.  I have been skeptical about prospects for electric vehicles for years but Berkshire Hathaway’s investment in BYD has led me to re-evaluate my assumptions.

Based on reports of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting last weekend, it is clear that Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger is the main proponent of the BYD investment and has great enthusiasm for what Wang Chuan-Fu, BYD’s founder, is trying to accomplish.  Munger has many good reasons to be enthusiastic:  BYD’s new E6 model appears to be a revolutionary advance in electric car technology making it nearly viable for the American market.

BYD’s E6 Model

BYD appears to be significantly ahead of American and Japanese auto makers and had an electric car on display at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.  While this vehicle is not yet available for sale in the United States, the statistics on the new E6 model are very impressive.  Consider these specifications from the BYD Website:

  • Top Speed:  100 mph
  • Range:  249 miles
  • Horsepower:  268
  • Torque:  406
  • 0 to 60 mph:  8 seconds
  • Energy Consumption:  18 kwh per 62 miles.
  • Battery materials are fully recyclable based on BYD’s proprietary technology.

In terms of cost, 18 kwh per 62 miles should be very affordable.  For example, my local utility charges 12.76 cents per kwh, so I would pay approximately $2.30 to drive 62 miles, or approximately 3.7 cents per mile.  Gasoline is roughly $2.00 per gallon, so a driver would need a vehicle capable of around 54 miles per gallon at current gas prices to achieve parity with the E6 power consumption.  Obviously, if gasoline prices increase in the future, the advantage of the electric vehicle would increase, assuming electric costs remain stable.

What About Road Trips?

Most Americans cannot purchase one car for commuting purposes and another for road trips.  While a 249 mile range is excellent compared to the range of most other pure electric vehicles, it is not enough for typical road trips in a vast country like the United States.  As a case in point, I am planning a trip later this month that will be approximately 700 miles long and I want to accomplish that distance in one day.  How would I do this with a vehicle like the e6?

BYD has come up with a “Quick Charge” technology that will provide up to a 50% charge in 10 minutes.  This is in contrast with a full charge that would require 8 or 9 hours connected to a normal household electric outlet.  I am not certain whether the “Quick Charge” requires some special refueling equipment or not, but this does at least seem to answer part of my question regarding longer trips.  However, it would be a major hassle to have to stop every 125 miles after the first 250 miles on a long road trip.  In the case of my 700 mile trip, I would have to “quick charge” the battery four times.

Battery Exchange Stations

The type of “long road trip” scenario that I’ve described could be much more viable using the concept of battery exchange stations that Shai Agassi has come up with.  Agassi founded Better Place and has developed plans for a network of refueling and battery exchange stations.  These exchange stations would be automated and result in swapping a fully charged battery for a depleted battery.  The result would be a fully recharged vehicle in the time it would take to refuel a gasoline powered car.  Agassi’s strategy was featured in The Economist this week.

The obvious disadvantage of a network of battery exchange stations is the high cost of the infrastructure that would be involved.  Given a range of 250 miles for BYD’s e6 electric car, perhaps technology will improve to the point where electric ranges are even higher.  The quick charge technology may be improved to provide a larger percentage of a full recharge cycle as well.

In my opinion, the revolutionary aspect of BYD’s e6 is that we are talking about a 250 mile range rather than the 50 or 100 mile range that has been viewed as the ceiling for electric cars in the past.  A 250 mile range would be satisfactory for most drivers almost all the time.  However, there will still be resistance to the concept until easy recharge facilities are available on the road for much longer trips.  This may not be an obstacle in smaller countries or in Europe even today.

At a projected cost in the low $20K range, it looks like BYD may have a home run concept if they can figure out a way to satisfy American and European regulatory authorities and bring the product to market.  Of course, the other question is where the electricity that will charge these batteries will come from, but I will leave that as a subject for another day.

BYD’s Revolutionary e6 Electric Car

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