Since Magna International founder and chairman Frank Stronach was in Ottawa yesterday announcing his intention to build electric cars in Canada (and perhaps scrounging for federal funds to help with the effort), I thought it appropriate to post a previously unpublished interview I did back in January with Ted Robertson, Magnas chief technical officer and executive vice-president of new product development. At the time, Magna had just announced a partnership with Ford to build an electric car for release in 2011 with the goal of manufacturing up to 10,000 vehicles the first year. Its interesting to note Robertson was somewhat reluctant to talk much about the role electric vehicles would play in Magnas future, and that he seemed to think the use of EVs will be quite limited without a major technological breakthrough. But Stronach is saying electric cars are a top priority for Magna, and he told reporters at a press conference he expects 30% of all cars to be electric in 12 years.
Heres an excerpt from my interview with Robertson:
How did the project with Ford come about?Weve been working on hybrids and electric vehicles for years, and weve been in constant dialogue with Ford on our developments for the last one or two years. When we developed this particular vehicle, Ford was very interested. We had electric vehicles 10 or 15 years ago at Magna. The big difference now is that technology continues to progress, and weve got viable technologiesnew motor technologies, software and hardware, and high energy density lithium-ion batteries. And it takes all three of those technologies to come together [to have a viable electric vehicle].
Why didnt the older electric vehicle models take off?They were demonstration vehicles. They were using lead-acid batteries or sodium sulphur batteries. It all goes back to how much energy you can contain on board. You need a high energy density so that you dont have a lot of mass but still get sufficient range. Here you didnt have very much range, not enough to take you on daily commutes.
Whats the big deal about lithium-ion batteries?Theres a very famous study that everyones quoting that says if you take a look at the average usage of vehicles, 80% of the population goes fewer than 38 miles a day. And so you can satisfy 80% of the population with a vehicle with a 40- to 50-mile range. Lead acid batteries dont have the range that would give people enough confidence. Thats why you need a higher energy density battery, and the lithium-ion does that.
Is lithium-ion going to be the standard?You cant lock in and say thats the ultimate. Development is going to continue with the batteries. Were seeing the chemistries continuing to be modified, but we now have a production-viable chemistry. I dont know that it will be the final answer. My guess will be no. Someone will invent something else. Im positive of that. Its just a matter of when, and when will it become commercially available. The question is, do you wait until something else comes along? And at what cost? And how long will it take? But were commercially viable now, so its time to get going.
How big of a role will hybrids and electric vehicles play in Magnas future?I dont have a sense. It depends on the market and whether electrics and hybrids will take off, whether its because people want them or whether legislation will drive us into more of them. Its hard to tell. But were very optimistic about the technology, and we want to be at the leading edge of the technology, especially if they take off.
What do you think personally? Will they catch on?Hybrids will be required for a large portion of the vehicle fleet to make fuel economy regulations … Electric vehicles, on the other hand, will be more limited because of the range limitations, at least until we find new ways to store energy on board. But there is a great application for electric vehicles, especially in cities and for people who have commutes of relatively short distance. Right now in a standard household with 110 volts and a 15 amp circuit, our vehicle takes in the range of 8 to 10 hours to charge from empty. But electric vehicles can take off even more as we develop our charging systems. We can charge our vehicles with a special charger in 10 to 20 minutes. So if somebody is taking a long trip, youd be able to pull over get a fill up just like you do at a gas station.