The following conversation is with Todd Lassa, Detroit Bureau Chief, Automobile Magazine, and Formula 1 enthusiast who researches, reports, and writes about emerging auto technologies for the publication. In this post you’ll learn about battery technology complexities, when EVs could overtake combustion engines, what the future may hold for autonomous vehicles, and AI’s role.
Jack: How did you get into merging your interest in autos and writing?
Todd: I’m a journalist by trade and come from a hard news background. However, I didn’t get into car magazines until well into my 30’s. I worked for a newsletter company in D.C. covering advanced nursing issues, Capitol Hill and health reform, then began working for AutoWeek in 1996. My core reading audience changed from female to male readers and even having always been a car guy, I had no engineering skills to speak of. Through this transition, I realized that writing and reporting for a living is what I wanted to do. I think I started out wanting to write for a car magazine and then it actually happened by accident. A former co-worker passed my resume to the former Editor of AutoWeek and I got the job where I worked for them for four years, then Motor Trend for 12 years and now write for Automobile writing car reviews and breaking news.
Jack: Have you driven many electric vehicles?
Todd: Yes, quite a few. The MINI Cooper electric vehicle was one of the first I drove in 2007 or so, which probably barely had a 100-mile range. Fortunately, EVs have changed quite a bit. I have driven Teslas including the Model S which we previously voted in as car of year in Motor Trend. We also named the Chevy Volt car of the year when I was at Motor Trend in 2011. I’ve driven a few Nissan LEAFs and had the convenience of plugging them in here at work.
Jack: When I turn off the car heater in my EV, it impacts the car. I think it has to do with the chemistry of the battery. What do you think?
Todd: Yes, I agree.
Jack: I own an EV, but EVs are more expensive than similarly equipped gasoline powered cars. At what point do you see the cost equation working for EVs so that they overtake internal combustion cars?
Todd: When cost, range, and the speed in recharging the EV all improve, that will be the ticket. Recently GM previewed their EVs; they’re building 20 between now and 2023 and some are additions to their announcement a few years ago. One was badged an Escalade and could supplement or eventually replace the ICE-powered Escalade just redesigned for 2021. I think gas and diesel engines will carry them forward for the next decade or so and that they’ll “ramp down” combustion engines as new EVs replace ICE models. GM says this new battery design comes in stacks of 6, 8, 10, and 12 and can be double stacked for bigger cars like Hummers. They are working to get the cost down from $145 per kW hour to less than $100 per kW hour. GM claims once below $100, they’ll be able to make more of a profit on EVs.
I’ve also spoken to Toyota who says at this point if you’re selling an EV for less than $50k you’re not making money. They’re looking beyond battery electric. They’re very interested in hydrogen fuel cells, which are represented in their first and second generation Mirai. It looks like a Lexus, but they’re badging it as a Toyota. All of these vehicles are reducing the cost of the battery, which is one of the major goals – to make money on those cars and trucks and to get them up to a 400-mile range.
Also important is to be able to add 100 miles on a level two charge. That’s the good news. The flip side is the Chevy Bolt, and such are affordable for EVs but there is a huge shift in the auto industry that is getting away from affordable new cars. I think that brand new cars, whether a Cadillac, BMW or VW for instance are no longer attainable for the working class. Now a $35k range is affordable in the middle class, like Nissan LEAF for instance, is in the low $30k range. I see the entire industry: diesel, gas, EV, all moving on to more premium cost cars.
Jack: There has to be a financing program. 30k is a lot for a middle-class person. Manufacturers are going to have to do a resale program or something of the like to make it affordable.
Todd: They’re looking at car subscriptions or car sharing. Even those are huge shifts in the transportation systems. At a global level, people are moving closer to big cities, even more so than 60 years ago. Then the question is, do you want a car in a big city? Manhattan is looking at parts of the city without personal cars. One area in San Francisco just went carless and bike lanes are increasing. Cities are moving away from designing streets around cars, moving to designing around public transit, pedestrians and cyclists. Paris and London are looking at EVs only or banning gas cars completely. Auto makers are trying to figure out car sharing. For instance, maybe an autonomous vehicle drives a 9am commuter to work, and then goes to another customer and takes him or her to work. One car can serve many people in a day. This is very pie in the sky, but the amount of money spent on autonomous vehicles is like an EV and the technology is advancing quickly.
All that said, the COVID-19 pandemic may change all of the above, we’ll have to wait and see.
Jack: Seems like EV range is an issue with EVs. I get about a 300-mile range out of a full charge on my Chevy Bolt. When it gets down to less than 100 miles, I have to think ahead. Should I plug it in or take it to a quick charge place? I feel that the car should think about this for me, rather than me having to remember to plug it in. What do you hear about advancements in battery technology that will make EVs more practical? By simply moving the parts around, it has to have implications on the cost. It has to be true that EV engines are cheaper than gas engines.
Todd: The biggest cost is still the battery pack. I remember each division in GM had its own engine. Those engines weren’t the same as they had different bore and stroke dimensions. Now it doesn’t matter to the buyer if he or she has the same battery chemistry powering the car. Like a Hummer, you can make it rear or front wheel drive. Around 2001 they started calling it a skateboard, where the floor of the car is the same, you just need slots for the battery components. That can be changed around depending on the need of the car.
There is an issue with batteries that get the max power and range out of them. If I have a 400-mile range with a 12 cell arrangement, what if I had one more? The added weight could decrease the range instead of increase. Battery engineers have to find the right balance that doesn’t deplete the range. Transporting batteries is expensive and you need to power the battery in a factory and then deplete the battery, put it on a truck to a factory to power it back up again. It’s a lot more efficient and cheaper to have the battery plant near the assembly plant.
Jack: AI seems everywhere these days, from smart search engines to appliances. What are the implications in autonomous vehicles? I think there’s always going to be a market for specialty cars like Ferraris. We have the smartphone and smart engine; it’s pretty obvious that AI will play a major role in automobiles. How do you see AI playing a role?
Todd: AI is very evolutionary. You see surveys by various analytics groups, that the average consumer can’t wait to have a car he or she can use to spend all the commuting time on the phone. You have most of the building blocks for an autonomous level 4 or 5; many are in place. Some have resulted in crashes as people thought the vehicle could do more than it could. I think we’ll see ADAS systems like GM’s Super Cruise from brands where you can take your hand off of the steering wheel and relax if you’re driving cross country for instance. In the meantime, fully autonomous buses or cars will be geofenced, having to be in a certain part of town. It’s still an experiment. As long as autonomous vehicles are on a certain part of the road that’s not near pedestrians, I think we’ll see that to continue to be experimented with and see advancements in Chinese cities, building it into their infrastructure. The auto world has accepted the Ferraris and Miatas of the world as more affordable analogies, like race horses. Once autonomous vehicles take over, you’ll be able to have fun on remote mountain roads. There are some in California for instance, or you could go to a country club racetrack and do laps.
I am a bit skeptical of AI going into these cars. I think when we get to the point where the car just sells us more stuff, like having the navigation screen show you where your coffee shop will be and order for you, it’s going too far, but automakers view it as another revenue stream. I think it’s a mixed bag for car enthusiasts. I think with the level 4 or 5 autonomous cars, you might have one lane out of four on the freeway to host them. Then eventually, probably one lane you can drive yourself and the other four or five for autonomous vehicles.
Jack: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Todd! Let’s be sure to revisit this conversation and see how the industry evolves!