Dear Friedman: There Is No Moore’s Law for Batteries

I’m an avid reader of Thomas Friedman’s column, first and foremost because he’s been the most successful at elevating the greentech business discussion to a main stage, i.e. the New York Times op-ed section. But I have a slight quibble with this weekend’s column, specifically, the section where he writes:

Sure, the Moore’s Law of electric cars  — “the cost per mile of the electric car battery will be cut in half every 18 months” — will steadily drive the cost down, says Agassi, but only once we get scale production going. U.S. companies can do that on their own or in collaboration with Chinese ones. But God save us if we don’t do it at all.

I guess God is going to have to save us, because there’s not currently a Moore’s Law for batteries, and I’m doubtful that we’re going to ever hit a Moore’s Law-style pace of accelerated progress and lowered costs for batteries. Yes, batteries will come down in price and become smaller, but at nowhere near the same speed — and with a lot less progress — as to be able to be compared to Moore’s Law. In 1965, Gordon Moore famously predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double roughly every two years. The result is that over 40 years later, semiconductors are cheap and powerful enough to be embedded into everything from our bus passes to our library books, and the platform of personal computing has delivered our current always-on Internet-based society.

To set up the expectation that we could create a Moore’s Law for batteries if we tried really, really hard is disingenuous; it reminds me of the Hollywood movie where if the little kid just wishes hard enough she can bring her divorced parents back together, or her dead cat back to life. I think they call this Faith with a capital F in some circles.

Battery innovation doesn’t work on faith; it’s driven by chemistry and science. The entire problem with battery innovation and the path for electric vehicles is that over an entire century, batteries have not really improved all that much. As comedian and car enthusiast Jay Leno pointed out to me a couple of weeks ago, his 1906 Baker electric car has about the same battery range as the next-gen EVs that are just hitting the market. Bill Gates, at an event earlier this year, also expressed the same sentiment: “Batteries have not improved hardly at all. There are deep physical limits.”

During his talk, Gates actually directly debunked the notion that batteries and other energy technologies will follow a Moore’s Law-type path (the solar industry has also been trying to say there’s a Moore’s Law for solar for years). In essence, he said, we’ve been fooled by the rapid success of IT, and “there are things that just don’t move forward.” The pace of chips and IT innovation “is rare,” said Gates. In other words, a Moore’s Law pace of increasingly lower costs at such a fast rate isn’t likely to happen for a lot of other tech and science sectors.

Sorry to burst the bubble of anticipated progress for green technology, but a charming and articulate entrepreneur like Shai Agassi often has a lot of slogans that sound good and will help advance his startup Better Place. We shouldn’t just repeat and confirm them ad nauseam.

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Image courtesy of GM.