After a Decade of Secrecy, QuantumScape Has Become a Transparency Evangelist
For a decade, QuantumScape toiled away in secrecy in a gigantic space on the southern edge of Silicon Valley. But secrecy did not suggest obscurity: With its unusually rich $150 million in venture funding, QuantumScape had the rapt attention of the battery community. Just what was this company and its 100 or so engineers doing? Still, that building in San Jose, California remained a gargantuan black hole out of which no information seeped. In November 2015, five years after the company’s launch, I pinged CEO Jagdeep Singh asking if he had anything to say. “As I’m sure you know,” he emailed back, “we’re trying to stay under the radar for now but would be happy to chat when we’re a little further along.”
Last fall, QuantumScape finally came out of stealth. Since then, it has listed its shares on the New York Stock Exchange and become more talkative — a lot more talkative. After a decade of silence, Singh has become a veritable evangelist on behalf of the act of speaking up — he’s talking up a storm and thinks everyone else making batteries should, too. Only, Singh is very particular with regard to what they should be talking about. Having finally disgorged a slew of QuantumScape performance data, he wants other battery companies to come clean, too. “If you make a claim, show the data, or don’t make a claim,” Singh told me last week.
Singh’s appeal for transparency comes at an unusual time for batteries. Since Alessandro Volta invented the first battery in 1799, the field has been infamous for its outsized share of exaggeration. Pound for pound, Thomas Edison suggested in 1883, battery researchers and entrepreneurs have seemed to show a greater propensity for fables than almost any other type of technologist. But the current is fundamentally different from Volta’s, Edison’s or really any other time of batteries: At once, battery companies such as QuantumScape itself appear to be on a transformative path toward breakthroughs, with a surprising likelihood of powering one and perhaps two major new industries — affordable mass-market electric vehicles and stationary storage. If they are successful, the decades of batteries disappointing the world would come to an end.
In recognition of a different age for batteries, Wall Street is experiencing a battery and EV mania. In two reverse mergers announced just yesterday, Xos, a maker of electric delivery vans, said it will be traded on Nasdaq at a valuation of $2 billion, and Lucid Motors said it will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange at a $4.4 billion valuation.
The technology community that Singh is addressing is less one riven with liars and exaggerators — though it no doubt retains a number — than a clutch of capable companies whose batteries seem destined to equip electric models sold by BMW, Daimler, GM and more. Some of the companies have been unusually transparent already. What distinguishes them from QuantumScape, which promises that its batteries will be in VWs by 2024, is that they are behind by one, two, or three years.
Sila Nano says its silicon-anode batteries will be installed in electric BMWs and Daimlers in 2025. Solid Power, a rival of QuantumScape in lithium-metal batteries, says its anodes will be in commercial vehicles in 2026; it is not saying which automaker is the likely customer, but its investors include Hyundai and Ford.
Short of waiting until these EVs are actually on the road, the gold standard of data is validation by an independent laboratory. Late last year, Solid Power shipped its lithium-metal anode for third-party validation and has said it will release the results. This process is lengthy: Sujeet Kumar, CEO of Zenlabs, told me that it took more than three months for Idaho National Laboratory to return the results of his silicon anodes last year, and that it can take more than a year for a test of calendar life. It’s worth the wait, he said, to obtain the independent validation.
Singh’s idea is not new. Before him, Jeff Dahn, a senior Tesla battery adviser and professor at Dalhousie University, was the battery community’s most notorious grump, calling out the foibles of his colleagues’ work and insisting on rigorous testing standards. He became known for his test of battery honesty: Does a battery company attempt to camouflage inferior results by spreading them across separate presentation slides, or does it subject the same cell to the half-dozen or so important tests and show all the results on a single slide? Dahn insisted on the latter.
Singh’s idea sounds a lot like the Dahn test. Singh says the single slide should show the temperature at which the test was conducted, such as 30 degrees Celsius. Among other conditions, the cell should be under modest pressure, and fully charged and discharged in an hour. It should be a large cell and not coin-size. “There are a lot of claims people make with zero data,” Singh told me. “And then other people make claims and reports of data, but they only report data that’s favorable to them.” He said, “If anybody that made the claim about solid state just reported this one slide, that would be a service to the industry because a lot of people disambiguate claims.”
QuantumScape itself is not without its critics. Singh has declined to send QuantumScape’s material for third-party validation. And possible inconsistencies have been pointed out in the company’s own presentation, such as that performance metrics on successive slides are subjected to different temperatures. “Can you get all these properties at the same temperature?” one battery scientist asked.
The quest for consistency and transparency is the right one, however. As this pivotal decade for batteries begins, and billions more are poured into startups and publicly traded companies, a single big scandal like those of old could be a body blow. If a company really has the goods, it should not shy away from proper disclosure. “QuantumScape was as secretive as companies get,” Singh said, “and we’re comfortable sharing the data because the data is not the same as the composition of the material or the trade secrets or anything. We’re not disclosing how we get them.”