This Time, We Really Do Seem to Be Moving to a New Age of Superbatteries and Electric Vehicles

After decades of false starts, the moment has finally arrived

Illustration: James Marshall

Batteries incensed Thomas Edison, and not just batteries, but battery makers. In a much-quoted 1883 interview, Edison griped about his unsuccessful efforts to find a battery that would hold a charge long enough to be of practical use in an electric vehicle. For decades beyond — into the next century — Edison would continue his quest, but failed every time, and his friend Henry Ford ended up the winner, earning a fortune with his combustion-propelled Model T.

Always, the problem was the same — electricity simply wouldn’t stay reliably stored, Edison said, and those who told you differently were simply liars. Was there any hope for finding a workable commercial battery? “None whatever,” Edison said.

Human mobility appears to be on the cusp of the next shift — to electric and perhaps driverless propulsion.

For thousands of years, one of the most dramatic historical sequences has been in how humans get around. First, it was on foot, then by animal, by ship, by wheeled cart and carriage, by rail, and finally internal combustion. With these changes came the utter transformation of civilization — of cities, towns, and landscapes, local and global economies, society, culture, and courtship. Now, the benefit of 137 years of tinkering is proving Edison wrong: Human mobility appears to be on the cusp of the next shift — to electric and perhaps driverless propulsion.

Appears to be because we can’t be sure what is coming, at what scale, at what price, and precisely when. These uncertainties are the new tension — and the subject of this blog. Reality is not as precarious as in Edison’s day — batteries and EVs for sure attract far more than their fair share of exaggerators and outright frauds — but there also are genuine, potentially transformational advances.

The signs that the mobility revolution is real this time are palpable. Automakers across the planet — in the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea, Europe — are launching suites of electrics, as are numerous startups. Front and center are Tesla’s fistful of successful vehicles, but GM, Audi, and Porsche are also wowing critics with their electrics. China’s Geely and BYD, too, are expanding fast.

The largest remaining question at this stage is consumer demand. These automakers assume that mass numbers of people will embrace the new world they are imagining, but as of now, only niche slices of first-movers have done so. The coming three to five to eight years — the 2020s — will tell us whether combustion is truly in trouble.

Twice a week — on Tuesday and Friday mornings — we will meet and speak with the researchers and engineers who are attempting to take batteries the added distance and make electric cars cheaper, go further, and charge up faster.

I myself got drawn into the deceptively mystical world of batteries a decade ago, when the U.S. and the rest of the world — trying to extract themselves from the Great Recession — saw salvation in an electric revolution, and launched into a race to both help it happen and own it. I chronicled that technological and geopolitical race in a book called The Powerhouse, where for two-years I was embedded with a lithium-ion battery research team seeking to create the superbattery. But it’s now that the battle of battery and automobile titans is truly coming to a climax. Before joining Medium, I conceived and launched the Future newsletter at Axios. Before that, I was a foreign correspondent in the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, and the battery war is befitting of any of the geopolitical clashes I witnessed abroad.

Twice a week — on Tuesday and Friday mornings — we will meet and speak with the researchers and engineers who are attempting to take batteries the added distance and make electric cars cheaper, go further, and charge up faster. We will talk to the automaking teams who understand that, in terms of selling a lot of electric vehicles, the answer is affordability and style — consumers want cars that fit their wallet and make them proud. Like the smartphone now, cars have always been a statement about the motorist behind its wheel; EV makers need to think very hard about what status their product confers. The vehicles also have to be practical. Those who are getting it right are designing cool electric SUVs and pickup trucks with all the bells and whistles, and — for the economy markets of India, China, and elsewhere — compact sedans. (Pro tip: If an automaker’s signature new electric is a $100,000+ ultra-luxury sedan, they are about a dozen years late.)

The Mobilist name is deliberate, evoking a person who is out there meeting the folks involved in this gigantic transmogrification of our lives. So let’s go together to the front lines of what is happening, digesting, dissecting, and analyzing the latest developments, big and small. I welcome your comments, suggestions, corrections, and your own stories. Thanks for being part of the journey — and please share the blog with friends, family, and colleagues who you think will want to be part of it too.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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