Guest Post: The Future Of Transportation: It’s A Relay Race…Not A Marathon

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Sabre

The Future of transportation: It’s a relay race…not a marathon

In 2007, Shai Agassi starting a company called Better Place. The concept behind it was changing out batteries that power a car, instead of filling your car with gasoline. Shai Agassi looked at the problem correctly. He saw transportation fuel as a never ending relay race. But what if there was a technology that could do the same thing, without changing out the battery?

Let’s start with the problem. Gasoline is a finite resource but it provides a vehicle an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) limited only by the size of the vehicle’s tank.  The focus of scientists and engineers today is to develop a battery that can compete with gasoline as the vehicle’s fuel source. As I hope to show, that is proving to be a near impossible task.

Examine the Chevy Volt. The battery pack in the Chevy Volt weighs about 400 pounds. Running the Volt on the battery pack alone gives you between 25 to 50 miles of range after every six to eight hours of charging time. Once the battery pack is depleted, the gasoline engine kicks in (yes, the Volt has a gasoline engine).

What about hybrids like the Prius? This is where I will focus on the shortcomings of lithium ion.
The battery packs in the likes of a Prius are designed for longevity. Hybrid batteries use in the neighborhood of 15%-20% of their available power, as the batteries simply cannot handle deep discharges without dramatically reducing the life of the battery. So, a system of electronics is set-up in a hybrid to manage the amount of charge in the pack at all times.

This is where battery chemistry kicks in and it is not good. If only 15-20% of the battery power is available, batteries would still be acceptable if they could re-charge quickly. They cannot. Batteries have a fixed rate charge capability. If that limit is pushed, then the life of the battery decreases. Furthermore, batteries trickle charge the last 20% or so of their capacity, making them even more problematic, as that is the part that vehicles use for power to maintain longevity of the battery pack.

As a result, hybrids and vehicles like the Volt, lend themselves to stop and go traffic and short hauls. The battery pack does not lend itself to anything but that type of driving.

To counter these shortcomings, oceans of money are being spent on research projects throughout the world to develop a longer lasting battery. The scientific community is looking at the electrification of transportation as a duration/density issue or more simplistically a marathon. In Energy Secretary Chu’s words, here is what we need.

It will take a battery, first that can last for 15 years of deep discharges. You need about five as a minimum, but really six- or seven-times higher storage capacity and you need to bring the price down by about a factor of three. And then all of a sudden you have a comparably performing car; let's say a mid-sized car which has a comparable acceleration and a comparable range.

Is this possible?   Consider the first minute of this clip. It took twenty years to double the density of lithium ion batteries. Argonne’s partnership hopes to double density levels in the next three. Again, this is all about running a marathon when it comes to using batteries.

But there is a different way of looking at the electrification issue. Is there a technology that would lend itself to that of a relay race, instead of a marathon? The answer is undeniably yes. It is the capacitor.

A capacitor is a form of passive energy storage. It does nothing but hold a charge and release a charge. But the qualities of a capacitor lend itself perfectly for transportation in all areas but one (density) and that may be changing. Consider the following characteristics of some ceramic capacitors.

•    Almost instant charge and discharge rates
•    Long Life (will most likely outlast the car)
•    Not sensitive to deep discharges
•    No cell balancing (Batteries in series have voltage issues that require electronic monitoring)
•    No thermal runaway(Batteries are at risk of over-heating)

Visually, it would look like the following. The vehicle would have capacitor banks (ESS). While one bank is charging, the other bank is discharging its power. Hence, you have a never ending relay race between the capacitor banks.

The source of the power for charging the banks could come from a few sources.

Wheel production of electrical power.

Each wheel contains an electric motor which converts friction into electrical energy.  This is done by using the resistance when applying braking force and the movement of the car.

Regenerative Braking.

The electric motor applies resistance to the drivetrain causing the wheels to slow down. The energy from the wheels turns the generator which slows the vehicle down, which then produces electricity and stores it in the ESS.

There are a few individuals/organizations that are looking at this age old technology, Joel Schindall at MIT and this outfit in Germany  to name two of them. But the overriding issue with capacitors is energy density. While no one doubts the capability of capacitors to hold a charge, no one has solved the density issue. In my next update, I’ll present the case of an American company that may have a working model with enough density…sorry Eestor fans I am still waiting.

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spanish inquisition's picture

For a second, I thought they were going to reinvent streetcars or by running power in the roads like slot cars. Or maybe we could run power cable under the road and make the car into a moving charger station like Ipods with 1 bank charging while 1 bank runs the car. The brake thingy is nice too.


CPL's picture

Nobody gets to keep their toys in ten years.

It'll be horses, steam and if your city was built on it, canals.

MayIMommaDogFace2theBananaPatch's picture

I'll take "Nobody Gets to Keep Their Toys in Ten Years" for 65MM Ameros Alex...

pan-the-ist's picture

The problem with capasitors is their tendancy to release all of their stored electricy at once if there is a short.  I'll take exploding smart cars 35k Alex.

mkkby's picture

More like 40 years.  When the price of gas gets high enough I plan to grow an oil seed on an acre or so of my property and just run bio diesel circles around everyone.

CPL's picture

now...again.  Where do bikes world wide get made?  Please rethink that answer.

PenGun's picture

Certainly cheap bicycles are made in places where it's cheap to make things. China etc.


 Expensive and medium priced bicycles are made everywhere. It takes a very low tech setup.

Learn more and know less's picture

Transportation, and specifically private cars consume far too much resources to be viable in the mid-long term as a form of mass transportation.

We do not need to go back to the dark ages however, if only we could think a little bit more strategically.

Bicycles are part of the solution, as is a redesign of our urban areas, but ultimately it is Sharing that in the short term holds the most potential.

Bicycle Sharing schemes, Van Pooling, car sharing schemes, ride sharing schemes, of course equitable sharing of space, (with HOV lanes and of course plenty of bike and walking lanes), would massively reduce the resources devoted to transport.

Instead of investing all this money and brainpower into doomed technologies, we should invest in simple schemes to help people get around without a dependence on a private car.

Ridesharing for instance is such an easy, effective method to save half or even 3/4 of the energy used on a journey, and all the infrastructure needed is a website to find partners, along with HOV lanes, parking charges (either cheaper for sharers, or higher for single occupancy cars), and perhaps tax encouragements, to make sure it is used.

I believe that it is our economic system that must grow that stops us finding solutions that are more efficient, or certainly investing money in them to make them successful. If we all shared, got just as much mobility and convenience we didn't need to buy as many cars, what would happen to the economy? Much better to look at expensive impractical technical 'fixes'? In the UK the public support for the entire ride share sector is close to zero, while road building received billions, and subsidies for electric vehicle research millions.

Since I believe half of the energy used in the lifetime of a car is in the production, then we can see that anything that attempts to keep private cars are on the road is doomed.

At present in the USA there is almost one private vehicle per head of poulation, in Western Europe about 350 per thousand people, and China about 70 per thousand people. China is already the largest producer and market for cars, more new vehicles sold there last year than in the USA. It is however phyiscally impossible for China to have the same number of vehcles per capita the USA, there just is not the steel, or energy available on the planet, unless of course the developed countries give up all of their cars ... Fun times ahead!

earnulf's picture

The problem with sharing is that you have to have a certain level of trust with the person or persons with whom you are sharing.     One of the reasons that private cars are so enjoyed is that the driver can determine who rides.     People no longer give rides to "strangers" because of fear, not because of economics.      Private vehicles also allow individuals who can afford it, the freedom to go where they want, when they want, without having to make a detailed plan of attack and hope it comes together.

Here in the US, we don't live in small, tight knit communities, we are spread out with commutes of up to two hours each way.    We don't have factory towns for the most part anymore and what happens if the person you depend on for a ride happens to be sick that day?

So it falls to public transport on scheduled routes, which don't include late night or early morning hours.    Public Transport also is not there in an emergency.

We need to look at all options, even unconventional ones, to see what can work, what can be made to work and what we need to change and the timeframe for that change.   We didn't give up the horse in a year or two, the same will not happen with the car.

Learn more and know less's picture

Even in the USA most people stuck in traffic are all going from the the same suburbs to work in business districts, this is true even in the sprawl, of which places like New York and other Eastern Seaboard cities and of course Portland are fantastic exceptions.

The successful rideshare operations are for employers where people work together, and often know each other.

The car will be with us for a time yet, but sharing is perhaps the only way to solve the poor urban planning that will take time to correct. 

goldsaver's picture

Couple of questions:

Shared by whom? Am I to understand that I must buy a car and then be mandated to "share it"?

Shared with whom? Who determines who I share my car with?

If I dont have to directly buy this sharable transportation, who buys it?

With who's money? Nothing is free. The purchase price must come from someone. Or are you proposing that we are mandated to give additional taxes to the .gov to pay for this wonderful scheme?

Who decides where the vehicle goes? If I need to go to point A and my government appointed "share buddy" needs to go to point B, who decides where we are going?

Maintained and fueled by whom?

I could see a private enterprise purchasing cars and renting them for short periods of time, (hours or days) to whomever can afford them. Oh, wait, that already exists. Its called a rental car companies and taxi cabs!


Learn more and know less's picture

Bentley Cars, based in Crewe UK, has one of the most successful ride-share schemes.

The company has been extremely successful, as banksters and footballers, love the brand.

However, being a smallish town, the company has limited parking spaces, and the local government had big problems with the parking in residential areas and traffic caused by the expansion of the company.

Building on parking lots is also cheaper than moving premises, which they did, so they had a problem.

Building cars is not a high wage occupation, so the rideshare scheme focussed on the savings in fuel, taxed highly in the UK, and offered guaranteed parking spaces for staff who shared.

Those who share pay half of fuel and maintainance costs to the driver, or 1/3, 1/4, and the company provides the matching website for free. The local government charges a big parking charge for cars not parked Bentley's diminishing car park.

The company also offers a free weekend driving the top of the range car prize draw for sharers.

Now, people complain if they cannot find someone to share with, and the scheme is being extended to other companies in the region.

Does this answer your question?



goldsaver's picture

Partially. Thank you for an intelligent and verifiable response. Few questions:

I assume they are renting Bentley brand cars. No different that a rental car company.

I am also assuming that the rentals are not economical enough to replace day to day commuting and are reserved for special occasions.

I am also assuming that Bentley is not been subsidised by the UK government to do this.


Are my assumtions correct?

How is this any different than a couple of buddies and I renting a Ferrari from a rental car company and splitting the cost for aweekend event?

Full disclosure. I lived a few years in Germany and loved the train system. Of course there are many drawbacks to public transportation, Mainly been limited to departure and arrival points.

Years ago I read a website by an inventor of the California Cruiser (If I remember the name correctly). He proposed an individual transportation system based on elevated lines. Basically you got into a 4 passenger pod, paid for the travel from the start point and picked your end station. The pod would join the pod traffic and take you at high speed to your destination with no stops and remain at that station until the next paying customer needed transportation. Project never got off the ground. Sorta personal e-trains.

Urban Roman's picture

Pure fraud. Water is hydrogen that has already been burned.

The only way to "extract" it is to apply more energy than its energy of formation. In other words, a less than zero-sum proposition.

Doña K's picture

Me thinks extracting hydrogen by a simple and inexpensive chemical or bacterial reaction which will require minimum energy input, may be a game changer. Not sure if anyone is doing anything like that. 

I found this..

CalDre's picture


Yup, that's right up there on my todo list, right after I finish my perpetual motion machine and cold fusion process ....

luigi's picture

Shure, but if you use energy for free to extract hydrogen in qhich to store the energy you will use later on, the problem becomes just how long it takes for the conversion device to make available more energy contained in hydrogen, than it took to build it.

In this sense one might consider the option to dedicate fotovoltaic panels to produce electricity in order to obtain hydrogen by electrolisys. The conversion efficiency is really laughable at, (14% FV*70% at most through electrolysis+ somewhere near 30% efficiency of fuel cell or more or less the same throug an ICE-engine). However sun still comes for free therefore you might take out the first conversion factor and start by the FV panel output: in this case total efficiency would be somewhere near 20%, provided the FV panel lasts long enough to provide enough energy to compensate the one used to produce it.

Jalaluddin's picture

Has anyone mentioned fuel cells?

TheMerryPrankster's picture

Fuel cells are delicate, expensive and most run at a temperature of several hundred degrees. Not really suitable for vehicles, but they do fill a niche for apartment buildings and condos and perhaps someday homes.

They need a fuel source, so they really aren't an appropriate replacement for the gas or diesel engines. Why send fuel through a fuel cell when you can just burn it in an engine and save yourself a ton of money and engineering costs?

defender's picture

I agree that fuel cells are expensive and delicate, but the main type that they would be running in a car is a PEM fuel cell, which runs at about 80C.  The two real problem with fuel cells and cars is the on/off cycles, and the cost of the precious metals that are used for catalysts.

Random fact of the day: Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC's) can take over a day to get to working temperature.  If they are heated up faster, the components will peel off of each other, or crack from thermal expansion mismatch.  Of course, the ceramic required to make a car like this work would be half the cost of the car, and would be shattered in the first pot-hole.

Oh regional Indian's picture

Good grief. Talk about mis-guided.

The answer to electric cars is so simple, SO SIMPLE, any engineer worth his salt will kick himself in the nuts in frustration for not havign seen it.

These kinds of articles and approaches, with MIT in the midst (talk about a seriously mis-guided institutiion), make me laugh.

No one understands how we walk even. No one. And yet here we are reaching for the stars.


jeff montanye's picture

link didn't seem to have electric car info.

goldsaver's picture

ORI, lots of pretty, mystic sounding words. Not a single actual design or idea.

Let me see if I can approach engineering using your system:

-Revolutionary design based on the secrets of the Puebla Indians.

-Using the mystical forces of the earth

-Provides 3k kilometers per gallon of air

-Improved ergonomics and guidance that allows passengers to arrive at their destination instantly and in complete comfort.


There, you see, I designed a transportation system, ORI style!

Oh regional Indian's picture

Sarcyyyyyy!!!!! Of course Goldsaver, you expected drawings?

You could have e-mailed me and asked further if you were actually in a position or desired to do something radical, yes?


goldsaver's picture

Nope, but if you want to make boisterous claims you can not back them up with "trust me". That is the equivalent of coming out with a black box the size of a shoe box and claiming it is a unity energy reactor. Concepts, even spiritual ones, do not constitute proof or even a hint of proof.

Of course, if you are just trolling for suckers "for a limited time only, send me a million dollars and I'll show you whats in the box", try using spam e-mails and that begin with:

"Dear friend, my name is Prince Numumba from Nigeria and I have in my possession 10 million USD left to me by my deposed father that I need to transfer to the US...."

In other words: Put up or shut up!

Dejean Splicer's picture

This Shai Agassi is some kind of special jew conman. When SAP bought his Top-tier company for $400million most people were shocked! Afterall Top-tier's products amounted to much to do about nothing. Portal, iveiw something, nothing.

But SAP brought him in and listened to him until they came to their senses. His vision created more worthless products. Layers ontop of real technology, nothing new, nothing innovative. Flashy, slick talk, empty. A marketer, no substance.

While he was at SAP Agassi managed to con them into buying his fathers bullshiz software company.... Another waste.

STAY AWAY! from this conman.

g's picture

Yes, the conundrum is a viable battery technology, there are some promising technologies in research and development, but we are quite some time before they are commercially viable even if they pan out.


More on this if anyone is interested.

Vampyroteuthis infernalis's picture

Battery technology is never going to be viable for automobiles. It will be a form of bio-fuel or other liquid fuel that will fill your tank in your modified car. The battery R&D is nothing more than a bunch of money being funneled to labs which will produce nothing. It is the nature of corrupt R&D these days. Especially in universities.

-the disgruntled doctor.

Vampyroteuthis infernalis's picture

Way to get funding in universities, claim it is nano-bio-cognitive-homosexual-feminist and you are guaranteed money. Good results, they do not matter.

BigJim's picture

Don't forget to throw some carbon-footprint in there as well.

shortus cynicus's picture

you have forgot <serious>...</serious> tag, some readers could think it was a joke

Derpin USA's picture

The solution is vehicles which can run and charge on the electricity provided by the road they drive on. Think of the car as an electric toothbrush and the road as its base. This is called inductive charging.

If you put that technology on a vehicle like a Volt-type platform (tiny gas generator with batteries (or capacitors)), you'd be golden.

CPL's picture

How do the roads get powered?  And guess how long that project would take with the morons running the show.


It would work.  But there is no client incentive, thereby....btw you aren't the client.  The assholes in charge are.

Prometheus418's picture

Just talking out of my ass here, so don't expect too much.

Since everyone and their idiot cousin seem to think that solar panels could save the world (they can't- at least, not yet) how come no one has considered using the heat difference between blacktop and the grass in the medians/shoulders or the groundwater as a source of power?

If you've ever walked down a blacktop lane on a sunny day, you know there's a whole lot of heat energy being absorbed by the stuff.  Couple that with, for instance, the fact that groundwater tends to stay between 50 and 55 degrees, any you've got a reasonable spread.  While it wouldn't be all that useful during the winter, it could be a nice power offset during the summer.

Like I said, just blue-skying.  I doubt any given little patch of asphalt could produce much power, but there are a whole lot of roads, and sometimes little things added together can have a big effect- maybe enough to run those electric cars during the summer months.  Or even take some of the load off the grid when the air conditioners fire up.

Of course, they'd have to have enough $$$ to fix the potholes first, and a whole lot more besides.  Probably is not going to happen anytime soon.

defender's picture

Realistically, the temperature differential is too low to get a reasonable power output.  I think I saw someone get money to test something like this, but never heard the results (basically means that it didn't work).  This would basically give you enough power to run the street lights, but you don't need those very much during the day.

As to the inductive charging in the first post, the inefficiency of that method of charging would make it much worse than using a gas powered car.

pitz's picture

Even if an electric car can be built to those ideal specifications, there's still the issue of actually providing the thing with electricity.  The electric grid is only 20-30% (at best) efficient at bringing thermal energy into usable electrical energy at a residential plug-in.  Going to a combined cycle diesel motor in a car can deliver efficiency that is greater than what the electric grid can supply.  So unless there's magically going to be a massive surplus of electricity from some unknown source... (unknown because, for a while, nuclear was touted as the saviour....)



Dental Floss Tycoon's picture

It could still be nuclear.  Thorium reactors could do it without most of the downside of current nuclear technology.

Sockeye's picture

There are some intereting ideas circulating about flywheel technology as energy storage too.
"Across all of these vehicle categories, Kinergy offers the prospect of enabling effective hybridization extending into market sectors where the use of conventional electro-chemical battery systems technology would be prohibitively expensive. Further potential Kinergy applications also include low-cost, compact energy management and storage systems for use in industrial and construction equipment, elevators, railway rolling stock, and local electrical substations and power distribution systems."

CPL's picture

Scam science.  I remember this called perpetual motion engine.  Entropy kills this one.

anti Oligarchy's picture

Flywheels are great until you try to turn a corner :)