VW, Stellantis, Renault enter new battlefields in EV race

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The battery cell “is tomorrow’s combustion chamber,” Porsche CEO Oliver Blume declared at parent Volkswagen Group’s Power Day.

The VW event, which came not long after Tesla’s Battery Day in September 2020, marked the first of a series of announcements from European automakers that laid out their plans to replace internal combustion engines with battery- driven propulsion.

They included VW’s Power Day in March, Renault’s eWays ElectroPop event in June, and Stellantis’ EV Day and Daimler’s EV strategy announcement, both in July.

The automakers used the events to expand on how they were going to meet the 468 gigawatt-hours of battery cell capacity IHS Markit estimates will be needed in Europe to meet the European Union’s proposed 55 percent CO2 reduction target by 2030.

The promise of new battery plants, mostly with cell partners, was the concrete result of €2.9 billion ($3.5 billion) of investments from EU countries promised under the European Battery Innovation Project, which aims to create 18,000 new jobs and help replace those lost in the shift away from internal combustion engines.

The online events went beyond investment announcements. Europe’s automakers also laid out a series of PowerPoint slides, with varying degrees of detail, outlining how they would offer different battery chemistries and unify battery-pack design to balance customer demands for increased range and lower cost.

At the same time, executives such as Porsche’s Blume introduced the idea that, far from being just a commodity, battery cells are as much a differentiator for automakers as the combustion engine ever was.

The events signified a profound shift in recent thinking among automakers.

“Even two years ago they were saying, ‘We are carmakers, not chemical players’, but the game has changed,” said Jakob Fleischmann, associate partner at consultancy McKinsey & Co. “The future uptake of EVs requires battery manufacturing to gigafactory scale.”

The relationship with cell suppliers is changing. Rather than inking supply deals with Tier 1s such as LG Chem or Samsung, automakers are entering into partnerships.

Renault, for example, announced it would buy 20 percent of French startup Verkor to co-develop and build “a high-performance battery” for higher-end vehicles.

VW, meanwhile, has partnered with Chinese battery maker Gotion, in which the German company has a stake, to build cells at VW’s plant in Salzgitter, Germany, to complement its existing partnership with Northvolt there.

“Cell production is further away from automakers’ traditional strategies, but that is where the value sits, so they want to get involved,” Fleischmann said.

The desire to control more of the value chain has prompted a look at investments not normally associated with vehicle production, such as raw materials.

VW spoke about “a second wave of industrialization” to help reduce costs.

“Vertical integration is the key to this,” VW Group Chief Procurement Officer Jörg Teichmann said in March. “A third of the cost of the battery is manufacturing, engineering and integration into the vehicle. Two-thirds are the components, the raw materials and raw materials processing.”

Thomas Schmall, VW head of components, didn’t rule out following Tesla and investing in the mining of raw materials for batteries.

“We are looking at the entire process chain from the mine to recycling. We have to get actively involved in the raw materials business,” he told German business daily Handelsblatt in June.

Questions around cost, supply and ethical sourcing of raw materials needed for the cathode in most lithium ion batteries have prompted European automakers to invest in different chemistries.

The metals typically used in the cathode in today’s batteries — nickel, manganese and cobalt (or NMC) — are expensive. To tackle this, VW has announced it will use three different chemistries, all of which reduce or remove the pricey cobalt.

During its Power Day presentations, VW said its three new cathode chemistries will be:

1. Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) for the “cost-sensible entry segment”

2. High manganese for “the main volume segment”

3. High nickel “for premium and high-performance solutions.

Meanwhile, Stellantis announced two new cobalt-free cell chemistries:

1. Iron manganese for entry-level vehicles

2. Nickel manganese for more energy-dense applications.

Lithium iron phosphate, which is popular in China, is considered a key to unlocking less-expensive EV motoring in Europe.

“In the past, European automakers were very dismissive of LFP, seeing it as a poor-quality solution for EVs,” said James Frith, head of energy storage for BloombergNEF. “But they are now coming to realize that if you want an EV to cost less than £20,000 [$27,800], you have to offer a low-cost chemistry that sacrifices some range.”

Stellantis has promised its iron- manganese pack will come in 2024.

China’s lead in industrializing lithium iron phosphate will mean that European automakers are more likely to turn to Chinese automakers for raw materials and partnerships, Frith said.

Gotion, for example, is expected to make lithium iron phosphate cells for VW in Salzgitter, while Stellantis most likely will leverage its new agreement with Svolt, a spinoff of Great Wall Motors, to supply LFP-style cells from a planned factory in Saarlouis, Germany, with production slated to begin in 2023.

Daimler will also “vary chemistries depending on customer needs in different markets” Chief Technology Officer Sajjad Khan said at the company’s July EV strategy presentation, without going into further detail.

One European automaker sticking with its nickel, manganese and cobalt chemistry is Renault. It said during its June presentation that the chemistry “will cover 100 percent of the future [battery-electric vehicle] launches across all segments,” citing 20 percent longer range “compared to other chemistry solutions” and “a much better recycling performance.”

One drawback of lithium iron phosphate is that its low valuable- metal content makes it less appealing to recyclers, meaning automakers might have to shoulder that cost.

Cutting cost from the battery pack is central to European automakers’ drive to push down battery prices.

VW, for example, says it will standardize its cell starting in 2023 to a prismatic design for what it calls the “unified cell.” This cell will be designed to contain the different chemistries VW plans and will cover 80 percent of VW’s batteries by 2030, Schmall said in March.

Stellantis is also working on a unified design, in which its cobalt-free, longer-range, high-nickel formulas would use the same cell production process, separator, electrolyte and metal foils, electrified powertrain engineering boss Jean Personnaz said in July.

Stellantis is developing a so-called “cell-to-pack” design that does away with modules common to today’s battery packs with the aim of reducing pack costs by 40 percent by 2024.

That’s when the company will debut its cell-to-pack low-cost battery chemistry, while higher-range nickel-rich batteries will drop modules by 2026.

Renault also wants to use cell-to-pack solutions, which it believes will cut pack cost by 60 percent by 2030 and help it attain a battery cost of $80 per kilowatt-hour by the same date, down from $170 per kWh in 2019.

Daimler also plans “highly standardized batteries” with only chemistry and cell height differences between packs, Daimler research boss Markus Schafer said in July.

The step beyond cell-to-pack is called cell-to-car, which VW has promised. It integrates the pack into the structure of the vehicle.

Tesla has also said it will do this, starting with the Model Y built near Berlin. “The battery for the first time will have dual use … as an energy device and as structure,” CEO Elon Musk at the company’s battery day event last September.

“Solid state will be the game changer” VW’s Schmall said in July. “It cuts charging time in half and improves range by 30 percent.”

VW is planning a pilot line to make solid-state batteries in Germany with its partner, QuantumScape, as it tries to industrialize a technology that all European automakers see as their ultimate goal for e-mobility.

The battery uses a solid electrolyte that improves on the performance provided by lithium ion batteries across almost every parameter. The technology remains experimental, but Europe’s big players have announced definite timelines.

Early versions will be luxury applications, but BloombergNEF expects the cost to be closer to that of lithium ion batteries by 2030.

Once that level of energy density is possible, Daimler “would have the opportunity to rethink the design of the battery system” Khan said.

Automakers are looking at far more than just the battery as they seek to reduce the cost of the electric drivetrain and stand apart from rivals.

Daimler will “insource e-drive technology that will allow us to build truly differentiated products with unmatched performance,” Schafer said.

For example, it recently bought Yasa, a U.K. maker of high-performance radial permanent magnet motors that also supplies the technology to Ferrari for its SF90 plug-in hybrid supercar.

Stellantis is developing three electric drive modules that include the electric motor, transmission and inverter to use across EVs on its four planned architectures, with 800-volt capability on the top-spec variants.

Renault plans to make 500,000 e-motors a year at its powertrain factory in Cleon, France, by 2024 as it tries to convert from combustion engines toward e-mobility.

About 70 percent of e-motors will be made in-house by 2030, IHS Markit predicts, compared with 33 percent now.

“We do expect integration of e-motors/e-axles will be increasingly in automakers’ hands as economies of scale kick in,” said Matteo Fini, IHS’ head of supply chain, technology and aftermarket. “Insourcing makes more sense with higher volumes per part.”

This increased vertical integration for EVs, however, is unlikely to result in like-for-like job replacement, Fini warned.

“Major EV components lend themselves to comparatively more automation and less labor intensity than combustion engines,” he said.

McKinsey believes the flurry of announcements for battery industrialization in 2021 means the supply will be in place to match the 54 percent EV sales scenario for Europe in 2030, required under the EU’s “Fit for 55” greenhouse gas emissions-reductions proposals. Now, McKinsey’s Fleischmann warns, automakers and their partners face “an extreme execution challenge” to deliver on their cell production promises.

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