Audi’s problems with the e-tron SUV continue as the German premium brand was forced to temporarily halt production of the battery-electric utility vehicle to deal with battery supply issues — problems that may only be the beginning of problems for automakers.
The company, which produces the SUVs in its plant in Brussels, Belgium, told Bloomberg News that it will resume production on Tuesday. Audi sources the batteries from LG Chem. The problem stems, in part, from Audi’s e-tron Sportback becoming part of the production line.
Issues plagued the ute’s introduction, pushing its introduction back by six months; however, it pushed through and sold more than 26,000 of the electric utes, including more than 5,000 in the U.S. in 2019.
Ensuring a steady supply of batteries is something that EV makers cite as a growing concern as more and more of the battery-electric vehicles come to market. In Audi’s case, the shutdown is expected to last only a matter of days, but it heightens concerns within an industry investing hundreds of billions of dollars to electrify through just the middle of this decade.
Not only are manufacturers worried about finding enough production capacity for the batteries they need but there could be shortages in the offing for many of the necessary raw materials, such as cobalt, lithium and even copper.
“At the start of the millennium, only a small percentage of cobalt and lithium went into batteries, but by 2015 46% of cobalt and 32% of lithium went into Li-ion production. Graphite, nickel manganese, copper and aluminum have not been affected in the same way,” noted the website Battery University. “With the advent of the electric vehicle, the demand (for these and other essential materials) could skyrocket.”
That could be a bad omen for the automaker and its parent, the Volkswagen Group planning to have at least 50 pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, in global showrooms by 2025. That covers a broad range of brands, from mainstream VW to highline marques like Porsche and Audi. The latter has already confirmed plans to follow the e-tron with the Sportback at GT models, with more to come.
Battery shortages have become a concern across the industry though, for the moment, with EV sales still constituting a modest 1% of overall new vehicle demand worldwide, it has everyone in the industry worried.
Jaguar was warning it could also delay production of the I-Pace all-electric SUV due to a battery shortage.
“Currently EV uptake is arguably being constrained more by lack of manufacturing capacity than anything else,” Paul Anderson, co-director of the Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials, told Britain’s The Times earlier this month.
Manufacturers are racing to expand capacity to support their aggressive electrification plans. General Motors recently announced plans to build a battery plant near Lordstown, Ohio in partnership with Korea’s LG Chem. Tesla is adding battery capacity not only in China but as part of its planned assembly plant in Berlin. Volkswagen expects to open a new factory in the German town of Salzgitter this year that will have the capacity to produce 16 gigawatts of cells annually. That would provide enough batteries for about 168,000 of the 95 kilowatt-hour packs currently used by the Audi e-tron.
All told, there currently are plans in place to have more than 91 large-scale battery plants in operation within the next several years, with even more expected to follow.
Such plans, of course, rely on getting all the raw materials needed for those batteries. And that’s where there is growing concern, especially considering that automakers expect battery-cars – whether hybrid or pure electric – to dominate cells by the end of this decade.
Take lithium, the central material in today’s state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries. “For the year 2026, worldwide demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to be 14 to 24 times higher than in 2016,” said Bertram Brossardt, CEO of the Bavarian Industry Association, in a study released last October.
“It’s been predicted that as demand for electric vehicles surges, there could be constraints around the key strategic elements and critical materials needed for EV battery manufacture in the future,” Gavin Harper, research fellow at the Faraday Institution, a battery research group, told the British version of Wired magazine.
For the moment, there seems to be enough lithium to go around thanks to the opening of a raft of new mines in Australia, but with the planned expansion of battery demand that could change in the next several years, experts warn.
Of even greater concern is the sourcing of cobalt, another element critical for today’s batteries. Complicating matters: about 59% of the world’s supply of that metal comes from one market: the Democratic Republic of Congo. That creates a host of issue including concerns about use of child labor for mining. Meanwhile, an MIT study warned that demand over the coming decade could grow to 430,000 metric tons, or 1.6 times current mining output.
Some metals could be sourced through recycling but, for the moment, the technical challenges have limited the number of batteries that are being recycled.
The world’s largest EV market, China, may hold the key to alleviating some of the concerns. Tesla is likely to switch its nickel-cobalt-aluminum batteries currently used in the Model 3 to lithium-iron-phosphate cells for its China-made battery-electric sedans. Audi-parent Volkswagen is also considering a similar switch.
The cobalt used in the current batteries is expensive and the supply chain is fraught with issues.
Limiting the amount of cobalt in lithium-ion batteries has become a major area of research. China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co Ltd, or CATL, has developed a prismatic lithium iron phosphate battery that eliminates the metal and it is negotiating a deal to supply Tesla’s new plant in Shanghai. The batteries, abbreviated as LFP, also are expected to cost less than the ones the automaker currently uses.
Even familiar copper is creating concerns. There’s about four times more of that metal in a BEV than in a conventional vehicle, according to industry data. But a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates global demand will reach 31 million tons by 2035, up 43% from today. Considering current production is only 20 million tons, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, that’s another potential problem in the making.
The push to electrify is one of the costliest projects the global industry has ever undertaken. Demand is still modest but experts are becoming increasingly upbeat about the prospects for a sales surge over the coming decade. If they’re right, however, it could create a set of new problems for the auto industry in coming up with enough batteries – and without driving up prices.
Moving to the LFP batteries will save money and ease concerns about supply. However, the power-packs come with a downside: a slight reduction in range. They are lighter too, which helps to mitigate some of that problem.
The move to the other batteries provides other advantages aside from the 20% price differential. The LFP batteries can be charged and discharged at higher power levels making them more durable. They also charge faster. They also handle heat better, allowing for more creative packaging within a vehicle.
They are currently used in buses and other large commercial vehicles for just that reason. Tesla and VW haven’t elaborated on now that could potentially change the design of their vehicles. In the meantime, Volkswagen has committed to using the batteries in China in the long term.
However, it has also discussed using them in their new standard-range ID.3 electric vehicle in Europe and the U.S. while continuing to the the nickel-cobalt alternatives for longer-range models. Musk said last month during the company’s earnings call that increasing battery production capacity is the automaker’s top priority in 2020 as it will prevent it from building its Cybertruck and Semi truck in large numbers.
Additionally, the move to LFP batteries in China helps Musk meet another one of its goals: cutting the price on the Model 3 to attract more buyers. “We’re trying to make the cars as affordable as possible as fast as possible while remaining (profitable),” he said during the same call.
Michael Strong contributed to this report.