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Has Volkswagen just cracked the solid-state battery conundrum?

A new solid-state test battery has just passed a remarkable reliability test

We are all, in a manner of speaking, the Mr Bean meme. In a popular gif that regularly circulates as a form of visual punctuation, Rowan Atkinson’s famed comedy character stands by the side of a lonely road, checking his watch, and … waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Which is what we’re all doing when it comes to solid-state batteries. As the world stumbles and staggers towards — hopefully — an emissions-free future, solid-state batteries are a crucial enabling technology. In theory, they can hold much more power for a given size and weight than current lithium-ion batteries. They also charge much more quickly, and are far more robust and safe.

Again, all in theory. There are issues, though and solid-state batteries risk becoming one of those technologies which, like fusion, are constantly 20 years or so away from being economically viable. One of the key components of a solid-state battery is the anode (the ‘negative’ connector, through which electric current enters the battery). Most batteries use a graphite anode, but a solid-state battery works much better if you replace the graphite with lithium. The problem? Repeated charge and discharge cycles cause the lithium to decompose, forming little growths called dendrites.

These dendrites grow through the battery’s structure like ivy on an old brick house, and wreak just as much havoc, effectively strangling the battery’s performance.


Until, just possibly, now. While the likes of Toyota and Nissan have been making a good deal of noise in recent months about their solid state battery designs, it seems that Volkswagen — through the efforts of a US-based startup into which the German car giant has poured more than €300-million in research funding — may have stolen a lead.

Volkswagen’s battery-focused in-house subsidiary, Power Co, has been working with California-based QuantumScape to develop solid-state batteries. As with so many others working on the same tech, the problem has not been designing and making a battery that works — that’s the easy part. The problem has been creating a battery that can work, repeatedly, for years of service.

QuantumScape’s design gets around that problem, in part, by doing away with the lithium anode altogether. That battery design has just been put through a grueling test by Volkswagen and Power Co — one thousand charge cycles; that’s a full recharge and discharge, enough to take a car with a 500km electric range for 500,000km. And the battery survived. In fact, it not only survived, it still had 95 per cent of its original charge capacity left. For context, most electric car lithium-ion batteries are only warrantied to retain around 80 per cent capacity after 160,000km.

Jagdeep Singh, founder and cheif executive of QuantumScape, said: “These results from the Volkswagen Group’s PowerCo testing make clear that QuantumScape’s anodeless solid-state lithium-metal cells are capable of exceptional performance. While we have more work to do to bring this technology to market, we are not aware of any other automotive-format lithium- metal battery that has shown such high discharge energy retention over a comparable cycle count under similar conditions. We’re excited to be working closely with the Volkswagen Group and PowerCo to industrialise this technology and bring it to market as quickly as possible.”

The VW people seem cock-a-hoop with the breakthrough too. Power Co’s head, Frank Blome, said: “These are very encouraging results that impressively underpin the potential of the solid-state cell. The final result of this development could be a battery cell that enables long ranges, can be charged super-quickly and practically does not age. We are convinced of the solid-state cell and are continuing to work at full speed with our partner QuantumScape towards series production.”

However, it’s important to sound a note of realistic caution. These batteries — impressive though they are — are not yet ready for production, and there’s potentially a long and expensive road yet to get them ready for you or I to buy.

Robert Guy, director of aftersales for VW Ireland, and a man who helps to train technicians to maintain and repair existing batteries, said: “While this is an exciting breakthrough for automotive innovation, there is still a way to go until solid-state battery technology can be scaled up to the levels required for series production. Globally, Volkswagen Group and its battery company PowerCo are pushing forward in battery cell research and development while, here in Ireland, we are number one for EV sales three years running. Emerging technologies will be key to helping us achieve our long term sustainability goals. However, we are also fully committed to a low emissions vehicle strategy that encompasses efficient internal combustion engined vehicles, plug-in hybrid technologies and battery electric vehicles.”

VW is also not yet quite giving up on combustion and hybrid-engined vehicles. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week, and in something of a surprise move, VW showed off a camouflaged model of the new Golf hatchback.

The Golf ‘8.5′ was being shown at CES because it will also be one of the first VWs to get the company’s new AI digital voice assistant, dubbed Ida. According to VW, Ida uses software incorporating ChatGPT which allows it to understand colloquial speech, rather than pre-programmed commands.

VW says that it can: “be used to control the infotainment, navigation, and air conditioning, or to answer general knowledge questions. In the future, AI will provide additional information in response to questions that go beyond this as part of its continuously expanding capabilities. This can be helpful on many levels during a car journey: Enriching conversations, clearing up questions, interacting in intuitive language, receiving vehicle-specific information, and much more – purely hands-free.”

“Volkswagen has always democratised technology and made it accessible to the many. This is simply ingrained in our DNA. As a result, we are now the first volume manufacturer to make this innovative technology a standard feature in vehicles from the compact segment upwards.

Thanks to the seamless integration of ChatGPT and strong collaboration with our partner, Cerence, we are offering our drivers added value and direct access to the AI-based research tool. This also underlines the innovative strength of our new products,” said Kai Grünitz, VW’s head of technical development.

As for the rest of the Golf, VW will carry-over the existing engine lineup, albeit tweaked for improved fuel economy and lower emissions. It’s expected that the plug-in hybrid models will get a boost in electric range, possibly to as much as 100km, in line with incoming new cars such as the Tiguan and the (left-hand drive only) Passat.

For all the high tech ChatGPT being incorporated into the new Golf, it also represents VW taking a step back from too much tech — the cabin now features a new touchscreen with simpler software, backlighting for the ‘slider’ heating controls, and proper physical buttons on the steering wheel which replace the ‘haptic’ buttons of the current model. VW’s Irish-domiciled boss, Thomas Schafer, has said that the company has heard the criticisms of its recent cabin designs and layouts, and is responding by by improving quality and, in future models, bringing back more physical buttons and switches.

The Golf being shown at CES is also clearly badged as a GTI, and with 2024 being the model’s 50th birthday (feel old yet?) it looks as if a special GTI version is being planned to celebrate that anniversary.

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Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring