Oddly Specific SMS Spam/Phishing Attempt

So this isn’t good – got a spam SMS at one in the morning. It’s a bad sign when the SMS is specific enough that it uses your name, your wife’s name and its sent to your phone number only. The action to take was a link hidden behind bit.ly URL shortening. It said “there is a new request from {wife’s name} 5 mins ago trying to connect right now” from a number 706-752-xxxx.

I’m trying to think who would have all those pieces of information (my name, my phone number, wife’s full name) and how they could be compromised. Was it a company like Amazon or some other online retailer? Could it be my employer or health care provider? Financial?

In some ways its kind of scary to think how many people have access to this information. I know better than to click on these kind of links, but it is incredibly annoying to sit and wait for the other shoe to drop (the company involved announcing they’ve been hacked) and then work on remediating whatever needs to be addressed. In the meantime, maybe I need to change my passwords again for my email and online shopping websites.

Leaving AT&T – for either Verizon or T-Mobile

So I’ve decided that after 17 years, I’ve had it with AT&T and their now slower-than-Sprint LTE speeds in Las Vegas. So when the iPhone 6s comes out this fall, I’m jumping ship. So who should I switch to? Verizon is the gold standard for cellular networks, but it also has the golden price tag. But, with T-Mobile’s fastest data speeds and John Legere’s promises that they’ll have coverage nearly equal to Verizon by the end of 2015, they’ve become a contender. Like all things, it comes down to money. AT&T has decided that they’re going to increase their dividend by 4c/year per share, while cutting CapEx (how much they spend on capital expenditures, from new towers and equipment to spectrum acquisitions).

On top of the price for service and a single line for T-Mobile (or adding a second line to my fiancee’s Verizon plan), there is also the cost of upgrading to a new phone every year. Previously with AT&T, I was able to use other family member’s upgrades. But that wont be happening in either case.

Figuring out which plan is cheapest for me is way more difficult than it should be. I’ve got at least four scenarios: with Verizon, either traditional subsidy with paying to upgrade the phone every 12 months (paying for a device in full every other year), their Edge program which now requires 75% of the device to be paid off before I can trade it in for a new one; T-Mobile Jump/installment plan or purchasing the device outright. Purchasing the device outright on Verizon is a horrible deal – they still charge you the full $40/mo (which includes a roughly $15-25/mo subsidy that you aren’t using) even though you bought your phone.

T-Mobile

Going with T-Mobile’s Jump plan, its $27.08/mo for the device and $10 for the mandatory Jump insurance ($175 deductible). Already we’re up to $37.08/mo. You also have to pay $99 upfront for the 64GB device, as well as the sales tax on the full amount ($60), so we’re up to $160 in up-front costs and $37.08 per month. With the $60mo data plan, the total annual cost is $1,324.96. With the Jump plan I get to trade my phone in for a new one (plus $160) every 12 months.

Buying the device outright, the base price of the 64GB iPhone is $750 plus tax, about $810 in my area. I upgrade my phone every year, so that’s 12 months of usage and depreciation. If I can sell my year-old phone for about $400 ((right now, Gazelle is low-balling me at $345, so I figure 10 more months of use plus factoring in their low-ball price is around $350-400)), that leaves me on the hook for at least $410. To make things more equal between the Jump plan and this option, lets add in AppleCare+ on the purchased iPhone, $99 to cover the phone against accidental damage ($79 deductible). With the $60mo data plan, the total annual cost comes to $1,229, or $95.96 less than the Jump plan, plus a much lower deductible in case something were to go wrong.

Verizon

Verizon’s subsidy plan means paying $323 up front for the 64GB device every other year (on subsidy) and $810 ($750 + tax) up front every other year (not upgrade eligible), but being able to sell the phone every year for around $400. Purchasing AppleCare+ would be an extra $99 per year. This works out to an average of $166.50 per year for the hardware. The monthly line access would be $40, and the marginal cost over my fiancee’s data plan is $30, so the total cost runs about $1,105.50 per year (higher in some years, lower in others).

Verizon’s Edge plan is a worse deal. While you don’t pay anything up front other than tax ($60), the monthly device payment is $38.40 (phone payment and insurance) and the monthly line access is $15/mo (on 10GB+ plans) and the marginal cost over my fiancee’s data plan is $30. The total cost so far is $1,060.80. But in order to upgrade, you have to trade in the phone and 75% of the device cost has to be paid to Verizon. After 12 months I’ll only have 50% paid off, so I have to cough up another $187.50 to trade in my phone and get the new one, bringing the total annual cost to $1,248.30, $142.80 more than the subsidized plan.

Summary

The benefits of going with Verizon here are obvious – being on a multi-line plan is cheaper than two individual line plans. The Edge program is a bad deal, but not by staggering margins. My fiancee might stay on the Edge program since her Android phones only make it about 18 months before becoming very slow and annoying, which fits the current Edge rules very well. As long as she can manage to not damage her phone too badly.

The biggest variable is the resale value of the iPhone after 12 months. If its only worth $300, then the Jump/Edge plans start to look much more attractive because the carrier is taking the resale hit, not the consumer. I think its OK as long as I stick with Apple devices since they seem to have higher resale values than Android devices.

Barring any substantial improvement from AT&T (not likely since they are cutting Capex), I’ll likely be leaving for Verizon when the iPhone 6s comes out. I’ll have to pay AT&T an ETF but I’m OK with that.

Brief thought…

In light of me turning 30 this week…

And while conventional wisdom may offer the dubious claim that your teenage years and early 20s are the “best of your life,” woe be onto to them who confuse one chapter of their life for the whole of it, for they will be doomed to repeat it in a series of cycles whose returns are ever-diminishing, and thus hold themselves back from telling any other story.

In the end, adulthood isn’t a single decision you make, but a long series of decisions you make every day for the rest of your life. And the best reason to grow up isn’t because it is expected or required, but because it means moving forwards. Because while it may also involve incredibly tedious things like mortgages and car payments, growing up is a natural function of seeking a life that is more dynamic than static, of choosing ambition and hope over avoidance and fear, of wanting to know who you’re going to be and not just who you were, even if that takes you away from the things you used to love.

Jumped ship to Google Apps 3 mo. ago, haven’t looked back…

For the longest time (as in, since around 2001) I’ve been hosting my own mail server and web server. I tried to make it a number of things – blog host, email server, place to access documents, data, etc. The only thing it still does today is host this blog.

I’ve embraced the cloud.

Three months ago I switched off my mailserver and moved it to Google Apps hosted service. I only use 4-5 email accounts, and the service is free to those with less than 25 accounts (50 if you’re a non-profit agency). I also moved the email system for this blog, as well as the email system for a non-profit group I volunteer for over to Google Apps as well.

Things have been just about perfect.

Not only do I get all the email hosting services, I get the Gmail web interface, I get syncing to my phone via Microsoft Exchange protocol (better than IMAP or POP3), HTTPS and all the robustness of Google’s incredibly high uptime.

Beyond just email, I also get Calendaring (also through MS Exchange protocol), Google Docs, and soon I’ll be able to roll up all the other Google services I use (Google Reader, etc) into the same account so I don’t have to try and have 3-4 different Google accounts logged in at once – yes you can do it but its prone to errors.

The app with the biggest impact so far is Docs. From any computer anywhere in the world (almost) I can access my library of documents over HTTPS (so my IT department cant see what I write) and just create a word processing document and write down all my ideas, or create a spreadsheet to do some calculations for something for me to refer to later. All the functionality I need is there to write simple documents (nee screeds) and spreadsheets – page/cell formatting, printing to PDF, etc.

Looking back, I have a hard time thinking about how I did this before. If I had an idea while I was at work, I’d have to write it down on my iPhone’s notes app, and then hope I remembered later to open the notes app back and and look at it. Now I can just create a document, write it down, and then when I get home and open up my web browser, the document is there, staring me in the face.

And the best part is that its free. Thanks Google!

Will you ever want to buy an electric car?

Note this is not an attack on electric cars – I think cars like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are the future. We cant live on oil forever, especially not with China and India adding two billion people to the working class over the next 75 years.

But my question is more a question about innovation. If Li-Ion batteries improve 8-10% per year, do you want to invest anywhere between $8,000 and $15,000 for a battery in the first few years of this decade? Even after prices level out, will a 40% increase in range (or a similar decrease in cost) be enough to keep you from buying the battery outright? What about the residual value of the battery after 8-10 years of (ab)use in a vehicle.

The first premise is that batteries improve 8% per year. This appears to be close to constant (until major step-changes like changing chemistry from NiMH to Li-Ion), and has been noted by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors.

The next premise is that if batteries are constantly being improved, and will continue to improve until at least 2030 (around the time we hit the theoretical limits for Li-Ion), that constant innovation will push prices on older batteries down, in the same way when Intel produces their fastest chip and put it in the top of their price list, everything else gets knocked down a pricing level. Beyond that, as production ramps up, per unit costs will come down. This is a double whammy on battery prices – as such A123 representatives have speculated on end-of-2012 pricing of $400/kWh from about $750 in mid 2010 (a kWh will propel a Prius-like car approximately 4 miles, and a large Ford Explorer-like vehicle about 2.75 miles.

The argument to buy says its bad to lease anything because you don’t end up owning anything. At the end of the five year financing, you own the car and battery. But over time and with each recharge, batteries lose capacity, and that could be exacerbated depending on the climate you’re in, how you treated it (faster recharge = more degradation), if it is liquid or air cooled, etc. The return-on-investment calculations vary depending on your driving patterns, so you need to make sure that an electric car is right for you. If you lose your job or change jobs and your driving patterns change significantly, you might find yourself not having a positive return-on-investment compared to buying a traditional gasoline or regular hybrid car (you might end up not driving enough or driving too much per day).

The leasing argument is much more interesting (and complicated). The reason to lease is that the battery has a fairly fixed lifespan – 1,500 cycles or whatever the cell manufacturer promises. However, even after the batteries might no longer be suitable for driving (this would adversely affect the resale value of the car), they can still be used in applications like power grid storage and stabilization. This residual value of that battery could be 50-75% the price of a new battery. Returning the car after the lease and letting the dealer replace the battery, send it back to be remanufactured into something useful, and then installing a new (lighter, more powerful) battery and updating the car’s system for that battery is an easier course for the consumer instead of having to do that and pay for it before trying to sell it, or take a hit on trade-in value.

Leasing can also bring down the per-month costs – instead of paying for the entire car, and then getting a substantial bump in the trade-in value for the battery, the user (for the most part) only pays for the depreciation of the car during its use. As seen in both the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, the price for the lease (estimated $350/mo) is much less than what you would expect on cars costing between $27,000-33,000 after tax incentives.

Another non-conventional argument for leasing is the increasing rate of technology invading vehicles. From in-car entertainment, in-car communication (think: replying to text messages verbally), to safety features. While I don’t have a problem buying a new $300 iPhone every year, I certainly will not buy a new car with such frequency because its in-car entertainment is better than the car I currently have (software upgrades aren’t likely to help much in terms of adding new features – my 2009 Ford Escape hasn’t had any new features added to its in-car computer systems since I bought it). By 2015, most cars should have anti-collision systems to stop the car before it rear-ends the car in front of it (its already on some high-end cars today). By 2025 cars will be able to drive themselves down the highway and navigate to the exit, and even around some roads. It wont be fully autonomous but it will take care of 90% of your driving.

One of the ideas being tossed around is a hybrid – buying the car (shell, interior, electric motors, transmission, etc) and leasing the battery, often in conjunction with battery quick-swapping systems instead of dealing with lengthly recharge times – while battery technology might increase 8% a year, there is no way to increase recharging times for a given level of safety and source electrical systems: recharging a battery after 3-4 hours or 250 miles of all-electric highway driving will take 11 hours at 240V/30A (the most you’ll be able to get at home), and 5.5 hours at 240V/70A (the most you’ll be able to get in a commercial environment – e.g. an office building or parking lot). Even a 480V DC 50kW fast-charge circuit will still take 90 minutes. The only way to rapidly recharge the batteries is to have parallel 50kW fast charging systems hooked to one car, however fast-charging batteries can advance their degradation rate.

Its an interesting decision – there are clear pros to each choice, whether to buy, lease, or just buy the shell only and lease the battery. I would recommend that folks lease a first generation electric vehicle if they want to drive one, simply because of how much knowledge car companies and battery makers are going to learn the first few years about automotive batteries, and you don’t want to be stuck with an outmoded design or fatal flaw. By 2015 the prices of batteries will come down enough making the purchase of a second or third generation electric car reasonable if you carefully compare it to your driving habits compared to the vehicle’s EV characteristics.

Quick Thoughts on the new MacBook Air

Got the new 13″ MacBook Air today (which is impressive considering that I ordered it less than 24 hours ago and overnight shipping only cost $16). Loaded out with a 2.13GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM (not upgradable so I’m stuck with 4GB for the next 4-5 years of use), and a 256GB SSD.

Its an engineering marvel. The first MacBook Air was a revolution in that they finally had the idea to minimize the circuit board inside that houses the CPU, memory, etc. and then try and fit it in such a thin design. Though the UFO/Flying Saucer design was novel, it wasn’t until after Apple had more experience assembling things in tiny form factors (see iPad and iPhone 4circuit boards and how small they are compared to the rest of the interval volume being occupied by batteries).

Now that Apple had figured out how to cram everything you needed for a real laptop on a tiny circuit board, it was time to revise the housing and design of the MacBook Air. This was the result. And it was good.

The more (but not completely) square design allows for ports on both sides of the unit. Eliminating the door that was needed by the flying saucer bottom of the laptop. This adds a second USB port, display port out, and SD card reader on the 13″ version. I don’t have a need for the SD card slot, but I’m sure if I was more artsy or hip I’d have a 13MP DSLR and take moody photos and need to unload my SD card somewhat frequently into iPhoto.

When Apple says its the future of laptops they’re right. Intel’s next CPU has a graphics processor on the same piece of silicon. It wont be long before the large areas needed for two separate packages now can be combined into one package. With the advent of the Mac App Store, people will need less CDs and DVDs so optical drives start to disappear. Side note: I wouldn’t be surprised to find large vendors with lots of units (e.g. Microsoft, Adobe) looking to cut special deals with Apple ($99 copies of Microsoft Office Home Edition with Apple taking less than 30%, probably 20%), with the clear goal of going 100% digital, with the side effect of reducing piracy.

People don’t need anything much faster than a 2GHz Core 2 Duo for using the internet, especially if the video they are watching is decoded using the GPU (and less power than a CPU), which it is on the MacBook Air and other Mac laptops with the Nvidia 9400M and 320M chips. Sure if you’re running AutoCAD for the Mac, Photoshop, or Maya you’ll need more horsepower. But then I don’t think this is the laptop you want – you’ll fit better with the 15″ Macbook Pro.

Despite being a niche player in terms of market share, Apple never acts like a niche player. They target their hardware to the broadest possible audience in the segment they’re trying to address. Its why we don’t see Apple quad-core laptops, its why we don’t see more exotic high end video cards (I’m just glad we get decent video cards now – I still have my old Macbook with the GMA950 video, bleck!), its why there aren’t dual SSDs in RAID, etc.

The big push here seems to be the cloud. The problem is that Apple doesn’t have a lot of cloud services to offer – just MobileMe which isn’t that good – I feel like I get better service with my free Google Apps account – email, calendar, docs, etc, and I pay only $20/yr for my domain name for it.

There are only two downsides to this laptop.

First is an artifical restriction by Apple – to get the fastest CPU in the 11″ or 13″ class you have to pick the largest SSD. This isn’t much of a price increase on the 11″ model (64 to 128GB) but on the 13″ model, the jump to a 256GB SSD is a $300 price premium. My original desired model was the 13″ 2.13Ghz with a 128GB SSD. However Apple doesn’t make any in that configuration. So I had to fork over the $300 (ouch) to get that faster CPU. I’m tempted to find someone who has an 11″ model who wants to send me the $300 and their 128GB SSD and I’ll swap them the 256GB.

Higher resolution 13″ display. This might be a pro for most people (and I will list it below under the positive points), with my and my constantly deteriorating eye sight, I have to blow the font size on web pages up pretty high to read the screen on my old Macbook, and with the higher resolution screen I have to hit Command + one extra time.

While there were a number of upsides…

Stereo speakers. And I think Apple applied what they learned with the iPad to make the speakers on this sound decent. I think they’re doing a Bose-like setup (speaker -> small “acoustical chamber” -> output).

Higher resolution screen. As I mentioned above, its a negative for me but a positive for just about everyone else.

Solid state drive. During the keynote Steve said it was 2x as fast, but in reality its much faster than that for the types of disk operations your average application is going to be having compared to a 1.8″ or 2.5″ HDD.

Weight. The laptop is very light. You could carry one around in a backpack all day and not notice it.

Summary:

For the sufficiently techie looking for an ultraportable (11″) or small (13″) laptop, isn’t averse to paying for a Mac and going without an optical drive (or leeching from a Mac or Windows PC with one), and isn’t looking for a laptop to do heavy lifting, the MacBook Air is the new standard.

I can see the future in the MBA line – in two years when Intel is at 22nm and can put a much faster dual core CPU (in terms of performance, it wont be much faster in terms of GHz) and a built-in sufficiently fast GPU and SATA 6Gb/s with an even faster SSD, we’ll wonder why people hung on to those heavy, chunky laptops for so long. With another 15% of battery life (Li-Ion batteries improve about 8% per year) we’ll see another hour or so of battery life too.

Apple and the Verizon iPhone – 2011 Edition

So in the past week, the Apple rumorsphere has blown up again on more rumors about the CDMA iPhone. We’re all a bit tired of it and just want the phone to be out already.

The lead time on manufacturing chips is fairly large. It takes 12-16 weeks to fabricate a chip from silicon wafer to end product packaged and ready to be soldered onto a PCB. So 3-4 months. If you wanted them mid-December, you’d need to start production mid-September. If Apple wants a million chips, Qualcomm would need to get going now.

The biggest question now is not when is it released, but when is it announced. This is a calculated decision – more than even the decision to make a CDMA iPhone (which more or less falls into the DUH category given how Android is doing on Verizon and Apple doesn’t want to cede a perfectly viable piece of the market).

So how do they decide when to announce a Verizon iPhone?

1. Speculative Momentum. Every time a rumor comes out, it generates headlines. Announcing its going to be out for sure kills this cycle. You’ve only got so much to announce after you’ve made the initial announcement – things like the prices of data plans, any other terms and conditions, visual voicemail support, etc.

2. The Holiday Season. You probably want to announce it before December 1 for a corresponding January/February launch. People generally only get to update their phones every 2 years. If you announce 2-3 months prior to the release date, people will hold off long enough to get a suitable demand at launch. If you assume people get a new phone every 2 years, and Verizon has over 90M customers, that’s 3.75M customers every month that get a new phone. Let Christmas pass without an announcement, you’re likely to have some people frustrated that they just got a new phone and have to wait so long to get a Verizon iPhone. The counter-argument is that Apple is likely to be supply constrained for a while (first 3 months) and they’ll still sell every unit they make, so pumping up demand isn’t necessary.

3. FCC Certification. This used to be an issue, but isn’t as much anymore. Apple seems to have few problems these days with submitting devices to the FCC and requesting confidentiality. The only minor slip-up was the internals of the iPad ending up on a website the day before the launch in April, which isn’t that big of a deal since they would have been discovered the next day anyways. Assuming a device takes 2 months (maybe more around the holidays) then it would be submitted in late November for a late January launch.

4. An actual, factual deal – handshake and signatures. This is somewhat obvious, but they’ll need to actually come to terms and agree on things like phone price, feature set (from a phone/network perspective) and other things like what Verizon expects Apple to filter out of the App Store (network issues).

There is a lot of talk about unveiling it at CES since the CEO of Verizon has the keynote. I think that’s incredibly stupid speculation. It would be very un-Apple like for them to let a partner announce the phone. Even if Steve showed up, Apple would want to hold its own event. And January is probably too late – after the holidays and many purchasers are stuck for another year or two on other phones.

I’m inclined to pick a mid-November announcement. I think a September announcement with the refreshed iPods is possible, especially in light of Apple’s September 30th self-imposed deadline of figuring out what to do with the iPhone antenna issue. Apple could announce the iPhone 4-and-a-half in September for a January release with a physical fix, but who knows.

Bonus: If Verizon wanted to get a leg up on AT&T they’d do the WiFi hotspot thing.

iOS 4.0 Quick Review

Hey now, hey now, the bugs are back (#)

I’ve been using iOS 4,0 for two weeks now, and I realize I forgot how much I dislike iPhone OS iOS x.0 releases. I’m especially disappointed that a bug from the 2.0 version of the OS is back.

Issues with Mail Part I

First issue is that iOS (since 3.0) doesn’t play well with POP3 accounts. iOS does not close its POP3 connection to the server, leaving it open and letting the server timeout the connection after a minimum of 10 minutes (per the RFC that governs POP3 mail servers). How do I know this? I run my own mail server and look at the logs myself – iOS on the iPhone or iPad does not close its POP3 connection when you close the Mail app on the phone. It just leaves it open and lets it timeout. On the other device (or the desktop) the system will report an error about being unable to log into the POP3 account.

This is an issue when you have multiple devices checking a POP3 account every 15 minutes – an iPad, an iPhone, a desktop PC and a laptop – and half of them don’t play nice with each other. For the uninitiated, you can only have one client open a POP3 mailbox at once – so until that 10 minute timeout passes you cant log in with a different email client.

Issues with Mail Part II – Electric Boogaloo

The “I’m not checking mail automatically” bug from iOS 2.0 has returned with a vengeance. It only took about 12 hours after the initial install of iOS 4.0 before I noticed that my iPad was getting new emails but the iPhone wasn’t. I played around with the phone and realized, yup, the same problem that I had with iOS 2.0 has returned and there isn’t much I can do about it other that spend a weekend switching from POP3 to IMAP (not what I was looking forward to) and hope that it solves my issues (it should since IMAP allows multiple simultaneous connections).

For reference, if anyone at Apple ever reads this and cares enough to fix it – I have 4 POP3 accounts and an Exchange (Google) account on both an iPad an iPhone set to 15 minute intervals. Switching to IMAP fixed the POP3 issues.

Still no useful AVRCP support

AVRCP is a remote control protocol over Bluetooth. The iPhone supports a very limited set of commands – play/pause/stop. However other devices, specifically my Ford Sync system in my car, support more advanced AVRCP implementations that support next/previous, searching, etc.

Whats that noise in my pocket?

Twice in three days, when I’ve disconnected my iPhone from the USB port in my car (Ford Sync system), the iPhone continues to play music out of its speaker instead of stopping (which is what it used to do, and what it should do). If I don’t notice it immediately I’ll put the phone in my pocket and then hear this background noise…

Battery Life

When the iPhone was checking mail regularly, it ate through battery life quicker than with OS 3.0. Nothing streaming or going on in the background, just treating my phone like I did before. I turned on the battery percentage indicator to get a better feel for it, but around that same time the mail app stopped checking mail automatically.

Multitasking

Not much multitasking to speak of – the apps that support it haven’t been released to the App Store yet. There is a neat animation to illustrate when you’re switching between apps so you know the app is still running in the background.

Nissan announces $25,280 LEAF EV price after rebate. Wow…

Yeah, that “Wow!” probably isn’t very journalistic (but then again this is a blog). But the price is about $7,000 cheaper than the comparable price of the LEAF in Japan.

Nissan this week announced that their LEAF EV will be priced at $32,780 in the US before a $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicles. The 220V charging dock (required if you’re traveling more than ~50 miles per day due to recharge times from 110V/8A circuits) is an additional $2,200 (also eligible for a 50% tax credit). The total price (vehicle + 220V charger) after all tax credits is $26,380, and possibly as low as $21,380 is California, Georgia and Oregon due to $5,000 state income tax credits.

Nissan Japan has set a retail price of approximately $40,700 including VAT. After government incentives cost around $33,000.

The most interesting prospect is a $349/mo lease, plus $2,000 down. Further terms and conditions of the lease haven’t been specified (mileage, etc), but considering that electricity is pennies compared to gasoline, even for a 30MPG vehicle, people could get used to paying $30/mo more on their electric bill every month in exchange for no more gas stations. Though it makes me wonder what Nissan would do with all those lease turn-ins in 2014 with a comparatively out-of-date battery and larger EVs.

Mitsubishi responded by cutting the price of their iMiEV electric car by $7,000 in Japan in response to the lower price of the LEAF.

The low price will put pressure on other auto makers to push the price of their electric car downwards. Suddenly, an all electric sedan doesn’t look too appetizing if it is priced over $30,000 (after credit). Specifically, the price that GM will set for the Chevy Volt will likely be pushed down slightly from what they might have been expecting to sell it at. Even though the Volt is essentially an unlimited range electric vehicle due to the gas take and electric generator, GM’s difficulty will be conveying how the Volt works and explaining its benefits over EVs to the general public. An old political axiom applies – if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

It does look like a world of hurt for niche EV makers, Tesla might survive due to its luxury status, but more… exotic cars like the Aptera are likely to see harder times ahead due to price ceilings. The real question is battery supplies. How do the cost of batteries change when mass-manufacturing hits, and the demand for automotive batteries starts to greatly outstrip supply. Do we see prices go up, or can sufficient quantities be made with the existing supply chain?

The Nissan LEAF EV is expected to start selling in limited markets at the end of 2010, and nationwide sometime in 2011.

Automotive battery prices falling faster than expected

New reports (PDF) indicate (via GM-Volt) that the cost of lithium-ion batteries for automotive applications (like the Tesla Roadster, Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf) are coming down faster than was previously expected. At a recent conference, A123 stated that they were negotiating contracts for automotive Li-Ion batteries for 2012 delivery at under $400/kWh, a reduction of almost 40% over 2009 prices ($650/kWh) in only 3 years. If the trend holds, a report published in-part by the National Academy of Sciences would be way off since it estimates the $400/kWh price point wont be hit until 2020, 8 years later.

Elon Musk (Tesla CEO) postulated a “weak Moore’s law” for Li-Ion batteries, that the price/performance ratio will increase by 8% per year, or 9 years to double. The price/performance ratio is the ratio between the price per kWh of the battery pack and the amount of energy the battery can store. If current batteries can store 140Wh/kg and cost $500/kWh, an 8% improvement means either the storage goes up to 150Wh/kg, the price goes down to $460/kWh, or somewhere in between (145Wh/kg and $480/kWh). A Tesla battery pack would go from $35,000 (53kWh at $650/kWh in 2009) to $24,000 ($400/kWh in 2014), a reduction of about 10% of the entire price of the car over approximately 5 years. Combined with other cost saving methods, the next stage of the Tesla evaluation – the Model S – starts to look feasible. Its still not going to be the most affordable car, however significant progress is being made.

The cost per battery pack can be broken into two parts – the batteries themselves and the pack. The pack costs can be trimmed considerably with mass-manufacturing. Instead of hand assembling each battery pack and set of battery modules (a series of cells), semi-automated assembly can increase the throughput of the teams assembling dramatically while keeping the same number of people around, reducing the amount of employee-hours spent per battery pack.

The cell costs don’t come down as easily. This is the decidedly slower part of the electrification of vehicles. Following the 8% rule, automotive battery packs due in 2009 cost approximately $650/kWh. In 2014 this cost is about $430, and by 2017, the cost is $330/kWh, and by 2020 $260/kWh. Following the more agressive price decreases noted above, prices in 2017 would be $235/kWh, and by 2020 $172/kWh.

So by 2020, a Volt-style battery would cost $4,200, or about the cost of a new engine (a rebuilt one can be had for less). This assumes that other battery performance parameters do not improve – rather the Volt still requires a 16kWh battery and only uses 8.8kWh of the battery pack. If the current estimates of what battery specifications will be by 2020 (2,500W/kg, 250Wh/kg, 2,000 cycles and 4,000 recharges at 70%DoD) the Volt would be able to have its pack size reduced to 12.5kWh (50kg, 110kW), thus reducing costs further to $3,250 for the battery pack, and the total price premium of the E-REV system would be approximately $5,500. Factoring that cost over 5 years is $1,100 per year in savings needed over gasoline, which is achievable when factoring in savings in electricity costs over gasoline (approximately 9c or 11c/mile savings depending on cost of electricity), reduced maintenance costs ($150/yr for oil changes, etc) and reduced variability of fuel costs – my electric company needs a regulatory body’s approval to change the price of energy, the local gas station chain can add 10 or 15c to the price of gas over a holiday weekend because they feel like sticking it to us.

By 2030, barring any new technology that would leapfrog Li-Ion on price and performance, battery prices would reach $110/kWh, and total costs would be equivalent to a Prius premium today.

Over the long term, E-REVs are workable from a consumer finance standpoint. Initially, subsidies, longer warranties and extended payback periods will be needed to entice the consumer to buy in to the electrification of vehicles. If we can manage to stick with it for the next 5-7 years, it will take off and the nation can start to wave good-bye to oil and petroleum for their in-city commutes, and we’ll all breathe easier with less smog.