Tesla’s new battery tech promises a road to a cheap self-driving electric car

New battery manufacturing tech could lead to big jumps in electric vehicle efficiency if everything works out.
Tesla battery day
The tabless battery design is striking to look at. Tesla

Elon Musk makes a lot of promises—some of which actually come to fruition. This week, Musk took the stage at the most recent Tesla shareholder meeting to talk about the company and drop some information about its upcoming battery innovations.

Musk dubbed the event “Battery Day” and, in typical Tesla fashion, he delved fairly deeply into the company’s plans for the next couple years.

Much more efficient electric vehicle batteries

At an event called Battery Day, you’d expect some nitty gritty engineering details about anodes and diodes—and Musk didn’t disappoint. Tesla’s plan is to completely change the way it constructs the battery cells that power its cars. The new design is “tabless,” which means the rolled-up foils inside each cell won’t need a metal tab running its length in order to enable charging and discharging.

Tesla battery day
A typical battery involves a tab that slows down production. Tesla

Instead, Tesla’s new batteries use laser-patterned foils that are simpler to make (once the initial engineering is done) and reduces the distance the electrons have to travel, which increases efficiency. According to Musk, the new 4680 cells (those numbers, by the way, refer to battery’s dimensions) are slightly bigger than the current models, but offer five times the energy with six times the power, which translates into a 16-percent increase in range from that change alone.

Removing the tab also reportedly cuts down production time drastically as the machines don’t have to start and stop to accommodate the extra strips of material. The whole product can move through the factory at “top speed,” as Musk put it.

A $25,000 electric car

Because the event was aimed at investors, Musk spent a considerable amount of time talking about how much money the company’s new battery tech will save compared to current operations. Ultimately, Musk believes the cost reductions will allow Tesla to realize the goal of creating a fully electric car like the Model 3 that will retail for less than $25,000. He wasn’t ready to announce any details beyond the projected price and the fact that it will be “fully self-driving” when it arrives in a few years.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard the promise of a $25,000 Tesla. Musk made the same claim back in 2018, saying that it was achievable within three years. Obviously, that timetable has shifted some, but it seems likely that he had these battery improvements in mind when he made that first promise.

Structural batteries for better-handling cars

As part of its quest for increased electric car range, Tesla plans to change up the way it builds its cars. Rather than treating the battery like cargo that needs carrying, the battery pack will now be a structural part of the vehicle itself. In order to make this happen, Musk says Tesla developed its own aluminum alloys which can be cast without excess heat treatments. That allows the factory to build the front and rear portions of the car in solid pieces that link together with the battery structure.

Musk claims this change makes the car stiffer and more responsive when you’re driving. Also, by concentrating the batteries near the center of the car, it reduces the chances of a battery puncture in the event of a side impact.

Smaller, more efficient factories

Tesla battery day
The future factories will be much more powerful while shrinking in size. Tesla

According to Musk, typical factories are inefficient in their usage of space—only a small fraction of their overall volume is dedicated to the machines and materials that actually do the work. Tesla is planning several procedural upgrades that would reduce the overall factory footprints, while increasing production.

One such improvement comes in the form of the battery dry-coating process, which involves converting sand into conductive film. Tesla claims to have a handle on this tricky procedure, but hasn’t gotten it to scale just yet. Once technologies like that have matured, however, it will result in more powerful factories that are considerably smaller than those that already exist.

Take it all with a grain of silica

While Tesla has considerably ramped up its production lately—and enjoyed considerable financial success and market growth—Musk still has a history of lofty promises with underwhelming results. He still envisions a world where internal combustion engines only exist as novelties. It sounds far off, but California just announced that it will ban the sale of new internal-combustion-powered vehicles starting in 2035. We’ll see how far into that time frame we get before the $25,000 Tesla truly materializes.