Friday 7 January 2022, Amsterdam
Tracking and analyzing batteries could reduce Bolt-type recalls
The Chevy Bolt recall was a huge and expensive setback for GM — and arguably the broader EV market.
The sheer number of vehicles — about 141,000 — highlighted the fact that neither battery cell supplier LG Chem nor GM could pinpoint exactly which batteries had defects. The companies only knew that problems within LG Chem’s battery cell manufacturing operations could increase the risk of fire in some, not all, cars.
One company, Voltaiq, is working to make sure that these types of “just replace all the batteries in all the cars” recalls don’t become commonplace.
The startup’s so-called Enterprise Battery Intelligence (EBI) platform doesn’t add more sensors to the battery, instead, it uses data already available from the pack and presents it to automakers, tech companies, and battery manufacturers in a way that’s easy to understand and that can help them assess the health of the system.
It goes beyond what’s already out there on the road today and works down the supply chain with cell suppliers. Founded in 2012, Voltaiq helps make sense of all that data and presents it in a way that helps when things are about to go sideways. It can also signal to a company when something isn’t up to snuff at any point in time from the mines and R&D to testing and installation in a device.
Voltaiq’s tech has already won over some automakers. The system is used by Mercedes-Benz, two of the Detroit Big Three automakers (although they would not share the names of those companies), and tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.
“It all comes down to the fact that the battery is fundamentally different than any other component in our modern devices. Everything else is mechanical or semiconductor in nature,” co-founder and CEO Tal Sholklapper told TechCrunch. Sholklapper noted that batteries are almost like a living, breathing being, with complex, nuanced, and unpredictable behavior over their entire life cycle. Understanding how these sometimes volatile components tick requires sorting through a lot of data, and that’s where Voltaiq comes in.
Voltaiq says that the analytics software it provides reduces hundreds of hours of sorting through information and surfacing just the data that’s required by a company and its researchers. The system can also help do spot checks of batteries being delivered by suppliers. In some cases, its customers have noted that these checks have found formulation changes in battery chemistry that a cell supplier had implemented but not informed Voltaiq’s client.
One case Voltaiq shared was that before they were brought on by one automaker, the OEM had an issue that caused a massive delay. About a month before a vehicle was set to launch, the battery they were supplied failed qualification. In other words, it wasn’t going to work. By the time the company was able to secure a new battery supplier, it was 18 months after the initial launch date. The startup could have detected that issue before it was delivered and could have helped the supplier or alerted the OEM of the problem.
Voltaiq wouldn’t comment on the woes that GM and LG Chem are experiencing. The Voltaiq platform’s ability to spot issues before its installed in a vehicle, perform regular health checks, and be able to identify which batch of batteries have the potential to experience a problem, could reduce the types of recalls GM is going through right now.
There are other companies out there doing what Voltaiq does. However, Voltaiq’s co-founders contend that competition mostly comes from its potential customers.
“Because this is engineering data, there’s still this desire for the OEMs to own it and do it in-house. So we see this, like, build versus buy behavior,” co-founder and CTO Eli Leland said.
Two customers that initially tried that approach were Microsoft and Google. Both figured they could tackle it themselves. Now they’re Volatiq customers.
Most companies don’t see themselves as battery companies. And yet, batteries are central to the devices they’re selling — and customers are buying. From voice-assistant powered speakers and the latest EVs to the energy storage facilities on the electric grid in places like Hawaii and Australia, the chemistry that keeps the lights on, the wheels rolling and the tunes pumping could do with some better understanding.
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