Why Tesla’s lead acid 12V battery needs to be lithium-ion based

It’s a prominent issue surrounding the electric vehicle market that the old-school lead acid battery just isn’t appropriate for new technology vehicles. Many users of electric vehicles, especially Tesla owners, have cited concerns with the poor performance of their 12V or low-voltage battery, oftentimes requiring annual replacement.

In contrast, a lead acid battery in a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle generally has a 4 year life-cycle, but why?

RELATED: Tesla Model S 12V Lithium-Ion battery replacement (up to 70% lighter, 4x life)

First off, some of the most important factors to consider in longevity of a battery are “cycle-life”, environmental conditions, discharge/charge rates and calendar-life; cycle-life is how many times the battery can be drained and recharged in its life. Environmental conditions include temperature and humidity. Discharge/charge rates are the amperages going out of and into the battery respectively.

There are two major differences between the way an ICE vehicle uses its 12V battery and the way an EV uses its 12V battery:

“OFF” state discharge and cycling frequency

ICE Vehicle: generally has a very low 12V load while the vehicle is in the “off” state, often this load doesn’t exceed a few watts and doesn’t present a major challenge for the 12V battery to maintain.

Electric Vehicle: The 12V load while in the off-state is often much higher due to advanced computer systems that are running to maintain the high-voltage battery, keep vehicle “connected” (all EV have some remote access features), maintain charging and BMS (Battery Management System) communications, etc. In fact a Tesla Model S/X puts about 50 Watts of load on the 12V system when the vehicle is in the “off” state. 50 Watts equals about 4.5 Amps of discharge on the 12V battery, this drains the battery down relatively rapidly and requires the 12V battery be “recharged” by the high-voltage battery regularly, this usage pattern results in many cycles being placed on the battery.

“ON” state utilization and purpose

ICE Vehicle: The 12V battery is used to initiate the ICE (start the car) and is designed for putting out large amounts of current to accommodate this process.  Once an ICE vehicle is in the “on” state, it relies on an alternator to power all of the 12V sub-systems and also maintain the voltage of the 12V battery.

Electric Vehicle: The 12V is subjected to (practically) no additional load while the vehicle is being turned “on”, and although most vehicles are designed with DC/DC converters (which act as alternators) it is often an engineering design choice to reduce load on the DC/DC converter by minimizing the frequency with which it is utilized. This also extends the driving range of the vehicle because none of the precious high-voltage battery capacity is being shunted to non-driving tasks. Due to this usage profile the 12V battery is subjected to relatively low discharge and recharge currents.

When you combine the high number of cycles and the low current requirements of the electric vehicle 12V battery system you arrive at a completely different battery need than that of an ICE vehicle.  Lead Acid batteries are very good at high discharge and low cycle count life-styles, this is their bread and butter and this is where they last a long time and provide the most bang for the buck (cheap cost and decent product life-cycle), but they aren’t lasting in electric vehicles.

The electric vehicle 12V battery system is one that is best suited by a battery capable of tremendous cycle-life as the main design goal. The battery chemistry that suits this usage scenario best?  Lithium! Lithium battery technology is specifically very good at being cycled many times and continuing to provide minimal capacity loss and degradation. This, along with reduced weight, is why these batteries are used for the high-voltage battery packs, cell-phones, laptops, medical equipment and cars where batteries are being cycled frequently and longevity is important.

Editor’s note: This post was submitted into our network by Tesla Model S owner Sean Scherer. Having suffered an unfortunate incident in his Model S that left him stranded because of a faulty 12V battery, Sherer began on a mission to create a lithium-ion based 12V battery solution that was not only more reliable than the traditional lead acid battery, but better suited for the demands of a Tesla Model S, Model X, and electric vehicles in general. He began BattMobile Batteries, who have made it their mission to improve adoption of electric vehicles by solving some of the small details that has been missed by EV manufacturers.

We’ve also included a video tutorial on how to replace the Model S 12V battery.

Why Tesla’s lead acid 12V battery needs to be lithium-ion based
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