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Leonid Bershidsky

Electric Car Makers Have an Africa Problem

Automakers find it hard to lock in the price of cobalt for batteries.
Ethically challenged.

Ethically challenged.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Volkswagen's recent failure to lock in the price of cobalt for five years points to a serious problem with the optimistic projections of an electric vehicle revolution. These projections are based on gradually declining battery prices, but the scarcity of certain minerals and their concentration in politically unstable countries may interfere with that dynamic. 

The high price of batteries necessary for a solid EV range is the biggest reason EVs now need government subsidies to sell in noticeable quantities. In a recent paper, Vrije Universiteit Brussel's MOBI Research Group projected, however, that the price will fall to $100 per kilowatt-hour from the current $432 sometime between 2020 and 2025. If that happens, electric mobility without much "range anxiety" (the worry your battery will run out en route) will be within the reach of most people who can buy a gasoline-powered car today. But the recent growth in the prices of the minerals required to make lots of batteries for cars -- lithium, cobalt, manganese, graphite -- shows such rapid progress will be hard to achieve.