What about these electric cars? Are they really worth the hype?

Following up on my last post, which was more focused around Google and the driverless car comes this post. Tesla too, created by a very smart and ambitious Elon Musk. Not that I am harping on the accomplishments or the vision, however a lot of what comes out of Tesla in my opinion seem to be repeating the past.  We all know about “Who Killed the Electric Car”.  Has Tesla learned from that? Are they doing things differently?

In my opinion, of which has been formulated based on facts, is that Tesla is repeating some of the same mistakes as GM did in the 90s.  Electric cars carry something called range anxiety.  Replacement batteries are expensive. Charging your battery takes much longer than filling up your tank with gas. These aren’t easy problems to address, but ones that require a lot of money and effort to solve.

Range anxiety is certainly not an easy problem to solve. One of the solutions spearheaded by Chevrolet’s Volt and Fisker’s Karma by implementing a gas generator.

Source: gm-volt.com

The generator is in place to power the electric drive when the power is depleted and in some cases can also be used to recharge the batteries.  The purpose of this solution is to get rid of the range anxiety by allowing some people the freedom to enjoy their car without feeling constraint if they drive further than expected. The problem with the Chevrolet Volt is that it is quite limited in range, only 40 miles (64 kms). Most electric vehicles have a 100 mile range.  For many a range of 40 miles is sufficient for commuting.  However, what happens when you want to take a weekend trip? What about seeing a friend out of town?

The reason we don’t have range anxiety in our pollution friendly cars of today is due to the well established fuel infrastructure. Need gas? Chances are there is a station within a 5 minute drive. Putting gas in your car takes minutes, often less than 5. What about electric cars? If you are running on a standard 110/120v outlet, you know the one we use to charge our phones, it will take you at least 8 hours to charge your car. Using a special charger on a 220V/240V outlet, like we use for washers and dryers, will get you down to around 4 hours.  These charge times depend on the battery size of course. Can you image going on a road trip and having to take 4-8 hour long breaks because you ran out of juice?  Most charging stations around Ontario at least have Level 2 chargers (240V).

There are plans for Level 3 charging stations also referred to as Direct Current. These can provide enough power to charge your car to 50% in 20 minutes (Tesla). If you have experimented with batteries as I have in the past, you will realize that charging the first 50% is rather quick and easy.  That last 50% is what takes the longest and gets those batteries nice and warm.  When it comes to the fast charging stations and in Tesla’s case, only 97 stations across North America exist. They are placed along highways in the hopes of providing you with the freedom if you do want to go on a road trip. This of course is a start, as you would need to follow Tesla’s guideance and not your own routes if you want to go somewhere.  If you go off path you may not be able to make it.  Last year, Tesla also announced a new addition to their stations, a 90 second battery swap. Rather than 50% in 20 minutes, you got the full 100%.

That charging station is great. But where are they?  Tesla originally said you would be seeing them 6 months after their announcement. The announcement was in June 2013. 6 months later and nothing. According to Tesla, they are still coming, however they are still delayed.  There was a write up about this on Jalopnik which sums up why launching something like this is hard. Not to mention the fact that this looks like a terrific deal for Tesla owners, especially if their batteries are a few years old.

Over time the batteries start to fade. That 100 mile range becomes 95 miles, then 90 miles, and so on. Eventually those batteries won’t be able to get you to your destination. Batteries aren’t cheap to replace either.  When many of the first electric cars came out, you could only lease them.  This meant that you weren’t responsible for maintaining the batteries during your ownership.  This was a way to ensure that customers got the best possible experience and limited the negative feedback from customers. These days you have the option to buy the vehicle but are responsible for maintaining the batteries. However when buying the car outright you would qualify for some great tax incentives, as high (if not higher) than $7,500.  With that battery coming in at $10k, it almost makes sense as you likely won’t need to change the battery for 5 years anyway.

This week, Tesla has announced that it was making it’s trove of patents available to the world.  That is absolutely fantastic news for the entire industry. Absolutely everyone will benefit from this, especially the consumer. One company that is definitely hoping to benefit from this though is Tesla.  It makes perfect sense. You see, Tesla has been essentially playing the market, earning ZEV credits, and making just enough money to stay profitable. So what does that mean for Tesla in their attempt to grow their infrastructure? It means they don’t have much money to spend and they need all the help they can get from companies with deeper pockets and more resources. This means companies like General Electric can jump in and start creating charging stations. It means car companies can start making cars following the Tesla standard for them to work with these stations.   Tesla has a lot to gain from giving away their patents.  This was a very smart move by Elon.  I’m not surprised that I see so many praising Tesla and Elon for this move. I on the other hand am not in any way impressed, because they are releasing these patents with motive. Motive that it will grow their brand and help them in the end to make more sales.

The electric car has a lot of hurdles to overcome. It needs serious infrastructure. It needs for the range on the batteries to improve.  Innovative solutions like the Chevrolet Volt need to exist as a way to overcome range anxiety. Battery costs need to come down. Battery technology has to improve.  We’ve come a long way since the 90s with “Who Killed the Electric Car” but even today we see many of the same problems. Thankfully we aren’t seeing electric cars pulling generators as they did with the GM EV1s back then. A few years ago, companies were trying to determine what would be the next advanced propulsion system to replace gas. Today it seems like electric may be the solution, though I still believe there is room for something to come out and surprise us. I look forward to a day where electric cars are a viable alternative to the gas car and can be reasonably priced.