As consumers are more and more shocked by rising gas prices, it’s safe to say that interest in electric and hybrid cars is peaking. I myself am looking into getting a hybrid because my fuel costs are hitting astronomical levels.
AFTER CONSUMER reports declared in May that the Tesla Model S might have been the “best car ever,” many observers were awed. Tesla Motors’ stock surged 57 percent and financial services corporation Morgan Stanley notably wrote a note to clients saying, “What Tesla has accomplished isn’t luck, it’s real.”
Indeed, it isn’t luck. The company has managed to build an electric car that not only goes head to head with the Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, and Porsches of the world, but beats them in an objective test. And that takes some great engineering.
But when all the woo-hooing is finished, a bigger challenge still lies ahead for Tesla and other electric automakers. That’s because Tesla’s formidable accomplishment occurred at an elevated price level, which neatly suits the benefits of a big, expensive electric car battery.
“They didn’t fight the price point,” Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, said. “They simply said, ‘Let’s make the best car.’”
A $90,000 car with an 85-kWh battery makes more sense for luxury buyers than it does for the larger swath of mainstream consumers. “Clearly, you need another car if you want to take a long trip,” Fisher told us. “Or you need to rent a car, which is an inconvenience.”
For most consumers, car buying is more a matter of pragmatism. They need cars to get them to work or to the grocery store. Less frequently, they need a vehicle to drive the kids to college or take the family on vacation. Most potential buyers don’t want to rent a car when they need to take a 100-mile round-trip.
Amidst the euphoria over the Model S’ wonderful reviews, there’s a thread of thinking that says Tesla’s accomplishments will trickle down. In other words, the 200-mile range of the Model S will soon be available in a $50,000 car, then in a $30,000 car, then in a $20,000 car. That’s the way it worked for such features as electronic stability control and navigation.
But as we’ve said many times, the successes of electronics don’t apply to battery chemistry. There is no Moore’s Law for chemical storage.
That’s not to say we won’t get there. To date it has never happened as fast as the optimists predicted. You can look back at any newspaper, any magazine, over the last 20 years and find scads of articles that predicted some new battery chemistry would be ready to power electric cars in five years. Too often, however, the well-meaning claims dissolved into a tale of technical and economic woe after those five years passed.
But to appeal to the mainstream of the automotive market, EV makers will need better batteries. They’ll have to find batteries that balance energy and cost in just the right way. The question is whether the twitching investors who are now anxiously jumping aboard the Tesla bandwagon will have the patience to see the plan come to fruition.
In that sense, not much has changed. The truth is, it’s still about the battery.
Murray, Charles J. “It’s still about the battery: to bring electric cars to the mainstream, EV makers will need a better, cheaper battery.” Design News July 2013: 20.