<strong>WATCH: We had a blast when we took <br />a Tesla Roadster for a test drive.</strong>
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Electric car maker Tesla is embroiled in a bitter public fight with The New York Times over whether the paper unfairly criticised one of Tesla’s cars.
The battle has become a he-said, she-said affair, with both sides accusing the other of dirty tricks.
Regardless of who’s right, the whole experience reveals why today’s all-electric cars are, for all intents and purposes, dead on arrival:
Because they’re not that useful for one of the key uses that most would-be car-owners would want to use them for — the ability to comfortably, conveniently, and reliably transport oneself from city to city without living in fear that the battery will die and leave car and driver stranded.
New York Times John Broder’s account of trying to drive from Washington to New York and then to Connecticut reveals how even a routine trip can be transformed into a stressful, uncomfortable, time-consuming hassle while driving an all-electric car. Despite having direct, real-time help from Tesla, Broder’s car forced him to start worrying and conserving energy (turning down the heat, travelling slowly, “conditioning the battery,” etc.) long before he reached his destination. And, in the end, he didn’t reach it, because the car ran out of power and shut down.
This problem (and fear), importantly, is unique to all-electric cars.
Gas-powered cars do occasionally run out of gas, but gas is readily available and doesn’t require hours of recharging time to pump it into the car.
“Hybrid” cars, meanwhile, which run on batteries sometimes, and gas-powered engines at other times, have a similarly infinite range — but they still benefit from the “greenness” and efficiency that is the primary selling point of electric cars. They’re just not as novel, or cool. (Or expensive).
“Hybrid,” propulsion, in fact, is clearly the winner in the current generation of efficient cars: Once one understands the convenience of having a gas engine available to charge a car’s battery and extend its range, it seems preposterous to handicap the car by limiting its power to only a battery.
Regardless of whom you believe in the Tesla-NYT spat, you cannot help but observe this flaw:
Almost all the way from Washington DC to New York to Connecticut — a relatively short-haul trip for those accustomed to the simplicity, reliability, and convenience of modern cars — Broder was worried about running out of power. When his situation became critical, the Tesla began barking at him, ordering him to stop to recharge the battery immediately.
No normal driver accustomed to the freedom of driving a gas-powered or hybrid car would never voluntarily subject themselves to that.
They would either buy an all-electric car only for tooling around their neighborhoods or cities — or, with uber-rich drivers, for impressing their friends with a gorgeous, unusual, and sexy rich person’s toy.
And the latter is what today’s Teslas are.
They’re amazing machines. Awesome to look at, cool to show off, and awesome to drive.
But no normal driver looking for a means of reliable, flexible, and convenient transportation would buy one as their primary vehicle, especially with gas still being so relatively cheap.
And that means that, for their owners, Teslas and other all-electric cars will be second or third (or fourth or fifth or sixth) cars.
Hopefully, in the future, battery technology and electric-car-infrastructure will advance to the point where all-electric cars have essentially infinite ranges, charging stations will be everywhere, and the cars can be charged immediately and conveniently, with a quick stop for “gas.”
Or, maybe, electric car companies like Tesla will introduce super-cheap, super-convenient models that are designed to be used primarily for getting around town (and are priced for that convenience).
Either of those things would significantly improve the value proposition of today’s all-electric cars–and, thereby, make them more useful. And at that point the decision would come down to the price-value tradeoff. (A tradeoff that is very important for people who can’t afford to just buy an all-electric car as a toys.)
Until those things happen, though — all-electric cars will remain what they are today:
Curiosities and toys.
None of which is to say that Tesla isn’t an amazing success story (it is), or that, for those who can afford a $100,000+ third or fourth car, Teslas aren’t awesome. They are.
UPDATE: Some readers have interpreted this post as my saying that “Tesla sucks” or “Tesla is toast.” I’m not saying either of those things. I do think Tesla owes the New York Times an apology for calling its review “fake,” but Tesla’s an amazing company, and, for those who can afford to buy their cars as accessories, their cars are awesome. This market–folks who can afford cool curiosities–is big enough to support Tesla, at least until people get bored of the idea of battery-powered cars. My point is broader: Battery technology, charging infrastructure, and the cost of gas have not yet reached the point where an all-electric car is an attractive option for normal drivers. For most people, the benefits don’t justify the price. Hopefully, someday, they will.
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