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Perils of the long range electric car

You’ve probably seen the battle going on between Elon Musk of Tesla and the New York Times over the strongly negative review the NYT made of a long road trip in a Model S. The reviewer ran out of charge and had a very rough trip with lots of range anxiety. The data logs published by Tesla show he made a number of mistakes, didn’t follow some instructions on speed and heat and could have pulled off the road trip if he had done it right.

Both sides are right, though. Tesla has made it possible to do the road trip in the Model S, but they haven’t made it easy. It’s possible to screw it up, and instructions to go slow and keep the heater low are not ones people want to take. 40 minute supercharges are still pretty long, they are not good for the battery and it’s hard to believe that they scale since they take so long. While Better Place’s battery swap provides a tolerable 5 minute swap, it also presents scaling issues — you don’t want to show up at a station that does 5 minute swaps and be 6th in line.

The Tesla Model S is an amazing car, hugely fun to drive and zippy, cool on the inside and high tech. Driving around a large metro area can be done without range anxiety, which is great. I would love to have one — I just love $85K more. But a long road trip, particularly on a cold day? There are better choices. (And in the Robocar world when you can get cars delivered, you will get the right car for your trip delivered.)

Electric cars have a number of worthwhile advantages, and as battery technologies improve they will come into their own. But let’s consider the economics of a long range electric. The Tesla Model S comes in 3 levels, and there is a $20,000 difference between the 40khw 160 mile version and the 85kwh 300 mile version. It’s a $35K difference if you want the performance package.

The unspoken secret of electric cars is that while you can get the electricity for the model S for just 3 cents/mile at national grid average prices (compared to 12 cents/mile for gasoline in a 30mpg car and 7 cents/mile in a 50mpg hybrid) this is not the full story. You also pay, as you can see, a lot for the battery. There are conflicting reports on how long a battery pack will last you (and that in turn varies on how you use and abuse it.) If we take the battery lifetime at 150,000 miles — which is more than most give it — you can see that the extra 45kwh add-on in the Tesla for $20K is costing about 13 cents/mile. The whole battery pack in the 85kwh Telsa, at $42K estimated, is costing a whopping 28 cents/mile for depreciation.

Here’s a yikes. At a 5% interest rate, you’re paying $2,100 a year in interest on the $42,000 Tesla S 85kwh battery pack. If you go the national average 12,000 miles/year that’s 17.5 cents/mile just for interest on the battery. Not counting vehicle or battery life. Add interest, depreciation and electricity and it’s just under 40 cents/mile — similar to a 10mpg Hummer H2. (I bet most Tesla Model S owners do more than that average 12K miles/year, which improves this.)

In other words, the cost of the battery dwarfs the cost of the electricity, and sadly it also dwarfs the cost of gasoline in most cars. With an electric car, you are effectively paying most of your fuel costs up front. You may also be adding home charging station costs. This helps us learn how much cheaper we must make the battery.

It’s a bit easier in the Nissan LEAF, whose 24kwh battery pack is estimated to cost about $15,000. Here if it lasts 150K miles we have 10 cents/mile plus the electricity, for a total cost of 13 cents/mile which competes with gasoline cars, though adding interest it’s 19 cents/mile — which does not compete. As a plus, the electric car is simpler and should need less maintenance. (Of course with as much as $10,000 in tax credits, that battery pack can be a reasonable purchase, at taxpayer expense.) A typical gasoline car spends about 5 cents/mile on non-tire maintenance.

This math changes a lot with the actual battery life, and many people are estimating that battery lives will be worse than 150K miles and others are estimating more. The larger your battery pack and the less often you fully use it, the longer it lasts. The average car doesn’t last a lot more than 150k miles, at least outside of California.

The problem with range anxiety becomes more clear. The 85kwh Tesla lets you do your daily driving around your city with no range anxiety. That’s great. But to get that you buy a huge battery pack. But you only use that extra range rarely, though you spend a lot to get it. Most trips can actually be handled by the 70 mile range Leaf, though with some anxiety. You only need all that extra battery for those occasional longer trips. You spend a lot of extra money just to use the range from time to time.  read more »