Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tesla’s Government Fueled Innovation Is What Electric Cars Need

I want to talk about the Tesla Model S today.  First, I think it is a great car and the amount of controversy it is creating is only a testament to how good it really is.  Is it heavily subsidized?  Yes, it is, but it needs to be.  It is a good investment for our government to be making because it is the best path for the government to achieve it’s goal of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.  But the Model S brings up another very good question: why is it that a Silicon Valley start-up company can build such a good electric vehicle when highly funded automotive corporations seem to be still spinning their wheels, pardon the pun, with hybrids and plug-ins that can barely travel forty miles on batteries alone.

I won’t go into too much detail about the technical specifications of the Tesla Model S but they are quite astounding.  I will focus on the highest end of the spectrum since the vehicle is available with three different batteries and two motor choices.  The top model of Tesla Model S comes with an 85 kw/h battery that can provide a range of 265 miles before recharging but also is available with a 443 horsepower motor.  So unlike the “eco” offerings of other manufacturers, the Tesla offers performance on top of using no fuel.  It is quick to say the least, returning a 4.0 second run to 60 and a 12.4 second run in the quarter mile.  For a massive, nearly 5,000 pound sedan, these numbers are nothing short of astounding.  Of course, getting those astounding numbers costs cash, $105,000 in cash, but the Tesla offers luxury and performance that buyers purchasing that much car would expect.  If that is too much, the Model S can be had for as little as $58,000 but with a penalty in range and performance.

So it offers great numbers on paper, but it’s expensive.  But how expensive is it really?  If we look at the closest mass market competitor, the Nissan Leaf, we can see that in reality the full electric offerings from major are nearly the same in price.  The Leaf comes out to around $37,000 before tacking on options and offers a third of the power and a third of the range of a base Tesla S.  Ford’s Focus EV sells for $40,000 and can’t offer the range or power either.  So the question exists, is it worth the extra money to not have to drive a toaster with a motor?

The picture starts to paint itself more completely when one considers that history has shown that the major automakers don’t want electric vehicles to catch on.  They want them to be viewed as the expensive counterpart to gas powered vehicles that cannot travel outside the city because the alternative is that electric powered cars could overpower the gas powered market.  So when a major automaker releases an electric only version of their volume sellers, the vehicle perpetuates all of the worst stereotypes about electric cars.  Let’s have a look at Ford’s Ecoboost engine line.  The goal is to offer high, instant torque with high fuel economy.  This is supposedly what the market is begging for.  You know what else offers good economy with high, instant torque?  Electric motors.  In fact, the economy is higher and the torque is more instant.  The electric motor is what the market is begging for.  So instead of spending all that R&D to develop a turbo engine with all the same characteristics of an electric car, why not put that effort into better batteries?  With better battery technology, all but the cars sold to purists would become electric, in other words, every single volume seller.  If someone could get 300 horsepower and still be able to travel nearly 300 miles before having to recharge for a reasonable price, why would they ever want to buy a gasoline powered car again?

Do I want electric cars?  Frankly, yes I do and I think that Tesla and companies like it are the answer.  We cannot rely on our existing major companies as they would effectively shoot themselves in their own foot to do it.  Competition is always good in the market and I think that adding electric cars to the mix would have a side effect of actually bring gasoline prices down.  Supply would remain the same while demand would go down.  I personally would use an electric vehicle as a daily driver.  I never go on single trips longer than a couple hundred miles.  But I will not be punished for having one.  I want 250 horsepower and 200 miles.  The tech exists, it just needs to get affordable.

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