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Matthew Stepp

Matthew Stepp

Matthew is a contributor at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

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What does the Future Holds for EV’s after Tesla Model S Failed Road Trip

The Electric Highway

The New York Times reporter John Broder recently published his account of an East Coast road trip he took with the Tesla Model S electric vehicle (EV). It marked an important development: Tesla has opened two new public “supercharging” stations some 200 miles apart in Delaware and Connecticut that can fully replenish the Model S battery in an hour and potentially provide consumers the ability to drive the well-traveled Interstate 95 corridor at near-zero carbon emissions. Unfortunately, Broder’s test results came up short, showing the limitations of existing EV technology, the need for more innovation, and the division of opinions on how the United States should decarbonize transportation.

The set-up was simple: Broder was to travel from Washington D.C. to Milford, Connecticut in the souped-up Model S. But according to Broder, he faced a host of inconveniences as the Model S fell short of its projected 300 mile range, resulting in the car losing charge mid-drive and the need to re-route to find additional charging stations. Since then, he and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have traded accusatory statements, (Musk, Broder, Musk, Broder), with even the New York Times Public Editor chiming in with an investigation.

The back and forth ignited a mini-Internet firestorm. The Atlantic Wire, for example, heavily scrutinized Musk’s rebuttal while Chelsea Sexton at Wired defended Tesla by characterizing EVs as being different from gas cars and thus deserving of different expectations. “The day-to-day experience EVs offer is so much better than gas cars for 95% of driving. Long-distance road trips are among the last 5% of usage scenarios,” Sexton writes, before concluding that “it’s ridiculous to expect EVs to deliver the same experience as the incumbent product.”

Related article: Fisker Fiasco Won’t Dent EV Funding

This final point really gets to the heart of the debate. Ultimately, the Tesla vs. Broder spat is a proxy for the debate on how to best decarbonize the transportation sector.

Consumer Expectations

On one hand, there are those like Sexton (and David Roberts at Grist) that believe decarbonizing transportation requires fundamental changes in consumer behavior. The most often used comparison is the shift from land-line phones to mobile handsets. Mobile phones didn’t become a dominant technology by mimicking the performance of land-lines – they offered many new productivity features and robust social accessibility that made it easy and beneficial to rapidly change behavior, such as dealing with charging mobile batteries and being connected all day, even at a higher cost. EVs are like mobile phones because they require consumers to think differently about refueling, driving capabilities and route planning compared to what they’re used to. Some behavior change – more so than what Broder exhibited – must be expected.

David Roberts takes this a step further and assumes that consumers also need to reframe their expectation of the transportation system as a whole, from sprawl, highways, and long commutes to urban centers, public transportation, and short trips. In this sense, decarbonizing transportation requires consumers to change how and where to live and travel. In this context, EVs have a small role to play as a zero-carbon option for taking short trips and commuting to work, but they doesn’t necessarily need to meet many, if any, existing expectations of gasoline-based vehicles because the whole system has to change.

From both of these perspectives, EVs are an entirely new technology to be used much differently than the cars of today.

Cost and Performance

On the other hand, there are those like former Executive Director of the Sierra Club Carl Pope and former Vice Chairman of GM Bob Lutz that believe decarbonizing transportation requires EVs meeting most, if not all, consumer cost and performance expectations. This parallels the thinking of many EV companies, which aim to (eventually) offer vehicles at comparable prices as gasoline equivalents with similar performance. In fact, the Tesla Model S brochure states, “Whether it’s running quick errands with the kids or a weekend getaway to the mountains, enjoy worry-free driving every day.”

In other words, EVs have a big role to play in decarbonizing transportation and they can assume that role by becoming a drop-in replacement for gasoline cars. Changes to the transportation system are necessary in that EV charging infrastructure is needed to eliminate range anxiety, but fundamentally changing consumer behavior to live differently – as Roberts believes – isn’t necessary. In this sense, EVs are an entirely new technology that should be used in exactly the same ways as the cars of today.

Related article: Have Canadian Researchers Cracked How to Store Renewable Energy?

The one core message to take from the Broder-Tesla kerfuffle is that both are correct, but with a caveat: making EVs cost and perform like gas cars is a real barrier to EVs playing any role, big or small, in decarbonizing transportation.

Transforming the Transportation System Philosophy


There is very real consumer anxiety in addition to range issues, like driving EVs under normal weather conditions (e.g. winter in the Northeast states, hot summer days, etc.) as well as the classic chicken-and-egg problem of the need for building vehicle charging infrastructure. Tie these performance barriers to the higher sticker price of EVs compared to gas cars and it’s no surprise EV sales growth is slow. No amount of additional luxury benefits or system change – such as the impressive information and display technologies highlighted by Broder – is enough to overcome their real limitations. Only significant technological innovation in batteries and charging products can eliminate them.

The same can be said for transformative system and consumer behavior change. Without a doubt, some consumer change is inherently necessary (as with any new technology), such as getting used to charging vehicles at home compared to driving to the local gas station (though it wouldn’t hurt if gas stations transitioned to charging stations). But that level of behavior change is easier to come by rapidly with better and cheaper EV technology. And Roberts’s belief that the transportation system needs to change is absolutely correct, but still requires innovation. Without better technologies, it won’t be feasible in any timescale relevant to solving climate change to create a more efficient, affordable electrified transportation system that includes EVs, buses, trains, and any host of people-movers that don’t emit carbon.

As Boing Boing Science Editor Maggie Koerth-Baker opined in the New York Times Magazine, “You can change the technology. You can change the infrastructure and culture. And sometimes, you have to change both, easing people into accepting a new tool by making it look and feel like the old one you want to replace.” In the case of decarbonizing transportation, new, cheaper technology, behavior change, and system change are needed, but the better and cheaper technology must come first to make the rest possible.

By. Matthew Stepp

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  • Todd R. Lockwood on April 16 2013 said:
    It's worth mentioning that CNN and CNBC repeated Broder's trip with no problems whatsoever. Broder made several errors in judgment, including underestimating the effect of winter conditions on range - something which also occurs in gas powered cars. I think it is likely that he would have taken a less cavalier approach if he owned the car he was driving and didn't have the carrot of a "great story" hanging in front I'd him.

    The EV driving experience will never be identical to a gas powered car, and good thing because in many ways EVs are already better. Comfort, lack of noise, linear power delivery and minimal maintenance cost are just a few of them. But the biggest benefit - the one that will ultimately win over millions of drivers - is fuel cost. A 265 EPA rated fill up in a Tesla Model S costs $10 in electricity (at average U.S. electric rates). This compares to $60 in a similar gas powered luxury sedan. When Tesla builds out its supercharger network, that charging cost will drop to zero.
  • Jason on April 16 2013 said:
    I have a Tesla Model S. My wife and I went on a 700 mile road trip. We started in Newport, RI and made it to Brick, NJ on a single charge. We charged our car for free at a Sunoco station 1 mile from where we were staying. We then continued on to Deptford, NJ for a birthday party, stayed over night and on Sunday went to Newark, DE to super charge the car for free. It took about 45 minutes. Unplugging @ 1 pm off we went with 3 people in the car plus luggage. Our next stop was at Milford, CT 6 hours later - with traffic (there was about 75 miles of charge left on the car) to super charge the car for free again! We ate dinner and used the restrooms, by the time we finished those two things we had 250 miles of range back on the car. We unplugged and got home at about 8:30. Total cost of charging...$0.

    I don't see what the problem Broder was complaining about. He was one person, we were three. If you did more research you would find many people did Broder's same road trip with out a hitch, some had four people in the car!!! So either Broder was lying or just stupid. And the fact that you take one experience and report on that...what does that say about your reporting?

    Chicken and the egg: When gas cars came to mass market, was the infrastructure already set up?

    Do you have children, young family members or friends with kids? Don't you care about their future?
  • DougH2 on April 16 2013 said:
    This article takes serious Broader's experience and extrapolates the evolution of the electric car.

    Pure nonsense.

    Range anxiety is only one factor. Let me give you a few more.

    Pay 1/20 (to zero as a consumer) for the energy used to travel
    No engine: no belts, oil changes, timing chains, exhaust systems, coolant
    No transmission: transmission oil changes, filters, overhauls, shifting, jerking
    An electric motor rated at 1 million miles: no overhauls, no water pumps, less depreciation

    My Model S will probably arrive in June. I can't imagine driving my Yukon XL again for any reason other than transporting more than 5 people. Even then I will make the trip with the keen awareness that it will cost me 20 times more than driving my Model S.

    Finally, recharging in my garage, pre-warming and pre-cooling my care from my iPhone after I get out of the shower will require some adjustment in the way that I approach my vehicle as a consumer, but I think I can handle that.
  • Scott Whitehouse on April 16 2013 said:
    People just don't like change, but it happens. The Write brothers were not flying 35000 feet at 500 miles an hour on there test flight. Sorry but all the dinosaurs are dead, things change, goodbye oil companies.
  • Ray on April 16 2013 said:
    You have mis-represented Broder's trip. It wasn't a lack of infrastructure it was an unwillingness to fully re-fuel his vehicle. If you go to a gas station and put in 2 gallons for a 5 gallon trip is it the car, the infrastructure, ignorance, or something more nefarious. It is also not about decarbonization. It is about the best experience for the driver. Tesla or one of its progeny will do to traditional car companies what Apple did to the Music industry unless the car companies make significant changes very quickly rather than defending their position and pretending people won't switch because of "Range Anxiety" or some minor inconvenience. It is not about electric. It is about facing the truth and adapting or spending the next 20 years fading into history.
  • Jonathan on April 16 2013 said:
    After sitting in a Tesla S (alas, only in the showroom), the Tesla is going to be my NEXT electric car. I've leased a Leaf for over 2 years now (charged with solar PV) and absolutely love it. Well, I guess I'm fickle. We drive the Leaf 40 to 50 mi/day and have gotten far beyond the range anxiety. Same as overcoming range anxiety when you drive any car enough - you don't look at the gas gauge, you intuitively know when to "gas up". 200+ mi of practical range with 1 hr fast recharge in between - Wow! The way I figure it with more fast recharge stations coming online, I can drive for 3 to 4 hrs (200 to 240 mi), take a 1 hr breather, and easily do 500 mi/day in 10 hrs. Problem will become when there aren't enough charge ports for all the Teslas (and others brands) wanting to charge at the rest stops. Perhaps a scheduling/reservation app for our smart phones? Or, just part of the smart car when Google does the driving for us.
  • Nixon on April 16 2013 said:
    It is impossible to take any news story seriously about the brodering of the Tesla Model S that does not mention Broder's own editor's criticisms of his errors and sloppy reporting.

    Broder's story wasn't even a review of the Model S, it was a review of the Supercharger network. And even the worst-case reading of his brodering of the Model S, is simply that another Supercharger station needs to be built in New Jersey. Even if you ignored Broder's own editor's criticism of his work, and accept everything he said, it is all solved with the future build-out of the rest of the Supercharger network.

    So if you are asking what the future holds, read up on the build-out of the Tesla Supercharger network, instead of just commenting about a single story about the very first set of east-coast Superchargers ever built, before the Model S had even hit full production rates.

    You sound completely clueless about even the near-term future, while trying to pontificate about the long term future.
  • Joe Florio on April 17 2013 said:
    I don't own a model s and I wish I did, but after reading what a few people who tested the model s did or didn't do, I think they may not have followed instruction, that's why Broder who tested the model s may have run out of power. He also could have missed a charging station, I can't say he wanted the model s to fail and did so on purpose, but we may never know.
    We do know however that there are some people who do not want to see this technologically succeed because they may loose their way of life, or just afraid of progress.
    On the other hand there are people who welcome this change, they see a future of cars with no tailpipe with zero emissions. If you have taken notice of the strong storms and tornadoes lately, then you may understand why this is welcoming news these days with zero emissions autos and this technology.
    If you think this kind person is a flake worrying about the weather, even scientists are saying that there is a connection between global warming and these strong storms. I see this technology not only saving our air, but when we power our homes as well with solar energy we are also saving our electrical grid from putting out so much electric that we are polluting our air, water, and earth.
    By continuing this pollution will cause more global warming, and this processes of polluting our environment will make matters worse and worse for humans.
    Imagine a world fulled with cars, trucks and buses running on electric, and zero emissions.
  • Clstudio2 on April 22 2013 said:
    What's going to happen? Tesla not only stronger, but outsells other luxury cars:


    I just wish that I have bought their stock back in 2012, I can use the profit to pay for my Tesla instead.

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