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Cars Tesla vs NYT ignores EV affordability issue

Published on February 17th, 2013 | by Tina Casey

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Psst, Hey, New York Times, The Real Issue with EVs Is Not the Miles, It’s the Money

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February 17th, 2013 by  

The Tesla vs The New York Times battle has been hashed over all week, and the consensus in many quarters is that electric vehicles are ready for prime time, but Times reporter John Broder is, to put it kindly, not ready for electric vehicles. Lost in the sauce is the only real obstacle to getting more people behind the wheel of an EV, and that is affordability. Sooo… who’s doing what about that? Well don’t look now but the Obama Administration is doing something precisely about that with $20 million in new funding to develop affordable EV batteries.

Tesla vs NYT ignores EV affordability issue

Tesla vs New York Times vs Affordability

As Times reporter John Broder aptly demonstrated, the Tesla Model S is a brilliantly designed car, but no amount of cutting edge engineering can make up for a driver’s lack of common sense (obviously the same goes for gasoline powered cars, too).

For EVs, the problem isn’t within the battery range itself, it’s the expense involved in engineering high-range batteries. Unlike conventional cars, for which the gas tank is a negligible factor in the selling price, the battery pack is a key feature of an EV. Its size, weight, and configuration make all the difference between affordability and not.

That’s the challenge addressed by the Obama Administration’s latest project, the $20 million Robust Affordable Next Generation EV Storage Project (Range).

The EV Storage Project will be administered by the Energy Department’s cutting-edge research arm ARPA-E, which has just released a notice of the funding opportunity, though it does note that the $20 million is subject to the “availability of appropriated funds.”

The end goal is to come up with cutting-edge solutions that will triple the range of a typical EV from around 80 miles to 240 miles per charge, while chopping costs by around one third. The end result will be an EV that costs under $30,000 and can go on long trips before recharging, pretty much what you’d expect from a conventional vehicle.

At this first stage of the project, ARPA-E is focusing on the battery itself. That means breaking out of the conventional lithium-ion box and trying new approaches like these:

“Aqueous or other low-cost inorganic electrolyte based systems and novel cell geometries are of particular interest, as are flow battery architectures employing liquid or slurry-based reactants that enable physical isolation of active materials.”

It also means developing a “robust” battery that can shoulder other tasks aside from making the vehicle move. That would help extend the vehicle’s range, since it would enable the elimination of redundant equipment and/or structural elements.

Other considerations include the use of little or no flammable or combustible substances, and the reduction or elimination of waste heat.

President Obama and EV Affordability

When President Obama used his State of the Union Address to promise executive action on climate change if certain members of Congress continue to throw up roadblocks, he wasn’t exactly leaping into unknown territory.

Despite pushback from the aforementioned members of Congress (okay, so Republican leadership), for the past four years, the Administration has pushed forward with clean technology initiatives to reduce carbon emissions, including a raft of projects aimed at bringing down the cost of EV tech.

With the goal of making EV ownership affordable and accessible to the mass market, the Administration has already marshaled scores of public and private EV stakeholders together, including many of the top employers in the U.S., such as utilities, tech companies (Google being a big one), major fleet owners (FedEx for example), and manufacturers of all kinds both within and without the automotive sector.

One key element is EV Everywhere, which like the SunShot solar initiative is designed to accelerate new technology and overcome structural obstacles. As part of that program the Administration has just recruited 13 major U.S. employers to serve as role models for workplace EV charging, with the goal of getting many others to follow their lead.


The Administration also launched a partnership with Google to develop a national online database for EV charging station locations, an online guide for communities to accelerate their EV readiness, and a major energy storage research center called JCESR (Joint Center for Energy Storage Research).

One Last Word about that Tesla vs New York Times Thing

Not for nothing, but there was a long period of time not too long ago during which the conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh made a cottage industry out of bashing GM’s Chevy Volt. That seems to have died down, partly squashed by an aggressive ad campaign by GM featuring happy Volt owners.

Now, along comes The New York Times with a Limbaugh-style whack at Tesla, but this time it seems that EV enthusiasts have taken the matter into their own hands. Rather than waiting around for Tesla Motors to come out with a new ad campaign, a convoy of Tesla owners set out to replicate Broder’s journey this weekend under similar weather conditions. You can catch up with them on Twitter, complete with photos.

Image (cropped): Tesla Model S by Pop Culture Geek

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Pingback: Tesla Supercharger Free EV Charging Network To Expand Dramatically

  • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

    For EVDriver :

    I’ve updated the cost comparison spreadsheet (link below). A few notes:

    1- Maintenance costs were never calculated in the initial spreadsheet. There was a placeholder for them, but perhaps I decided to leave them out of the calculation due to uncertainty with the EV costs. (So, initial benefit to the gasmobiles there.)

    A study on the difference in costs was recently published on this matter, so the maintenance costs are now based on that, and included in the calculation.

    2- Projected battery replacement costs are now included, based on projections by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (They don’t really change much. The EV savings at 9 years go from $20,746 to $17,896. Not insignificant, but insignifiant when it comes to which car wins based on price alone.)

    3- I’ve put a call-out for more input on the assumptions used, and I’ll soon do comparisons with more competitive EVs (the Ford Focus Electric isn’t exactly the most competitive EV on the market. ;D) Thanks for pushing me to do better calculations… which I imagine are simply going to put EVs in better light. But we’ll see….

    Link to the spreadsheet: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AsDzwXJeEr1pdDVxT245YWlMLXBPWFF2enB4NjFEeHc#gid=0

  • EVDriver

    What’s up with the zombie cult of Tesla, anyway?

    I own an EV and like it a lot. I don’t see any need to cover up the downside, which is not just range but the consistency of range over normal operating conditions. Every EV owner knows that cold weather dramatically reduces range. Tesla knows it too, but they insist on claiming a 300-mile range for their top-end Model S when it’s not representative of the car’s typical performance.

    First off, to get the full range, whatever that might be, you must charge the battery to a level that the company tells you will cause damage. A “standard” charge of 90% brings down the claimed range to 270 miles. But if the weather’s cold, you can back that off by one-third, as Consumer Reports wrote in an article published within a few days of the New York Times article.

    Lithium ion batteries are funky animals. They go way down when it’s cold. When they warm up, they recover typically about half of the charge they lost because of the temperature. This is why Tesla’s moronic CSR told the N.Y. Times reporter first to warm up the car, and then to charge it for about an hour. She thought he’d recover some charge, but it was too cold that day.

    We EV owners know all about this funkiness. What happened to the N.Y. Times reporter was par for the course. Tesla should’ve told him what would happen, but if they’d done that, then they’d also have had to admit that they don’t have enough “superchargers” in place on the East Coast. So they risked it, and lost.
    Instead of ‘fessing up, they decided to attack the writer, and you zombies are joining in. But look, anyone who owns an EV and uses it in the winter knows about battery loss in the cold. Hell, even Tesla own user club has a bunch of stuff from Canadians about the issue. This is no mystery, my cult children!

    • Tina Casey

      Thanks for your comment, you had me at “anyone who owns an EV and uses it in the winter.” That’s the point. Times reporter John Broder set out demonstrate the Model S’s performance in real-world East Coast conditions, but if he was all that interested in reality, he would have exercised a little common sense, just like people in the real world would. He could have taken the time to familiarize himself with new technology before setting out on a two-day trek in the dead of winter, but he chose not to.

    • Bob_Wallace

      What’s with your attitude? What’s all this cult/zombie crap?

      Why do you find it so important to defend Broder and attack Musk?

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      The cult stuff is really getting a bit old. The Model S has won the accolades of top car journalists around the world. People love the car for a reason. But no one here is cultist about it. And no one has debated the cold-range issue. But common sense is also worth noting, and that’s what our posts have been about. A bunch of Model S owners just made the same trip — aiming for a day with the most difficult weather conditions. A CNN driver made almost the same trip. All of these drivers used more common sense and familiarized themselves with the car beforehand.

      If you don’t like the Tesla posts, don’t read them. If you know everything you need to know about EVs, good for you — use it to educate people about things they don’t understand. You simply come across as an EV basher who seems set on average consumers being stuck with irrational range anxiety.

    • mds

      You’re stoned or you’re a troll in EV enthusiast clothing. Easy to misrepresent yourself on the E-net. The Tesla model S performed better than advertised in-spite of this guys best efforts to foil it… IN THE DEAD OF WINTER. I’m fully aware of reduced range of Li batteries in cold weather, but Tesla has admirably over-designed their EV. No cult needed. I ain’t not follower sonny!

  • http://www.glancingout.com/ Tyler Johnson

    My question is how sustainable are electronic vehicles in the long run? I’d assume they need to be powered with some sort of renewable energy before we get TOO excited about them. I haven’t spent a lot of time looking into the specifics though…

    • Tina Casey

      Tyler you brought up a great point, thank you. Right now the U.S. energy mix still relies heavily on coal as well as natural gas and nuclear power. However, wind, solar and other renewable energy sources are rapidly penetrating the national grid. Also, EV charging stations can run directly from their own on site solar carports and/or micro wind turbines. Homeowners can also take advantage of EV dealer and utility incentive to install rooftop solar panels to offset their home EV charging stations, and the same goes for workplace charging stations and other private locations.

      • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

        Good point on solar — from what I’ve read (but don’t have a definitive source) the majority of EV owners also have solar panels.

        But even without one’s own solar, EVs are clearly much greener:

        http://cleantechnica.com/2012/04/18/electric-vehicles-greenhouse-gas-emissions-save-money/

      • anti_banker

        Millions of electric cars can also be charged at night on the current grid using energy that is currently mostly wasted at night. This means no need to expand the grid’s energy sources at all. However there are also solar power (home recharge) options with battery backup. Cheaper 10-15 year old batteries from electric vehicles are perfect for this use.

    • globi

      Actually, since an Electric Vehicle is already significantly more efficient than its Gasoline counterpart, it already emits significantly less CO2 with the current electricity mix.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesla_Model_S

      Under its five-cycle testing, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rated the 85 kWh Model S model with a combined fuel economy equivalent of 89 MPGe (2.64 L/100 km), with an equivalent 88 mpg-US (2.7 L/100 km; 106 mpg-imp) in city driving and 90 mpg-US (2.6 L/100 km; 110 mpg-imp) on highways.[4]

      And frankly you should really consult Wikipedia before asking questions like this.

      • http://www.glancingout.com/ Tyler Johnson

        I didn’t mean to make anyone angry with the question and it was a bit broad I admit. However, in no way did I suggest that it was less “efficient than its gasoline counterpart,” as you interpreted my question to be implying. So, you should read a bit more carefully into what someone says before insulting them.

        I simply want to keep us honest when discussing these solutions. There are always unforeseen consequences and things unconsidered. Without a doubt, an electric car is a better option than a car run on gasoline. I don’t question that.

        • Bob_Wallace

          There was nothing wrong with your question.

          Most charging will happen at night. Most people would come home at the end of their day, plug in (or park over a wireless charger), and go inside. Come out the next day to a charged car.

          In the US onshore wind tends to blow more at night. This means electricity generated when demand is lowest. This is not good for wind farm profits.

          Putting millions of EVs/PHEVs on the charge at night will create a new late night energy market. Even selling that electricity at a bit less than average daytime rates would create a significant amount of income for wind farms. That, in turn, would bring more investment money to the industry and result in many more turbines being installed.

          More turbines charging EVs at night will mean more cheap wind on the grid during daytime. It’s a win-win.

          We won’t run out of wind. We can make and install wind turbines with mostly electrical energy (renewable). The materials in wind turbines is about 80% recyclable and the new materials needed are found in sufficient quantities so that we won’t run into a problem building turbines in the future.

          The parts not recyclable are largely the carbon fibers and epoxy in the blades. There’s plenty of carbon and we can make epoxy from plant material. Furthermore GE is testing a new blade idea which is a light weight metal frame covered with fabric. That would be mostly recyclable.

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          The most comprehensive study on this was conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The results heavily favor EVs:

          http://cleantechnica.com/2012/04/18/electric-vehicles-greenhouse-gas-emissions-save-money/

          This is probably the most common story I pull up for readers/commenters — it seems the news of this study didn’t spread very far (even though it seemed to be all over the place when it was released).

    • mds

      Tyler,
      It sounds to me like you are asking a question about available energy resources. This is a good link from this same site:
      http://cleantechnica.com/solar-power/
      Scroll down until you see the graphic with what looks like planets titled “Solar Power Abundance!”. Since renewables are available on a continual basis, this graphic compares one years worth of each renewable source to the total available for each fossil fuel and nuclear resources. To add to what Tina has said, our use of coal in the USA has been dropping significantly in the last few years and it is being replaced by Natural Gas and Renewables. As Bob states, wind in particular is building out in large quantities right now.
      You’ll notice in the graphic that the amount of Solar available in one year far exceeds all the available fossil fuel and nuclear resources in the ground. The really good news is the cost of solar is dropping even faster than the cost of wind. As a result, solar will soon shoot past wind in terms of the quantities being installed.
      If you are new to this, then the answer to your next question is: No it does not take up very much land space to harvest the solar power we will need. We’re talking single digit percentages of the Earth’s desert lands to supply all of the world’s power needs (really all of’em) using current solar technology. (If you are interested I can send a couple of links on this and even a page showing how to calculate it.) Of course this won’t be the case since a very large portion of solar PV will be installed on the roofs of homes, roofs of businesses, as shading in parking lots, and over abandon industrial grey fields.
      A few years ago a study was done (have the link somewhere) and it was found vehicles in North American are actually parked 97% of the time. This means storage of solar power will not be an issue for charging EVs, for most peoples uses. You will be able to charge directly from solar, via the grid, while parked at work, at the store, or at home. Since electricity is available almost everywhere, this will not be difficult (read expensive) to accomplish.

      Short answer to your question:
      (a) Right now there is plenty of unused night-time power from wind that blows at night (as Bob says), and from coal and nuclear plants that cannot be throttled back all the way at night.
      (b) Increasingly, this will be wind, natural gas, and solar will begin to come on strong.
      (c) In the longer term, solar will be able to do this job by itself and very low cost.

      Tyler, Any power shortage problem is a myth. There is plenty of available solar and wind power. We just need to build the plants to harvest that power and those are quickly becoming the lowest cost alternatives. (Actually, in some areas of the World they already are the lowest cost.) We will not have a problem finding power for the world’s EVs.
      mike

    • anti_banker

      Millions of electric cars can also be charged at night on the current grid using energy that is currently mostly wasted at night. This means no need to expand the grid energy sources at all. However there are also solar power (home recharge) options with battery backup. Cheaper 10-15 year old batteries from electric vehicles are perfect for this use.

  • SecularAnimist

    There is every reason that EVs could become much cheaper than gasoline vehicles. As mds mentioned, their extreme simplicity is one reason. Related to that is the potential to assemble EVs from generic components using industry-standard form factors and interfaces — one of the factors that led to rapid drops in the cost of PCs in the 1980s. Also related to simplicity is their much lower maintenance costs.

    One reason that current EVs are expensive, I believe, is that manufacturers have mostly chosen to produce fairly high-end vehicles targeting a well-off consumer who is accustomed to buying fairly expensive cars. I hope that the Honda Fit EV and the Smart EV are the beginning of a new category of much more affordable, smaller and more basic, short-to-mid-range commuter EVs. I think that such cars could be mass-produced VERY cheaply and could become hugely popular.

    • Bob_Wallace

      No, the reason that EVs are expensive is because EV batteries are expensive.

      Starting with upscale models was a wise move. Target production to people with deeper pockets, people who could absorb the higher price of batteries more easily. Then roll out models for the sorts of folks who buy Camry and Civic priced cars.

      If you start with a car that, sans engine, would sell for $40k and add in $20k worth of batteries rather than a $10k engine there’s less sticker shock ($50k vs $60k) than if you start with a $15k box and $5k engine ($20k vs. $35k).

      Battery price is largely a problem of manufacturing volume. There aren’t lots of expensive materials or lots of labor in batteries. There needs to be enough manufacturing activity to streamline the process, spread fixed costs thinner, and firm up supply chains.

      • Tina Casey

        Thanks Bob, that was the point of the article. Allowing for differences in luxury equipment and styling, right now EVs are more expensive than their conventional counterparts because lithium-ion battery packs are far more expensive than gas tanks. The tradeoff between cost, range and weight means that EVs with high-range batteries are beyond the reach of all but a very small segment of the car-buying market.

        • anti_banker

          Not so much with the Nissan Leaf…

      • Ronald Brakels

        An electric car, less the cost of its batteries, should be cheaper than a comparable internal combustion engine car. We’re not at that point yet, but barring disaster, it will come.

      • anti_banker

        Tesla will be coming out with a lower end electric vehicle by about 2016-2017 called the “Gen III”.

  • mds

    I want to lay down a challenge to all those who think EVs are not ready for prime time. Go to a Tesla dealership and take a look at the Model S chassis. (Alternatively, just Google “tesla model s chassis” and look at pictures of the Model S chassis.) When you’ve done that, tell me EVs are not going to continue dropping in price till they are cheaper than gasoline vehicles. Look at how simple the mechanics for the Model S are. No fuel powered vehicle is that simple. There is NO transmission, none. Electric motors are far more efficient over the rpm range needed and their torque performance is far superior to gasoline engines. The Tesla Model S is an example of true design elegance, the highest compliment I can give as an engineer. Simplicity of design means lower cost at scale. Tesla says “the Model S is twice the car for half the price” compared to the Tesla Roadster and it’s true! …and batteries are still improving and coming down in price. I don’t know how anyone can look at a Tesla Model S chassis and not see EVs are here now and will rule the mass market soon.
    To steal from Arthur C Clark: “Something is coming…. something wonderful.”

    • Aaron Russell

      Amen

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Nice statement. Frankly, while I may come across as an EV enthusiast now, I was very skeptical about EVs before. But the technology has convinced me. And Tesla is king of the hill. There’s a reason why it has such an enthusiastic fan base, and why the Model S impressed car journalists the world over as much as it is. Business-wise, I’m not sure where Tesla will go, but my impression of it is that it’s something like the Apple of cars (i.e. that it’s got a bright future).

  • mds

    The Rush Limbo thing with the GM Volt was similar. The first time I read what he was saying it was riddled with huge inaccuracies. The second time he was beginning to correct some of those inaccuracies. He was actually educating some of the close minded boneheads who listen to his show on what the Volt really does. …at least more than they would have known otherwise. whoops. This stuff should be illegal. It’s too fun. …like catching fish in a barrel.

  • mds

    There is some justice in the world. “There is no bad advertising.” Thank you John Broder, you dirt bag.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Would agree. Think it will have a net benefit. If the stock market’s any indicator, I’m hearing that Tesla stock is up a lot today — similar to where it was before the story. (Note: I don’t tend to follow stock news… at all.)

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