One Thing I Think Elon Musk Is Wrong On

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One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get to read and write about awesome stuff all day — awesome technology, awesome companies, awesome people. And there’s no denying that Tesla accounts for a big chunk of that awesomeness. We cover Tesla rather obsessively, because it does and creates stuff worth covering. Elon Musk is something like the Thomas Edison of our time, imho. I love the guy, and I love most of what he says and how he says it. (Full disclosure: I’m also a Tesla stockholder.)

However, he made a blanket statement recently that I think was misguided, and this statement feeds into anti-EV hype that puts up social barriers to EV adoption where technical barriers don’t exit. Here’s the statement which I think is off the mark: “200 miles is minimum threshold for an electric car. We need 200+ miles in real world. Not 200 miles in ‘AC off, driving on flat road’ mode. … Anything below 200 miles isn’t passing grade.”

Again, let me emphasize that I almost always agree with Musk, and I can’t even think of another instance in history where I didn’t. Also, I’m sure some people will side with him and some with me here. My aim in writing this piece is simply 1) to get more people to realize that this “range requirement” is largely a mental construct that people have formed in their heads rather than a practical need, and 2) to get people to stop spreading this anti-EV (we may as well say anti–Nissan LEAF or anti–BMW i3) hype.

I was planning to write an article about this anyhow, but then saw somewhat similar statements in a Tesla Motors Club forum thread and added a long post of my own there, so I am basically modifying that a bit to make it into a CleanTechnica article.

A Blanket that Doesn’t Fit the Bed

The thing that really irritates me about such statements is that they are thrown over the entire public like a blanket covering every last one of us, and stating in some kind of matter-of-fact way “what works” for us. To be more specific, the blanket statement is that lower-range EVs (EVs with <200 miles of range) don’t work for people, aren’t practical, etc. Of course, hundreds of thousands of people have such EVs, so the implication is basically that they are living in sacrifice and living with a vehicle that is fundamentally worse than a gasmobile. Obviously, I hugely disagree with that point. (See: 8 Reasons Electric Cars Kick Your Car’s Boot.)

Lower-range EVs like the current Nissan LEAF *do* work for a lot of people, and are even more practical for a lot of people than a gasmobile. Hundreds of thousands of people drive these cars — perhaps even >1 million now (worldwide). And from anecdotal evidence and studies (which, yes, do contain limitations), many of these drivers are happier with these EVs than any car they’ve ever had (unless they also own a Model S). These cars work, and actually work exceedingly well, for a lot of people.

It’s been ~1½ years since I’ve seen research on this topic, but at that time, what I found was that only 31% of Americans in a nationwide poll were “familiar with” the Nissan LEAF. However, many respondents made elementary errors when it comes to the differences between a LEAF and a Prius — in other words, they actually had no clue what a plug-in car was. If LEAFs and similar EVs work for hundreds of thousands of people, while the large majority of the population doesn’t have a clue what a LEAF is, imagine how many more people might be in the same shoes as these early adopters if they had a little hands-on experience.

Yes, it’s obvious, ~60 or 70 miles of real-world range doesn’t work for many people. Just as it’s obvious that $70,000+ is too much for most people to spend on a car. But a current LEAF or other on-the-market and non-Tesla EV would probably be the best vehicle a person could buy for the price it costs for tens of millions (my est.) of Americans and hundreds of millions (my est.) of people worldwide. The top two barriers to adoption, imho, are: 1) lack of knowledge/experience (I guess that’s two in one, but I’m calling it one), and 2) anti-EV hype that convinces people they need 5 times more range than they actually need.

Let’s Look at Some Data

Just as there are many people who need 200 miles of range, there are many who don’t even need 20 miles of range (that has been my story in several different cities for ~11 years). Conflating what some people need (for example, upper-middle-class people who are able to buy a $100,000 car) with what most people need is not what the EV revolution needs. So, let’s get to some actual data to figure out what people need….

Whoever runs solar journey usa has already done some good work on this front, and thanks to Bob Wallace for finding what she/he has put together.

How Many Cars in Your Household?

Cars per HouseholdFirst of all, the typical anti-EV claim is that people occasionally need or want to drive long distances (again, we are ignoring the small subset of people who drive hundreds of miles a day on a daily or weekly basis). This may be for vacations, weekend away trips, to visit friends or family in other towns or cities, etc. One reason that argument breaks down if used as a blanket statement against EVs like the LEAF or BMW i3 is that most (American) households have 2 or more cars. If you are going on vacation, for a weekend away, to visit family or friends, etc., there’s a very good chance you are going with your family and can take the longer-range vehicle if you are planning to drive a hundred miles or more and don’t have good charging options. Or, if one of the household members is staying home, you can very likely swap cars for the day/weekend.

How Much Do You Actually Drive?

In the next chart and graph, look and see what % of one-way trips are over 80 miles, or for that matter, what % is over 40 miles.

Distance Distribution Car Trips

Car trip distance cumulative

Remember, too, that there are those people (mentioned above) who drive 100+ miles on a very regular basis. Obviously, these people are not the norm. Take them out of the equation, and how would the above chart and graph look?

Of course, these are just individual trips. What if someone doesn’t have good charging options away from home and they are out all day? Here’s one more graph and a chart from Rob (more are in his article about the matter), showing total daily distances:

Daily distance car distribution daily distance car distribution_cumulative

Nearly 80% of days, we don’t go more than 50 miles. Combining this point with the “# of cars in the household” point, I imagine that millions of households would be absolutely fine with a short-range electric car. If they realized the benefits of convenient home charging, instant torque, less maintenance, lower operational costs, etc., buying an EV would be a no-brainer.

When you add the fact that adding 100 miles of (unnecessary) range to a car adds tens of thousands of dollars to the car, it’s obvious that an 80-mile electric car is much more practical for a lot of people … (as if electric car sales didn’t show that already).


Back to Tesla

I think there’s little debate that Tesla took the best approach to EVs, but the Renault-Nissan Alliance certainly seems to have a legitimate interest in leading the way in this market, and by some standards it is doing so. It would be good if Nissan learned a bit from Tesla (I imagine it has) and surprised us with some great and varied EV offerings soon (we’ll see…). But I also think it would be good if Tesla spokespeople (including the totally awesome Elon Musk) and supporters didn’t play into counterproductive and factually incorrect blanket statements about “what works,” “what a real car is,” “what a practical car is,” etc.

Tesla’s next move (following the Model X) is an “affordable” $35,000 electric car with >200 miles of real-world driving range (the Tesla Model 3). I’m not saying that’s not a logical and even smart move on Tesla’s part. Tesla still has a lot of work to do to get to a level where it can produce the number of Model 3s that consumers will want. It’s a big challenge. If it offered a nice $20,000 electric car with 100–150 miles of range, I’m positive it would bring in even a lot more happy customers. But even if Tesla were interested in doing that, I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t be prepared to do so for several years. Having other automakers serve this cheaper market with lower-range electric cars is more of a benefit than a harm, imho.

So, I’m definitely not criticizing Elon and Tesla’s decisions regarding the Model 3 (I think they’re absolutely spot on), but I think the anti-LEAF, anti-i3, anti-just-about-every-other-EV statements should be dropped.

The Future

Battery prices are coming down, and we’ll have long-range *and* affordable electric cars in short order, but there’s a lot of room to improve how we get there and how fast we get there. Having a wide variety of electric models with different ranges and prices on the market is important, and I’m quite positive that most of the readers here on CleanTechnica appreciate the hundreds of thousands of non-Tesla EVs that are now on the roads.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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