We get a lot of flack here at CleanTechnica for being Tesla fanboys, but in reality, we are just a bunch of clean technology nuts who love the things Tesla has done, is doing, and is expected to do out into the future.
If there was another company out there that was doing — not just talking about doing, but truly building the new energy future we need as a species — we would gladly cover them as obsessively. To date, BYD is the only other company in the world making as big of an impact in the world of transportation and energy storage. We cover other companies we believe have the potential to completely disrupt the markets they play in, but the reality is that Tesla is the tip of the spear pushing into many new clean tech segments.
In watching GM’s recent EV Day presentation (stream it here), it seems it was just one of a long list of companies that has pivoted into electric vehicles because of Tesla. This is clear in the way GM talks about electric vehicles, in the way GM is designing and building electric vehicles, and in the energy GM is attempting to project when speaking about electric vehicles. In 2018, GM CEO Mary Barra talked about how the company was committed to achieving Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, and Zero Congestion, and at GM’s EV Day this month, we saw what could be the first bold step into that future.
Defining the language used to talk about a new class of vehicles lays the groundwork for those who come after. It establishes the key terms, phrases, figures, and metrics through countless interviews, articles, videos, and enthusiasts that pound them into shape, one discussion at a time. Today, the language is so established that when Rivian says its vehicles are built on a skateboard, nobody flinches at the thought of a vehicle built on something found in the toy section of the local Target store.
The Affordable, Long-Range Electric Vehicle
Tesla’s Master Plan has always been geared at developing increasingly more affordable electric vehicles, with an initial core target of the “long range, affordable electric vehicle” price at $35,000. Tesla expected to achieve this as production volumes increased and lithium-ion battery prices came down.
The unveiling of the Tesla Model 3 put the automotive world into a frenzy with the promise of an electric vehicle that looked and handled like a Porsche, was as affordable as a Toyota Camry, with range for days. General Motors responded in lightning time with the Chevrolet Bolt, which had a $37,500 price tag that put the price after the US federal tax credit — before other incentives, dealer pricing, and discounts — at right around $30,000 for the base model.
In the intervening years, many electric vehicle manufacturers have taken up the challenge, with more and more vehicles entering the market in the $30,000 price range with around 200 miles (more or less) of range, like the Hyundai Kona EV, Hyundai Ioniq EV, VW e-Up, and VW ID.3, to name a few. As the market price of lithium-ion batteries falls to the milestone price of $100/kWh in the next few years on it’s way down to an eventual floor, prices of the vehicles these batteries power are expected to track lower as well.
The design of the Tesla Model S placed the original 40kWh battery pack at the lowest point possible on the vehicle, and spread from front to back and side to side. The result was what Tesla called a skateboard comprised of the chassis, battery pack, motor, and suspension components. Planting all that weight at the lowest point possible in the vehicle translates to fantastic handling and a more open cabin design that has allowed Tesla to get even more creative with the interiors of its vehicles.
Today, the body-on-skateboard design has become the ubiquitous standard for all electric vehicles. Companies like Rivian, General Motors, Canoo, and more showcase their finished vehicles sitting next to a skateboard platform to show the world that they’re hip and understand what modern electric vehicle design looks like.
Moving forward, the concept of the skateboard platform still makes sense, with many companies seeking to extend the functionality of the skateboard with a modular aspect that would allow for additional battery modules to extend the energy storage capacity for larger or longer range vehicles. The inevitable march of lithium-ion batteries towards lighter cells and packs will translate to new shapes and designs, but the overall strategy of keeping the heavy battery pack low in the vehicle will persist.
As Tesla grew, it was forced to innovate across the entire value chain. As hundreds of deployed vehicles turned into thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands, it had to find new ways to service vehicles increasingly deployed to farther and farther locations around the world. A fleet of Mobile Service technicians turned out to be a critical solution that unlocked not just lower cost service, but a higher quality of service that met owners where they were.
Today, Tesla’s fleet of Mobile Service technicians take their Ford Transit, Tesla Model S, and Tesla Model X vehicles directly to the location of the customer vehicle to make service a seamless experience. After all, the average vehicle experiences an underwhelming 4% utilization rate over its lifetime, so why not take advantage of all that downtime by servicing the vehicle where it is.
Deploying mobile service technicians is also a huge win for Tesla when it comes to capital expenses. Mobile Service technicians are deployed out of one of Tesla’s existing Service Centers, meaning they don’t require any more real estate to add an impressive amount of capacity to Tesla’s service team. One technician I spoke with estimated his fully equipped Ford Transit service vehicle cost around $80,000–90,000, fully equipped. That’s a steal compared to the cost of standing up an entire Service Center.
Tesla estimates it can perform 80% of all service tasks with a mobile service team, which translates to massive savings as the company scales. Today, Tesla has expanded beyond traditional service tasks to a fully stocked mobile tire repair fleet. Lucid Motors just announced it would be leveraging a mobile service fleet to keep its customers on the road in their new vehicles, and it is not alone in adopting this strategy.
When the battery is exhausted, electric vehicles need to take a break to refuel. In the past, this meant leaving the car to sit idle for hours on end to charge at 6.6 kW. The occasional 50 kW DC fast charger could speed up the process, but the Tesla Supercharger network was the first EV fast charging network to unshackle drivers from the proverbial extension cord. Charging rates of 100+ kW meant drivers could recharge vehicles in less than an hour.
I put the network to the test in 2016 in an epic road trip from Ohio back to California, powered solely by the Tesla Supercharging network. It was a raging success back then and has only continued to improve in the intervening years. Tesla continues to expand the network, filling in urban, suburban, and long-range routes with additional stations. Existing locations are constantly being expanded with more stations, like my local Supercharger in Oxnard, California, that was just upgraded from the initial 10 stalls to 18 stalls.
Tesla has extended the functionality of existing stations by leveraging software updates to increase the charging speed of existing Supercharging stalls. That translates to a new top speed of 150 kW for existing stations, though this is only possible when one station in a charging pair is being used. New charging stations being installed across the network push power into vehicles at up to 250kW with version 3 of Tesla’s Supercharging tech. For years, the best alternative to Tesla Supercharging was 50 kW “fast charging,” until the rest of the market needed what it now terms “ultrafast charging” (perhaps “superfast charging” would have too blatantly been copying Tesla).
Selling cars has historically been an extremely expensive proposition. Not that it is cheap to do today, but the sheer amount of advertising required to move cars off the lots has comprised a significant chunk of the overall cost of the vehicle for legacy automotive companies. Tesla upended this with a direct-to-consumer sales model that trimmed third-party dealers out of the sales process, opting instead to sell directly to customers.
The practice upset the powerful network of automotive dealership associations in the US and sparked a years-long battle with Tesla over its ability to sell vehicles directly to customers. I am personally still overcoming years of mental scarring and abuse at the hands of local automotive dealers, and customer satisfaction surveys around the world now regularly put Tesla at the top of the list for the auto sales experience.
Just the same, Tesla has been forced to battle in just about every state it currently operates in for the ability to sell cars directly to customers. A flood of would-be electric vehicle manufacturers is following in the path carved out by Tesla, benefiting directly from the massive amount of mental capacity and legal fees Tesla ponied up for the privilege.
Tesla was the first automotive company to propose the construction of its own massive battery manufacturing facility. It was the result of very simple math that rolled together the production targets in the automotive segment with the battery capacity in each vehicle, but at the time, even I thought it was a crazy idea. It just sounded nutty at the time because of the sheer scale of the place.
But again, it was just the result of simple math. Today, numerous automotive companies — like GM, Volvo, Lucid Motors, and more — are partnering with battery manufacturers to develop dedicated automotive chemistries, for cell purchase contracts, and more, all at the gigawatt scale. And it feels normal. Meanwhile, Tesla has moved on to talking terawatts, always looking three steps beyond the vision of traditional manufacturers that are only able to map out a path to fully electric vehicles after Tesla has demonstrated it to be possible.
Cells, Modules, & Packs
Tesla did not invent the electric vehicle battery, but it did define the battery structure upon which they are built. It all started with a battery cell. Tesla used the only widely available lithium-ion battery cell it could purchase when the first Roadster was in development — the 18650 cell — to build its first vehicles.
Because it was still feeling out the nuances of battery failure rates, battery pack composition, and battery life expectancies, the batteries were designed to be modular. In the first Roadster, that translated to a handful of battery modules that could be slid into and out of the vehicle without having to tear down the entire pack. These modules served a purpose in the original Roadster and managed to persist in all of Tesla’s vehicle designs to date.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk copped to this fact in a recent interview on the Third Row Tesla podcast in which he unpacked the history of the now vestigial artifact that is the battery module in Tesla’s vehicles. Regardless, Tesla was the first to utilize the hierarchy, and as a result, many new energy vehicle manufacturers have followed suit.
If CleanTechnica has helped you learn about Tesla or Tesla’s Energy products, feel free to use my Tesla referral code — https://ts.la/kyle623 — to get 1,000 free Supercharging miles with the purchase of a new Tesla vehicle or a $250 award after activating a new Tesla solar system. If you’re anything like me, the award serves as a nice bonus after doing something great and feels a lot like finding a toy in a box of cereal, back when that was still a thing.