Tesla Roadster: The Two Seat Electrical Jam

Tesla Roadster

Tesla’s Roadster does 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds, 135mph and can go 250 miles on $2.50 worth of electricity.  (photo courtesy of Tesla)


fourwheeldriftA couple months ago my friend Danny sent me an email regarding the Tesla Roadster.  Danny is a fan of electric vehicles.  I’m a fan of sports cars.  The Tesla, the first electric-powered sports car, seemed to be common ground. Actually, Danny has been trying to find a new electric car worthy of my endorsement as viable in the mass market.  With the Tesla, he thought he had a winner. 

Let me get this out of the way – I think there’s a future for alternate-power vehicles, but the future isn’t here yet.  So many years of greed and low fuel prices pushed R+D to the back burner.  We’re not much further along with electric cars, gas-electric hybrids and other concepts now than Detroit was in 1910. 

I love the Tesla in theory:  a two seat sports car – basically just a Lotus Elise modified to run on Lithium Ion battery packs.  As with any electric motor, the Tesla’s can get to maximum power almost instantly, which translates to zero-to-sixty in under four seconds.  That’s Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini supercar territory, folks.  Its 135 mph top speed is more than adequate, plus it’s about twice as fast as any other electric car. 

When talking about electric cars, though, there’s always a catch.  Usually it’s range. Previous attempts at electric cars by other manufacturers have created ranges under 100 miles, which means that people couldn’t take them too far before heading home for an all-night charging session.   Electric car fans get blue in the face spewing facts about that the average driver only commutes under 60 miles per day, but this has done little to sell electric cars.   Mostly it is because consumers can’t justify one car for commuting and another for all trips over 50 miles away from home.

The Tesla can get up to 300 miles on a charge, but the company admits 250 is average.  Full power is restored with just 3.5 hours of charging time.  At current prices, that’s about $2.50 of electricity to go 250 miles.  Pretty sweet. 

Okay, there has to be a catch here.  Most of the major automotive press focus on the price catch – the $100,000 acquisition cost of the Tesla Roadster.  But guess what?  That isn’t it, in my humble opinion.  The real catch that took me a whole three minutes of reading Tesla’s site to find was battery life.  Here’s what the official marketing material says (courtesy of Tesla):

In estimating the life of our batteries, you can multiply the number of cycles by the range. Li-Ion batteries are good for 500 complete charge/discharge cycles. One cycle consists of discharging the pack from 100% state of charge (SOC) to 0% SOC. Realistically, drivers will not completely discharge their pack. More likely, drivers will drive the car for 50 or 100 miles then plug it back in to charge it up to 100% SOC. Driving only 50 miles is only a partial discharge, roughly using 20% of the charge. If a driver continues to drive 50 miles every day and recharges every night, then after 5 days they would complete the equivalent of one charge/discharge cycle.Thus, 500 cycles times 250 miles/charge works out to 125,000 miles, but our estimate is a more conservative 100,000 miles. However the cycle life of 500 cycles is based upon performance that is more challenging to the battery cells than our application. We believe that our pampered batteries will achieve more cycles due to temperature control of the batteries and minimizing the maximum charge voltage.

While the 100,000 mile average seems okay for a battery pack, the 500 cycles is scary when you break down the numbers.  What they are saying is that they expect the battery packs to last anywhere from 1.3 years to 5.2. years.  That’s not good, especially since you can guarantee that the battery packs are a) expensive as a weekend with a Park Avenue call girl and b) not covered by warranty. 

And let’s face it – when has a small manufacturer ever underestimated the life of a part?  If I were a betting man, I’d guess that the battery packs will start fading at 6 months to a maximum life of just over two years.  Certainly a two-year-old battery pack won’t have a 250-mile range.  Just look how long your laptop or cell phone lasts now compared to when you bought it.

Furthermore, unless you live in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Miami, if your Tesla Roadster breaks down, you’ll have to ship it at your cost to one of these cities for repair.  Given that the last time I had a car shipped from Ohio to Washington it took a month, I’d expect that every time a Tesla breaks, it’ll be off the road for a long time.

If you think I’m saying I think the Tesla is a bad car, you’ve misunderstood me.  I think that it’s an amazing car — by far the best electric car ever produced.  I’d love to drive one for a road and track testing session.   From a pure marketing sense, though, it’s a product for the smallest tip of the early adopters – and rich ones at that!  I hope people do buy these cars to prove there is a viable market, which will help induce more manufacturers to dump R+D money into battery technology, which is (and has always been) the Achilles heel of electric cars.  If you have money to burn, go buy one. 


4 Responses to Tesla Roadster: The Two Seat Electrical Jam

  1. Danny Barer says:

    I think the battery life issue is common to all lithium ion batteries — from Ipods to Teslas.

    If the average battery life is 3-5 years, however, that would be optimum for the average car lease period. If the lessee wanted to acquire the car after the lease, he or she would have to up for a new battery in addition to the payoff price. Leases might also help address the $100,000 price.

    But the EV1 experience may put people off leasing electric cars at all.

  2. Danny is correct — Litium Ion batteries have the same issues in any application. Battery technology has always been (and will probably always be) the limiting factor in electric vehicles. Sales of electric vehicles in the early 1900s increased dramatically with each improvement in battery cell technology.

    Danny also brings up a great point about the beneficial role of leases for electric cars. He also establishes the very important fact that General Motors really damaged the credibility of leases in relation to electric vehicles on the EV1 project. In fact, GM did quite a bit of damage to consumer trust in electric car ownership with the EV1. For those not familiar, go see the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?” out in theaters right now.

    Tesla Roadsters production will be so limited for the near future that it seems leases won’t be necessary. There are enough wealthy people to buy them as they roll off the line, or at least it seems that way from marketing buzz.

    The largest issue, though, is a marketing one that cannot be helped by leases or an incremental increase in battery technology. If the public perceives the Tesla, or any other future electric car, as not being able to provide reliable, long-range primary transportation for at least the same term as a Honda, Toyota or Chevy, then consumers will not opt for the vehicle in large numbers.

    Sadly, consumers buy cars on perception. SUVs and minivans are statistically more likely to kill occupants than large sedans, but most consumers believe that SUVs and minivans are the safest vehicles on the road. When asked about the most reliable brands, consumers place BMW and Mercedes right behind Toyota and Lexus, even though both German makes have struggled to stay above the industry average. Subaru has done a great job making people thing that AWD vehicles handle better, even though they understeer more and take longer to stop.

    So if consumers believe that an electric car’s battery will start failing in a year and a half, plus will lose range based on their experiences with cell phones and Ipods, then in all liklihood, the electric car will not sell well…especially if one can buy four Hondas for the price of one electric car.

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