September 30, 2007
Tesla Roadster A Few Months Away

David Pogue of the New York Times interviews Martin Eberhard, a top executive at Tesla Motors about their pure electric sports car.

David Pogue: So give me the gist of the Tesla Roadster. Zero to 60 in...?

Martin Eberhard: This is zero to 60 in under four seconds.

DP: And the range of the battery is?

ME: It's over 200 miles. [DP note: This week, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded its testing of the Tesla. Its official measurement: 245 miles per charge.]

That range is telling. They've got a car they've designed with very light and expensive materials. They probably have little or no luggage space. I bet it doesn't do well in crash tests either. They are using the best batteries they can find. Yet it is good for only 245 miles. Plus, once you've driven three and a half to four hours with it you've got to stop and wait just as long for it to recharge. This is a local car, not suitable for cross-country travel. In order for batteries to totally replace liquid fuels future batteries have got to store more electric power per unit weight and be capable of recharge in 1% of the time of current best-of-breed batteries. Is this physically possible?

DP: And time to recharge the battery?

ME: From empty to full, about three and a half hours.

DP: O.K. And price of the car?

ME: This is a $98,000 base model.

Tesla claims to have over 500 orders and that they will start shipping first quarter of 2008.

Tesla can afford to charge a hundred grand for a high end sports car. But obviously this sports car isn't going to revolutionize transportation at that high end price. The Roadster has a carbon fiber body that contributes to its high cost along with the pricey lithium ion batteries. The key question here: How fast will lithium battery prices fall? That's the multi-billion dollar question.

Given cheap high density batteries we would not have to worry about Peak Oil. Why? We do not face a general energy shortage. But we seem to be facing a growing liquid fuel energy shortage. Great batteries would make that shortage irrelevant. With the ability to move around using electricity our energy cost per mile will actually drop. A full sized SUV might use only 460 watt-hours/mile (0.46 kwh/mile) (warning: PDF file). Well, assume 11 cents per kwh for the electric cost (I'm rounding up a bit since I'm expecting higher electric prices). So then 0.46 wh/mile times 11 cents/kwh gives us a cost of about 5 cents a mile. Even if we add another penny in for recharge heat losses we are still at 6 cents per mile. Though in a higher electric cost state like New York we'll be at .46*17 + 1 = 9 cents per mile to push a big SUV around. How does that work out? If you drive 12,000 miles per year and live in New York you will spend $1080 per year to move your SUV around and you'll lose more money to depreciation. In a cheap electric state like Washington you'll pay less than half that amount. If you live in Washington state and drive a compact electric car it'll probably cost you less than $300 per year to keep it charged up. Your car insurance will cost more.

Since electricity is so cheap for transportation the biggest issue with electric cars is battery cost. Other notable issues include battery weight, safety, and longevity. Lithium batteries are much lighter than lead acid batteries and probably light enough at least for medium range cars. EnerDel claims to have solved the heat safety problem. Other battery makers such as A123Systems might have solved the heat safety problem too. EnerDel also claims to have solved the longevity problem. But cost continues to be a problem. Will A123Systems, EnerDel, and other competitors solve the cost problem?

Update: If you are wondering how urgently we need electric cars to replace gasoline-powered and diesel-powered vehicles read here and here for some recent analyses of oil production trends. Scary stuff if you ask me.

Looking out 30 or 40 years I do not see the human race limited by energy availability. Nuclear and solar power will become much cheaper and we'll find ways to convert those sources of power into forms usable for transportation. But I'm less sure about the next 5 to 10 years. We could be headed for a wrenching readjustment replete with severe recessions and declining living standards. Also, biomass ethanol is not the answer and hydrogen looks like a longer term prospect at best. So do we get great batteries in a timely manner or do our economies go through much more severe restructurings?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 September 30 10:10 AM  Energy Electric Cars


Comments
David Weisman said at September 30, 2007 10:56 AM:

You have a lot of good points here. The car may have a range of over 200 miles, and it may be capable of going from zero to sixty in four seconds, but I bet the battery doesn't last for 200 miles if you go from zero to sixty in four seconds more than once or twice.

I think there might be general energy shortages in some places if these cars became popular and economical. Many places already have blackouts on hot summer days from the air conditioning. It isn't only liberals who get upset when a nuclear or coal plant is build near them, and there is only limited infrastructure for moving electricity around.

Fat Man said at September 30, 2007 11:11 AM:

"Tesla Roadster A Few Months Away"

The same headline will be true ten years from now.

Randall Parker said at September 30, 2007 11:29 AM:

David Weisman,

If there's a blackout and you have one of these cars you could hook it up (depending on your having already installed the right equipment) to your house and run your house off your car batteries.

The blackout problem is a peak usage problem. The way to solve it with electric cars is to have variable prices of electricity depending on demand. Charge less for electricity at night and during winters (and charge more when the wind doesn't blow). Give people incentives to charge up their cars at night.

This can even be automated. You come home, plug in your car, and forget about it till the next morning. The connector you use to plug it in does NOT immediately start sending juice thru the wires. A timer activates around 11 PM and starts the recharging process. If you need electricity immediately there could be a button for immediate recharge.

We need dynamic electric pricing anyway.

People upset about coal and nuclear site locations: The nuclear power industry is planning to build more reactors at existing sites. That doesn't add to local pollution the way coal plants do. The people who already choose to live near nuclear power plants see additional plants as additional jobs. The nuclear industry does not face major local opposition to new nuclear power plant construction.

The nuclear power industry's biggest problem even back in the 1970s was construction cost, not environmental opposition. About 30 new nuclear power plant license applications are going to get filed in the United States in the next year or two. If the first of those plants get built on budget I'm expecting many more.

Ranjit Mathoda said at September 30, 2007 12:05 PM:

Tesla's principals have explained that the all electric car is an immature technology. When technologies are immature, it is better to produce a high cost, small customer base product, focused on their specific needs. Then as the technology becomes more mature, you can take advantage of the improving performance/cost curve and offer a more mass market version. Current batteries don't have the energy storage capability of petroleum, which make plugin hybrids a strong challenger to all electric cars, for many consumer applications. But in being a specialized sports car, an electric car can hold its own.

Vincent said at September 30, 2007 12:23 PM:

Randall, have you checked into flywheel energy storage? Using the new aerogel material to shield the flywheel, it can be made safer and cheaper than an IC motor.

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

Randall Parker said at September 30, 2007 1:03 PM:

Ranjit,

I agree, and Tesla's strategy makes perfect sense. But what are the prospects for much cheaper and better batteries? How long will electric cars remain a niche offering? If Tesla's going to remain a niche for 10 years then their car is just a curiosity and a fading curiosity at that. But if battery prices are going to drop rapidly then this is the beginning of a big revolution in automotive technology.

A recent article has EnerDel claiming $1500 for a plug-in hybrid battery within 2 years. Well, what do they mean by that? That report does not say. For perspective, the Prius has a 1.3 kwh battery which won't get you very far. If we assume EnerDel's $1500 is for a similar sized car then maybe 250 watt-hours per mile and the goal I've heard stated is 40 miles for feasible pluggable hybrids. So we are talking 10 kwh per $1500. If they could achieve that (and I'm only guessing the 10 kwh as what they are quoting $1500 for) then pluggable hybrids would become very feasible. Add in another $3000 or so for the electronics and electric motor(s) and a large fraction of the population could stop using gasoline for commuting and trips to stores.

Randall Parker said at September 30, 2007 1:14 PM:

Vincent, Is a flywheel practical for a car? I see safety issues as well as the problem of the gyro effect. The gyro would need to be free to rotate as the vehicle turns.

Atrox said at September 30, 2007 4:09 PM:

A gallon of gas will take my Honda Civic and 4 adults down the road 30+ miles at 45 mph. Can you imagine a battery with an equivalent energy-to-mass ratio? It defies the laws of physics! We will have to use electric cars for travel within metropolitan areas, and offset peak oil with coal to liquid technology for long trips, which will become increasingly expensive. In the long term, finding a way to genetically modify plants for more efficiant biodiesel and ethanol production is our only hope.

Vincent said at September 30, 2007 8:59 PM:

The gyro effect is explained in the wiki article. If you put two flywheels in, rotating counter to each other, the gyro effect is neutralized. And new materials coming out could be used to shield the flywheel chamber so that if the flywheels do burst, no one will be harmed.

Julian Morrison said at September 30, 2007 9:21 PM:

Fast recharge is possible with ultracapacitors, but hard on the infrastructure - the "wattage" of gasoline pouring into a tank is immense. That sort of current would toast domestic wiring. I've seen suggestions for a home base-station which trickle-charges a bank of capacitors for a quick refill. I think also an infrastructure of fast-charge cafes could be created. Charge times don't have to be cut down to minutes. A three hour stop is a halted journey, but a one hour stop is a lazy lunch.

Randall Parker said at September 30, 2007 9:32 PM:

Julian Morrison,

Certainly a 1 hour recharge would open up electric cars for more road trips. But for people who are driving 10 to 12 hours in a single day on a road trip the 1 hour repeated 4 times would become unacceptable. Worse, the place you might have to stop might not be near a suitable sight seeing stop.

Electric recharging stations would need to become very ubiquitous to work for road trippers. But electric recharging stations will be rarer than current gas stations because most recharging will be done at home.

Vincent said at September 30, 2007 9:58 PM:

Surely electric recharging equipment could be retrofitted to existing gas stations.

HellKaiserRyo said at October 1, 2007 12:04 AM:

I wonder what would power big rigs after peak oil. I wonder if electricity works. Maybe hydrogen for them...

Julian Morrison said at October 1, 2007 2:06 AM:

I think electricity would drive out gas, because gas both has and needs a huge, mutually dependent infrastructure. Electricity is available more or less anywhere, although domestic wires mean slow recharges. But I can for example imagine most workplaces getting recharge cables on their parking paces, because it's just easy to do. However once gas usage falls below a certain level, gas stations start to close, and so they become further apart, and that makes gas cars less attractive, and so more gas stations close - it's a destructive feedback.

In an electric-car world, I suspect transport would segment into close-range cars (electric) and long-range commercial haulage (still diesel). Serious cross-continental travel would move onto trains or train-ferries that carry cars (some diesel, but increasingly electric and possibly nuclear). Freight might too, if road haulage gets too expensive.

Brett Bellmore said at October 1, 2007 8:49 AM:

I think it would be far more practical to design the cars for quick battery swaps, than to expect people to pull into a charging station, and suck down enough power to light up a small subdivision for a minute or so. Plus, this would permit advances in battery technology to be rolled out with some degree of transparency.

This does, of course, require some degree of battery standardization across vehicle lines. Solving that would be more of a legal problem, than technical.

Julian Morrison said at October 1, 2007 11:34 AM:

Ugh! Battery standardization is the last thing we need. Can you imagine if the government had set standards a few years back? We'd still be pressuring them to upgrade from Ni-Cad! And of course, as with all politicized decisions, the industry would have formed a lobby to argue for stasis.

Battery swaps are hard because batteries are large, awkward and heavy. It's easily comparable with hot-swapping the engine in a petrol car - can you imagine the complexity and energy cost of machinery needed to do that 1000 times a day, every day, perfectly, and without expensive human guidance? How much do you think that would add to the cost of power? To the cost and failure rate of the car? Plugging in a cable is simply more sensible.

Nick said at October 1, 2007 1:25 PM:

Randall, I think you're being distracted by EV's like the Tesla. A PHEV-40 is perfectly adequate to eliminate 75-95% of gasoline useage, depending on one's useage pattern. Current batteries are more than cheap enough for this.

The more important question is can we ramp up production quickly enough? The Chevy Volt will be here in 3 years, and 1st year production is probably 60k. We can probably get to 75% of new vehicles being PHEV in 10 years.

I wish we could do it faster, but that would require a serious governmental commitment, as it would require wasteful & expensive ultra-fast tracking of production, somewhat akin to a WWII effort. We don't seem to be quite ready to do that yet, as a society...

Brett Bellmore said at October 1, 2007 3:14 PM:

Julian, I'm not talking about standardizing battery chemistry, I'm talking about standardizing battery geometry, and the battery/car interface. Consistent with such standardization, it would be perfectly feasible to transparently switch chemistries, put one company's battery in another company's car, and so on.

And, yes, as an engineer who dabbles in robotics, I can very easily imagine how difficult it would be to go about swapping batteries on an automated basis, thousands of times a day, without failures. I can also imagine how difficult it is going to be to charge unswappable batteries, in place, on a time frame comparable to gassing up an IC car, without cars catching fire or people being electrocuted.

I know which problem I'd rather try to solve.

You think there are ANY easy solutions here? I don't.

Atrox said at October 1, 2007 4:34 PM:

Nick - PHEVs don't solve the "long trip" problem. If liquid fuel is prohibitively expensive, long hauls are infeasible. If it isn't expensive, then people won't buy PHEVs anyway.

Randall Parker said at October 1, 2007 5:59 PM:

Nick,

I get that PHEVs will cut local travel costs a great deal. But first off, a 40 mile range is more inconvenient than a 400 mile range even if you can recharge at home. Do you really want to pull an electric cable out to the curb side at the end of every day or every other day? 40 mile range will be a serious nuisance to most people.

Granted, PHEVs will be able to run off of gasoline for short trips too if you can't always be bothered to plug it in every day. But if gasoline is really expensive you'll face a trade-off between paying more or spending time every day charging up.

Second, there still are the longer range trips too.

If we really are near Peak Oil (and I suspect we are) then PHEVs will be really helpful. But I'm not thrilled about them. I'd be thrilled by affordable 200 mile range pure electric cars. Not sure how distant a prospect they are.

Julian Morrison said at October 1, 2007 6:48 PM:

Brett,
What I was meaning is: that problem doesn't need a solution. It's perfectly fine for EVs to need longer to charge up than gasoline cars. There's no need to ram a whole charge down a wire in a two-or-three minute timeframe. There's no need to hydraulically swap the battery block. People will prefer EVs for other reasons, and the culture will adapt to the charge times.

Nick,
PHEVs are inelegant. They have two engines to break, they require two parallel infrastructures... IMO they're nothing but a bridge between technologies, as clunky as a coal-or-gasoline car. And 40 miles is not a range, it's a joke. That's 20 miles each way to dead flat on an absolute maximum charge and pray for no diversions. You couldn't even use it to reliably run to work or the shops, unless you live almost close enough to walk.

As for gasoline, it seems odd to assume it will still be as available if people start using 75-95% less of it. In practice that means 75-95% of gas stations close (or more, since there are many feedbacks involved). It means a huge rise in the price of gas, because the fixed costs aren't being spread as thin. It means, quite possibly, that the manufacturers simply take gasoline fuel off the market, since it's not worth the bother to truck around. Even without "peak oil".

Sam M said at October 2, 2007 9:38 AM:

Regarding charge time, why not change the way we swap power? That is, instead of parking somewhere to charge the battery, why not go to a "battery station," similar to a gas station, and swap your dead battery for a fully charged one.

Maybe swapping is too tough? Well, change the design of the battery. Countless other consuer products have in/out batteries. I know they are huge. But some trained guys with machines could swap them right quick.

How to guarantee that the gas station isn't selling you a crap battery, or one that's half-charged? I don't know. How do we keep gas stations from selling bad gas?

Innovation Catalyst said at October 2, 2007 1:40 PM:

Sam, I wrote an article on my blog about that very idea not too long ago. I think potentially it solves all the recharge problems, if handled correctly.

The advantage to the car owner is obvious. The advantage to the battery supplier is that the empty units can be recharged overnight with offpeak rates, then resold to car owners at a higher rate.

TW Andrews said at October 3, 2007 2:12 PM:

Julian, I'm not talking about standardizing battery chemistry, I'm talking about standardizing battery geometry, and the battery/car interface. Consistent with such standardization, it would be perfectly feasible to transparently switch chemistries, put one company's battery in another company's car, and so on.

This would actually encourage the development of new battery chemistries/technologies, since they wouldn't have the hurdle of trying to displace existing ways of linking batteries to cars. As soon as an improved battery is available, it's able to be placed into many already existing vehicles, rather than exclusively ones which will be manufactured.

Tony Belding said at October 4, 2007 8:11 AM:

I don't know why FuturePundit feels compelled to attack this car with unfounded speculation.

"They probably have little or no luggage space."

A few minutes research would have revealed that the trunk space is small, but is significantly larger than the gasoline-powered Lotus Elise it was derived from.

"I bet it doesn't do well in crash tests either."

A few minutes research would have revealed that the Roadster has passed all of its crash tests.

"They are using the best batteries they can find. Yet it is good for only 245 miles." Which is about 75% longer range than the previous champion in this category, the GM EV1. It's a huge improvement. How often do you drive more than 200 miles in a day, really?

"This is a local car, not suitable for cross-country travel." Duh! It was never billed as a grand touring car. Why does this matter? Do you think anybody who buys a $100,000 exotic sports car doesn't already have another, more civilized car in their garage for taking long trips?

"In order for batteries to totally replace liquid fuels future batteries have got to store more electric power per unit weight and be capable of recharge in 1% of the time of current best-of-breed batteries." Which is completely missing the point. Electric cars do not have to totally replace liquid fuels in order to be useful and have a place in the market.

BEVs and PHEVs created with today's battery technology could replace a fair percentage of the light passenger vehicles in the world. Not all. . . not even most. . . but it has to begin somewhere. It does not make sense to wait and do nothing at all until the ultimate super-battery appears and allows to suddenly replace all petroleum fuels. The world does not work that way. As batteries improve, their potential market share can improve. And what's wrong with that? Why the hostility?

Tony Belding said at October 4, 2007 8:26 AM:

Moving on to the Peak Oil topic. . . .

"Since electricity is so cheap for transportation the biggest issues with electric cars is battery cost."

This part I agree with. I believe this will be solved. There is nothing inherently expensive about a Li-ion cell, they aren't made from platinum (unlike hydrogen fuel cells). It's simply a mass manufacturing problem, the kind of problem that our world's capitalist-industrial complex has solved so well, so many times before. Consider the gasoline engine. . . It's mind-boggling that they can be made and sold as cheaply as they are. It's only possible because they are produced in huge numbers by companies with huge factories, and decades of experience refining their production in a highly competitive environment. The same thing can and should happen with batteries.

Another good example is the LCD computer monitor. They are among the most difficult items to manufacture that have ever been invented, and the cost showed that -- at first. Then companies like Matsushita and Samsung invested in large, highly sophisticated plants that could produce them in large quantities, and they relentlessly refined the production process, and the retail price ultimately fell by about 90%.

I believe batteries can follow the same path, but it won't happen overnight. Ah, there's the rub.

"But I'm less sure about the next 5 to 10 years. We could be headed for a wrenching readjustment replete with severe recessions and declining living standards."

I also can easily envision a global economic depression while industry adapts away from petroleum fuels. Adapt they will. . . But the scale of the problem guarantees it will take a while, and there will be some hard times along the way.

Brett Bellmore said at October 4, 2007 9:17 AM:

Is there any reason a moderate range electric vehicle couldn't have a fuel powered generator module you could just hitch up to it for long trips? I can't see the obstacle to this, it wouldn't require much more than a trailer hitch and proper placement of the charging plug, and suddenly your short trip EV is a full purpose vehicle. Cheaper than keeping two vehicles around, and you'd have the generator at home for dealing with outages, too.

Engineer-Poet said at October 4, 2007 8:07 PM:

Quoth Julian:

And 40 miles is not a range, it's a joke. That's 20 miles each way to dead flat on an absolute maximum charge and pray for no diversions.
<sarcasm> Yeah, you would have to start the sustainer engine and burn some fuel if you miscalculated.  It's so much better to just burn fuel all the time. </sarcasm>

Home charging doesn't have to be done in minutes.  Overnight is fine, and the first-generation PHEV's with a few kWh of batteries will need only a 110 V receptacle and an extension cord.  Fast-charging for long trips can be done at specially equipped stations.  There are multiple battery chemistries which will charge in 15 minutes or less (too new for the Tesla) and the dark horse ultracap from EEStor would be even faster.  Welding cable is about the size of a filler hose.  Coincidence?

Electricity from PV may be about to get cheaper, as in an order of magnitude cheaper.  See Waste to energy-maker when the link goes live (which is up to the editors of TOD).

Vincent said at October 4, 2007 9:43 PM:

"Do you really want to pull an electric cable out to the curb side at the end of every day or every other day?"
An electrical device could easily be wired to a curbside location for those domiciles that lack garages. Just put a lock on it, and you're all set!

Scherpenhuyzen said at October 5, 2007 2:44 AM:

Dear Randall

in switzerland we do have dynamic electric pricing since I can think of. At night (9pm until 6 am) you pay half the price!

And what about NanoSafe Battery http://www.altairnano.com/documents/NanoSafeBackgrounder060920.pdf ?

Nick said at October 5, 2007 7:56 AM:

"Do you really want to pull an electric cable out to the curb side at the end of every day or every other day? 40 mile range will be a serious nuisance to most people."

I know this isn't intuitive for you, given how your neighbors use their garages for storage, but the majority of people who own garages actually put their cars in them, and a docking kind of charging would be awfully easy to design.


Sure, PHEV's aren't perfect, but think about it: they're better than pure ICE vehicles in every way: if you never plug them in, you still get 50 MPG. And, they give you the opportunity to drive on electricity as much as you want. Getting to 99% would start to be awfully inconvenient, but 75% would be easy. Finally, battery capacities will increase.

You could use cheaper, shorter-lived (in terms of charge cycles) batteries for the additional range which would be used much less often. There's a lot of potential here for finetuning.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2007 5:56 PM:

Vincent,

Suppose you live on a street where the city owns the curb and about 6 feet in from the curb. You can't just install an electric outlet by the curb. Plus, if you did and your neighbors or a plumber or carpet layer or maid parks in front of your plug you won't be able to use it all the time.

Then there are the people who live in apartment buildings. They can't control any of that.

Nick,

Most people do not have available garages that they regularly use. They didn't where I grew up in New Jersey. They don't in most parts of Santa Barbara.

Scherpenhuyzen,

I've been hearing about Altair for what seems like a few years. If they are ready then they should start selling for aftermarket hybrid upgrades into pluggable hybrids. I'll believe it when I can buy it.

I take A123Systems more seriously because of their business relationship with General Motors. They must have achieved some engineering milestones with GM.

Engineer-Poet said at October 5, 2007 7:46 PM:

Cities install parking meters along many streets.  They also assign parking in some neighborhoods.  Nothing prevents cities from installing electric meters and assigning parking next to outlets.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2007 7:58 PM:

E-P,

I can see a car having an ID that it reports via a standard cable to a charger and then you scan thru a money card on the charger and tell the charger only charge your particular car.

Also, the more expensive oil becomes the more justifiable the cost of the electric meter system.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2007 8:20 PM:

Tony Belding,

Passed crash tests? Lots of cars "pass" crash tests but don't do so with NHTSA 5 stars or IIHS "Good" ratings. Passing doesn't tell us very much.

Hostility? Look, I see the Roadster as a niche car. I expect GM, Toyota, and other big car companies to provide the demand volume for better batteries. The VCs are funding companies like A123Systems in order to win contracts with the big car companies. I'd be surprised if Tesla becomes as large a source of demand for batteries as Toyota is right now. Well, the battery problem is the biggest problem.

Nick said at October 8, 2007 8:49 AM:

"Most people do not have available garages that they regularly use. They didn't where I grew up in New Jersey. They don't in most parts of Santa Barbara. "

90% of cars have available off-street parking. That statistic certainly includes places like "most parts of Santa Barbara", where they have garages, but use them for storage.

But, 1) most people who have garages use them. really, they do. places like SB, where you have people squeezing into very high-cost real estate, are unusual - think about it: the average price of a single family dwelling in the US is around $200K...what is it in SB?. 2) If they choose not to and thereby forego getting a PHEV, well, they must not be that bothered by the cost (internal & external) of gasoline.

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