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Musk–New York Times Debate Highlights Electric Cars’ Shortcomings

Tesla should emphasize the applications where EVs beat gas vehicles.
February 14, 2013

Tesla Motors and the New York Times reporter John Broder are exchanging salvos over a negative review of Tesla’s new East Coast fast-charging stations. When Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk says it was Broder’s fault that he got stranded with a depleted battery, Musk is right. But he’s missing the point. Broder’s difficulties illustrate the fact that electric cars aren’t as well suited to long-distance driving as gas-powered ones. If EVs are going to take off, it will be for applications in which they can outdo gasoline cars.

In his test drive, Broder made mistakes at every turn. If he had topped off the battery (which he says he didn’t know how to do), he probably would have had enough charge. If he had plugged in at an ordinary outlet during an overnight stop, he probably would have had enough charge. But he didn’t, and the cold weather sapped his battery, forcing him to detour to a standard charging station, which can take hours instead of minutes to charge the battery. Then, bizarrely, he stopped charging and tried to drive 61 miles when the car’s display told him it could only go 32 miles.

Broder could easily have avoided running out of power. But he was treating the car the way he would a gas-powered one. The car said it had plenty of charge for his trip, and he believed it. When the power levels dropped in the cold, he couldn’t make the trip he wanted to.

This unpredictability will make it nerve-racking to drive electric cars long distances. And running out of power can mean spending hours waiting by a slow charger—whereas in a gas-powered car, a can of gas from a tow truck will get drivers quickly on their way. Drivers who are used to the convenience of gasoline will need to get used to taking more precautions if they intend to take road trips in EVs.

Tesla says it plans to put its superchargers closer together, and that will help. It should also develop better algorithms for predicting driving range. If the weather report calls for cold weather, let the driver know the capacity could drop significantly. Drivers need to be able to count on the range estimate being reasonably accurate, especially if they want to drive these cars long distances.

But the real strength of electric cars isn’t driving long distances. Gasoline stores far more energy than batteries, giving gas-powered cars greater range. And it’s far faster to fill up a gas tank than to recharge a battery.

Electric cars shine when it comes to commuting short distances, especially when drivers can charge both at home and at work. In this application, electric cars are more convenient than gasoline ones—you don’t need to go to the gas station. Also, electric vehicles are at their best in stop-and-go traffic, where their rapid, responsive acceleration and lack of engine noise is hard to beat.

Tesla shouldn’t emphasize its supercharging network. It should just treat it as an added bonus for people who want to take an occasional road trip. Instead, it should emphasize the ways electric vehicles are actually superior to the technology that Tesla hopes they will replace.

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