Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Real World Lessons About Electric Cars

I recently watched a documentary on PBS "Revenge of the Electric Car".  You can see a preview here.

Today I was looking up Tesla cars on Google to see how they have been doing since the documentary was made, and one interesting development is a series of quick recharge stations called "Superchargers", that Tesla has installed across the USA.

But in researching the Tesla, I came across a different article that I believe shows all the negative aspects of the Tesla.  Whether this was a deliberate hatchet job, I don't know, as it seems an innocent enough test, and fair observations of the result.  The article was called "What Running Out of Power in a Tesla on the Side of a Highway Taught Me About the Road Trip of Tomorrow", written by Nate Berg on a website called "The Atlantic Cities"

There are many comments after the article, and surprising to me, most support the Tesla, and even more shocking, I saw none that were vulgar or rude.

One comment that caught my eye may be typical of many neutral observers reactions (because after all, the seemingly neutral article did spend a lot of time pointing out the electric car's main shortcoming.) :  Adam Schulz says "Fantastically balanced article. I really like how you didn't demonize Tesla for your breakdown but illustrate that there are genuine constraints to electric vehicles, even with the supercharging stations. Thanks for this work!"

That was in part, my impression also, but I did not take this as an illustration of "genuine" constraints on electric vehicles.  On the contrary, it's amazing to me that the author drove from Barstow to Kingman (206 miles) in an electric-only car, and that if he had gone three more miles, could have recharged in about one hour.  And after that, he could continue his trip all the way to the East coast.

Obviously, the main limitation of the car was the driver himself, who should not have blindly followed the computation of the car's range calculator.  If I was driving that car, I would have slowed down to less than 65 mph once I saw the that the extra distance turned negative.  And I would not have bothered to pass that "psycho" trucker that nearly forced Nate Berg off the road.  Instead I might have stayed behind the truck, and benefited from the lower speed and the draft of the truck to save electricity.  And I'm pretty sure I would have made it to Kingman.

By the way, dimming the car's computer screen to save electricity is almost funny.  Or was he being serious?

I suppose I should not be making such absolute comments about an electric car, when I don't own one, but come on!  This is just basic Physics.  Most cars operate on the same principle.  They carry X amount of energy, and have to go Y distance.  The big unknown is the efficiency of converting the energy into distance (also known as "miles per gallon" in the internal combustion world.)  Another factor is the grade of the road, and as the author noted, Kingman is higher in elevation than Barstow.  I checked, Barstow is at 664m, Kingman is at 1016m above sea level.  So again simple Physics would tell us how much electricity would be needed to lift a car that distance straight up, and subtract that amount from your range.

In the end, I was very impressed by Tesla's range and speed.  Even more impressed by the number of their Supercharging stations, and how fast they can recharge the batteries.  Not too impressed with Nate Berg's driving, but since I would not be hiring him to drive my car, I don't care.

Picture:  This is how you sell cars in the real world.


  1. 'Range anxiety' remains a major issue in EV acceptance, and Berg's article exploits that (whether intentionally or unintentionally is actually irrelevant).

    Teslas are actually an exception - most EVs are intended as commuter vehicles, and have limited range. Battery technology has simply not yet developed to the point where a reasonably-priced vehicle can have the range and fast-charge capabilities of a Tesla.

    In fact, Tesla uses expensive (18650 lithium-ion) laptop batteries to power its vehicles. Tesla is currently planning a massive $5 billion battery plant to supply battery packs for its next 3G ($40K price) EV.

    Progress in alternate energy storage systems has been disappointing, with start-ups such as EEStor failing to realize their technical possibilities.

    Meanwhile the AAA reports that their 'out of gas' call volumes have actually increased in recent years. Apparently 'range anxiety' is not an issue with drivers of IC-engined cars ;-)

  2. Electric car with massive range in demo by Phinergy, Alcoa

    1. From the article:
      "The batteries are "charged" not from the electrical grid, but from hydroelectric power generated at Alcoa's smelter in Baie-Comeau, Que., Tzidon said. When they are full-charged, they are thick, heavy panels made mostly of aluminum.

      Although otherwise it is also interesting, this captures my attention mainly because Baie Comeau is my home town, as I have stated before in my blog.