Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tesla and NY Times: Charges and counter-charges

OK, I couldn’t resist the pun.  If you are interested in electric vehicle transportation, you have no doubt followed the controversy surrounding the New York Times story, based on a Washington – Boston test drive of the Tesla Model S, which suggested that the Tesla has serious range problems.  Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, challenged the story and the journalistic integrity of the writer.  Not exactly Jerry Springer stuff, but it has gotten people excited.  Why?  The future of electric vehicles is very much on a knife edge right now, and there are plenty of people hoping they will fail as well as plenty of people who think their success is vital to cleaner transportation and a safer future.
The latest chapter in the story comes from the Times’ public editor, who summarizes the controversy, evaluates both sides, and reaches the non-conclusion that “there is still plenty to argue about.”  She also notes that other test drivers have recently had better results.  These include a CNN Money test drive on the Washington to Boston route (here) and a Los Angeles to San Francisco drive by a writer for The Verge (here).
What conclusions can we draw from this drama?
First, electric vehicles, at their current technological level, have limited range.  They are likely to be used mainly for local travel.
Second, electric vehicles can be used for intercity travel if they have access to conveniently located fast chargers.  None of the reviewers suggested that Tesla’s Superchargers didn’t work well – there just aren’t enough of them.  (Tesla has installed two Superchargers on the I-95 corridor about 200 miles apart, in Newark DE and Milford CT, used in the notorious Times test drive.  They are solar-powered and free for Tesla drivers.)
Third, the Tesla Model S is still a very cool car.
For me, the public policy lesson is simple: the states and the federal government should aggressively pursue strategies to install fast charging units on interstate highways to grow the range of electric vehicles and promote their rapid proliferation.  I believe that that outcome is critical to cleaner transportation and a safer future.

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