Friday, February 15, 2013

Tesla and the Times

New York Times reporter, John M. Broder, has been testing a new Tesla S model electric car. As part of his test he decided to try using it for a drive to Boston and back. It was not a happy experience and he wrote about it in last Sunday's Times. Tesla has fired back, claiming that he drove faster than he said, kept the interior of the car warmer, and didn't fully charge the car.

You can get a recap of everything here with links to the original pieces. One thing I have not seen is anything putting the whole trip in perspective.

Tesla's original idea was to build a top-end sports car. The idea was that these are never driven very far so battery life would not be a problem and they are so expensive that the cost of the batteries could be absorbed into the overall price. The Model S is a different matter. It is meant to be an affordable family sedan. "Affordable" is a relative term. The car starts at $52,400 for a short-range version that can go up to 160 miles. It tops out with the performance version with a range of up to 300 miles for $87,400.

I'm not sure which version Broder was using but he was given special instruction by Tesla including the location of fast-charge stations and some slower-charge stations that he could use in an emergency.

Broder did not fully charge the car at any of the stations. Instead he charged it until it showed that he had more than enough charge to reach his destination. Even that took something like 45 minutes at a fast charge station. If he had charged it at home it might have taken days.

Here's the thing - New York to Boston is a bit over 200 miles. Every car I've ever owned could do that on a single tank of gas with lots left over. One or two cars could have done the round trip on one tank. Even if I did stop for gas, that would take at most fifteen minutes including my wife running in for coffee and a potty break.

The Tesla has trouble doing this. That means it is not a substitute for a family's only car. Anyone who buys it and expects to leave town will need a second car. That is a problem for Tesla. $52,400 is a lot of money for a car that can't leave town.

Wired ran an article on this that suggested we judge the Tesla by the iPhone standard. An iPhone needs to be charged and a land-line doesn't but we accept this because the iPhone does so much more. This would be a valid measure if the Tesla offered features that a regular car does not. Being able to charge the car in my garage instead of stopping at the gas station once every week or so is not much of an incentive, especially if I forget to charge the car overnight.

Normally this would be a matter between Tesla and the NYT but the rest of us have an interest in this, too. The government gave Tesla a half-billion dollars to develop the Model S. So, in the name of global warming, the rest of us are subsidizing a car that only the top 5% can afford to drive.

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