A decade ago, the idea that an electric car could be made with a range in excess of 200 miles per charge was met with derision by all but the staunchest of engineers and electric vehicle advocates.
Today, Tesla’s all-electric Model S luxury sedan and two-seat Roadster prove that dream is not only plausible but commercially viable too. Thanks to the wonders of Tesla’s proprietary Supercharger rapid charging technology, those who own a high-end Tesla Model S can not only drive more than 200 miles on a single charge but they can recharge their car to drive another 200 miles in under an hour — supercharger network permitting.
But in an interview with a Danish Television station this week, Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] CEO Elon Musk said that Tesla has plans to extend the range of its Model S electric car in the next two or three years, resulting in a car that would easily be capable of traveling around 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) without needing to recharge.
But why? And what purpose does a longer-range Tesla Model S really serve?
The answer is a simple one: ending dependence on fossil fuels.
As GreenCarReports notes, the current long-distance record for Tesla Model S drivers is well beyond the official 270-mile EPA range of the Tesla Model S 85D or the expected ‘near 300’ mile range of the Tesla Model S 90D. Indeed, last week we told you about one intrepid driver who managed more than 550 miles in his Tesla Model S 85D without recharging.
But at the moment, the only way to extend the range of a Tesla Model S beyond its comfortable everyday range of 270-280 miles is to drive extremely slowly, requiring the kind of driving techniques which we view as both impractical and in some cases, illegal.
The future planned upgrade would allow Model S owners to get the same kind of extraordinary range per charge as today’s hypermiling record-breakers, but while driving their cars completely normally.
At first it might seem like part of Elon Musk’s drive to continually improve Tesla’s vehicles, producing the very best electric car that’s possible. Or it might seem like Tesla feels the need to prove in every way that its cars are equal or superior in performance and range to any gasoline car out there.
Those two reasons may factor in there somewhere — so too does reason the Tesla Model S will likely get a range increase in the coming years is a side effect of improving battery chemistry for the lithium-ion battery cells used in Tesla’s battery packs. But the real reason lies in Tesla’s plan to rid the world of fossil fuels forever.
As the energy density of those cells increases — something Musk predicted would happen at a rate of five or ten percent every few years — the theoretical maximum range of the Tesla Model S’ battery pack goes up for a given size.
If those higher-density battery cells are equally expensive to produce as the ones they replace — or perhaps even cheaper than the generation before them thanks to the massive Tesla Gigafactory being built near Reno, NV — the question of expanding the range of the Model S and Tesla’s other electric cars stops becoming one of asking ‘why?’ and starts becoming one of ‘why not?’
Unlike Nissan, whose own recent improvements in lithium-ion cell technology meant that the 2016 Nissan LEAF can be offered with a 30 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack compared to 24 kilowatt-hours of previous model years, Tesla also knows there’s a great deal of positive publicity to be had for at least offering existing customers the chance to upgrade their car’s battery packs to larger ones for the right price.
Even if only one tenth of one percent of customers actually take Tesla up on the offer, the theoretical ability to upgrade at some point in the future means that Tesla wins the upper hand over other automakers when it comes to public image.
It’s easy to imagine the future conversations between plug-in advocates and car experts going something like this:
Buy a Tesla and you’ll still be able to upgrade it in the future — even if you won’t be able to afford it. Buy another automaker’s electric car, and you’ll be stuck with the same technology forever.
Many, including this commentator, would argue that there’s little necessity for an electric vehicle to travel more than 300 miles per charge in the majority of use cases, not only for the inherent safety issues surrounding fatigue after such a long time behind the wheel but also because of the practicalities of lasting 300 miles without a restroom or refreshment break.
But if we examine the other reasons for making an electric car go further on a single charge, such as those rare edge-use cases where the driver genuinely does need to travel 300 miles or more between charges, or is traveling somewhere charging infrastructure is spotty, the case for a longer-range Tesla starts to make sense.
After all, if Tesla’s Elon Musk is really serious about ridding the world of fossil fuels and onto zero-emissions vehicles powered by renewable energy, Tesla needs to prove that an electric car really can do everything a gasoline car can.
And it’s at this point where Tesla’s market strategy, if at first glance a little preoccupied with beating everything else out there, starts to make sense.
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