Another week, another Tesla update. If nothing else, Elon Musk knows how to keep up the drum beat.
Not content to simply pay off its DOE loan as it did last week, Tesla just announced a huge expansion of its supercharger network, promising to create a cross-country route from Los Angeles to New York City that will keep vehicles like its Model S juiced up all the way. Tesla will be tripling the number of superchargers nationwide by the end of next month, and by 2015 expects to leave no place in the U.S. unreachable by an EV.
Has Tesla solved the chicken-and-egg question that has been central to EVs – are there enough EVs to support charging infrastructure, and are there enough chargers for consumers to purchase EVs with confidence that they can get charged? Here’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s answer, given at the unveiling of the company’s first superchargers last fall: Tesla’s goal is to “give Model S drivers the ability to drive almost anywhere for free on pure sunlight.” All Model S owners will be able to charge their cars at the supercharger stations for free for as long as they own the vehicle, Musk promised.
The Tesla announcement comes with a dose of irony. As Tesla pledged to expand its supercharger network, A Better Place, the Israeli EV company that promoted swapping stations rather than charging stations, announced that it would be filing for liquidation. Charging seems to be still in play, while battery swapping is out.
With Tesla getting all this press, a new question arises: Who cares about a luxury electric car? The average new automobile is sold for about $31,000, a far cry from the Model S’s $62,000-73,000 price range, with the battery costing nearly as much as many gasoline-powered cars.
The question prompted MIT’s Technology Review to ask – or rather, assert – “Why It’s Okay that Tesla Makes Cars for Rich People.” Even with the financing option Tesla unveiled in April, only about 10 percent of the American population could afford the Model S. Kevin Bullis, Technology Review’s senior editor for energy, explained one way a high-end automaker could foster innovation that makes all electric vehicles competitive:
“Tesla is…addressing the main problem with electric vehicles—the cost of the batteries. It’s using the cylindrical type of battery cells used in the power packs of many laptops and other portable electronics. The economies of scale made possible by these other applications help drive down costs. Other automakers are opting for more specialized battery cells that cost more to make. It’s not clear which approach will be better in the long run, but Tesla’s batteries seem to be much less expensive so far.”
Tesla’s innovations in battery life and electric drive train technologies could benefit EVs like the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Volt, and the Ford Focus Electric, which already sell for less money than the Model S. Musk has also been pledged to come out with a more affordable Tesla model. “With the Model S, you have a compelling car that’s too expensive for most people,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg. “What the world really needs is a great, affordable electric car. I’m not going to let anything go, no matter what people offer, until I complete that mission.” That last statement ruled out an acquisition by a bigger player, as well as a pledge to deliver a low-cost EV on his watch.
In other news this week, California broke three advanced energy records with banner days of solar and wind power. It’s also been a big week for AEE members. Makani Power, the high-altitude wind turbine start-up, announced it was being acquired by Google, and Opower was listed as one of CNBC’s Disruptor 50, cited as one of the top companies “disrupting the marketplace and poised for hypergrowth.” No surprise to us.