Battery Battles – Tesla expects new Model S will drive 300 miles without a charge

Many consumers worry that electric vehicles require frequent battery charges, but Palo Alto-based Tesla expects its Model S to travel 300 miles-per-charge, comparable to the distance cars travel on a tank of gas.
The battery of the Tesla Roadster is located adjacent to the trunk. (Photo: Doug Ray)

Like most other electronic devices, the success of Tesla Motors, Inc.’s (NASDAQ: TSLA) automobiles hinges greatly on the batteries, which power the vehicles. Electric cars have existed for decades, but only recently has the technology been able to sustain longer charges.

Palo Alto-based electric car manufacturer Tesla is working alongside Japanese electronics giant Panasonic Corporation (NYSE: PC) to develop battery technologies that extend the 245-mile-per-charge range of its Roadster model. The Model S, which the company plans to debut next year, may travel as much as 300 miles-per-charge.

Consumer confidence in electric vehicles is often hurt by the limitations of the car batteries, and many close to the industry understand that there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to the battery life issue.

“One of the reasons people hesitate to get an electric car is this perception that its going to run out of juice somewhere and leave them stranded by the side of the road,” Jerry Pohorsky, president of the Silicon Valley chapter of the Electric Auto Association, said. “To a certain extent, that is a real consideration. You can drive these things to the point where they wont go any more.”

Tesla’s batteries are statistically the most powerful among commercially available electric cars. Further innovation in the quality of electric vehicle batteries has the potential to make the electric vehicle category more viable in the marketplace.

“Battery development is the driving force behind the EV movement,” said Camille Ricketts, Tesla’s communications manager.

Tesla supplies electric vehicle components to other automotive companies, including Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) and Daimler AG (DDAIF.PK).

The Tesla Roadster Model’s design was inspired by the Lotus Elise, which averages 210 miles on a single tank of gasoline. Typically, cars can travel between 300 and 400 miles on a tank of gas.

Hypothetically, Bay Area drivers of the Model S will be able to drive as far away as Reno, N.V. or Santa Barbara on a single charge — something that would have been considered science fiction when the first generation of production electric vehicles was introduced in the mid 1990s.

Released in 1996, the General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) EV1 lasted between 60 and 100 miles on a single charge.

Even the recently released Nissan Motors Co. (TYO: 7201) Leaf has similar limitations, with an estimated battery life of just 100 miles.

Kurt Kelty, director of battery technology for Tesla Motors, said, “Our battery pack has 56 kilowatt hours of energy. Other EVs on the market have about 20 or 24 kilowatt hours.”

“The Roadster battery pack is over 120 watt hours per kilogram,” he added. “That’s where our engineering strength comes in. We use a high energy density cell, and we pack it densely while also maintaining a high level of safety, reliability and long life.”

The emphasis at Tesla is to focus on what they term “energy density,” essentially a measure of the amount of energy stored per kilogram of battery mass. At its headquarters in Palo Alto, Tesla claims to maintain one of the most advanced battery development labs in the world. (Story Continues Below)

Specifically, Tesla is developing technology that will allow consumers to easily replace used batteries with ones holding a full charge. The company plans to implement this innovation in the Model S sedan.

Despite the increased innovation in the field, driving down the costs of the batteries remains the greatest challenge.

Haresh Kamath, project manager in the energy utilization program area at the Palo Alto based Electric Power Research Institute, said, “The main challenge with electric vehicle batteries today is their cost. It is a very large part of the difference in cost between an electric vehicle and a conventional internal combustion vehicle.”

The Model S is due for release in 2012. (Photo: Tesla Motors)

Tesla plans to release three different versions of the Model S sedan based mostly on battery life. The basic Model S with have a battery designed to run 160 miles on a single charge. It will cost $49,900 after a $7,500 federal tax credit.

The second battery option will have a 230-mile range, but will add about $10,000 to the price. The Model S with 300-mile range should cost around $20,000 more than the basic version.

Ricketts, however, emphasized the importance of investment in battery technology.  “Investing heavily in research and development, Tesla is proving that major breakthroughs are happening quickly,” she said.

Kamath said, “There are a number of manufacturers that are in the electric vehicle space, as well as in the electric vehicle battery space. While Chinese manufacturers are present, there are also Japanese, Korean, German, and U.S. manufacturers that have competing battery technologies.”

“Lithium ion battery production is not very labor intensive,” Kamath added. “Competition is typically not driven by labor costs.”

Ricketts reports that new buyers are encouraged to charge their cars each evening using a standard power outlet in their garages. She said, “Most of our Roadster owners find that they never even come close to depleting the battery. Charging is really just a matter of ‘topping up’ continuously.”

Pohorsky said, “For the San Francisco Bay area, you can get from San Jose to San Francisco and back on one charge for a car that’s got a decent amount of battery in it. People need to sit down and really think about how much they normally drive in a single day, and that is surprisingly low.”

Concerns also persist over the impact increased electric car usage will have on local energy grids. Kamath addressed this, saying, “While utilities do have to examine the effect of electric vehicle adoption on their distribution networks and may have to accelerate upgrades to their capacity in some places, at present, our analyses show that local power systems can accommodate the expansion of electric car adoption without much difficulty.”

He added, “The additional power drawn by electric vehicles is relatively small compared to the capacity of the grid, and a great deal of the charging is expected to occur at off-peak times, like the night time.”

A 2008 episode of the British television program Top Gear was particularly damaging to Tesla’s battery life reputation. In the episode, host Jeremy Clarkson is shown racing the Roadster against a similar gas-powered sports car when the battery is purported to have died, a claim that was eventually shown to be false.

At the time, officials at Tesla noted that the battery never dropped below 20 percent capacity while filming that particular sequence, despite what viewers were led to believe.

Clarkson, who initially praised the car, said in the episode, “If it does run out, it’s not a quick job to charge it up again. To fill the tank on a normal car, it takes a couple of minutes. To fully recharge the batteries on this from a normal 13 amp socket like this takes 16 hours. So to get from here to the top of Scotland would take more than three days.”

Ricketts noted that Tesla’s customers are often less concerned with the car’s battery life. She said, “With a range of 245 miles, the Roadster doesn’t worry many people. In fact, the range is often cited as a reason for buying the car.”

This has not stopped the company from employing some higher profile strategies to emphasize that Tesla drivers have similar capabilities as drivers of gas powered vehicles. Ricketts said, “We have also made high-profile roadtrips in the Roadster — from California to Detroit for the International Auto Show, for example — to show that distance driving is possible in an EV.”

Tesla is hopeful that its technology will further the popularity of electric vehicles. “With longer ranges being achieved by EVs, and more successful distance tests being run, the public is starting to see how practical driving electric can be,” Ricketts said.

Centered on Palo Alto, the radii of the circles on the following maps show an approximate range for several different vehicles in the electric category. The Lotus Elise, a gas powered sports car, is included for comparison.

Tesla Roadster (Blue, Estimated Range: 245 Miles)/ Tesla Model S (Red, Estimated Range: 300 Miles)

Nissan LEAF (Estimated Range: 100 Miles)

General Motors EV1 – 1996-1999 (Estimated Range: 60 Miles)

Chevrolet Volt (Purple, Estimated All-Electric Range: 35 Miles/Red, Estimated Hybrid-Electric Range: 319 Miles)

Lotus Elise – Gas Powered Sports Car (Estimated Miles Per Tank: 210 Miles)

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5 Comments

  1. says: kent beuchert

    Obviously Jeremy Clarkson doesn’t know squat about either electric cars or electricity. So, naturally, the BBC uses him to evaluate
    EVs. I suppose the brainless BBC thinks a car is a car. If Clarkson
    is griping about recharging an electric car using a miniscule 13 amp
    power source, let’s see him run an electric stove or clothes dryer or garbage disposal or washing machine using a 13 amp feed. Good thing the BBC found an electricity challenged “expert” to explain electric cars. Who knows , they could have accidently selected someone knowledgeable about electric power.
    The Model S , with level 2 power (224V/60 amps), which every home
    contains, recharges the roadster/S in about 4 hours. The Model S also
    allows for level 3 charging (3 phase, 480V, 125+ amps) in around 45 minutes. At that rate and with its 300 mile range, the electric car has arrived, allowing for extended trips with little inconvenience other than an hour rest/dining stop every 4 or 5 hours of driving.
    As for better battery density, that would always be welcomed, but weight is not the critical element at this stage of the technology – the Model S with 300 miles of range is not a heavyweight. Cost is the obstacle, although at the Model S price levels, that car is totally
    competitive with ICE models from BMS’s 5 series and Mercedes. Musk has correctly deduced that at higher end prices, electrics can be very competitive (especially when lowers operating costs are factored in).
    As to battery replacement costs – 10 years down the road, those replacement batteries will be a whole lot cheaper than they are today.

  2. says: Bob Wallace

    Did you mention that Nissan has a rapid charger which will give their batteries an 80% recharge in about 20 minutes? That makes a 300 mile range Model S a 540 mile range Model S with on short stop. (Folks will want to stop for a bite anyway.)

    MIT has a rapid charger which will give an 80% charge in less than ten minutes. 540 miles with one pee stop for those who brown bag it.

    Even the 100 mile range Leaf becomes usable for moderately long trips, say 250 miles or a bit more if all one has to do is to stop a couple of times for a few minutes.

    And there should never be any worry about getting stranded with dead batteries. Your car will make you aware that your batteries are getting low and that you need to stop at the next rapid charge station, which your GPS will guide you.

  3. says: Eileen Eulich

    The real problem here the fact that no matter how good the batteries get, they will not stay that way for long. After 5-6 years (if you are very lucky) you will be replacing them. That’s like 200 pounds of batteries — around $4K. I guess we live in a society where a 5 year old car is ancient, but anyone who thinks these cars are green is fooling themselves. They’re like some kind of upper class environmentalist fetish.

    Maybe if we recycle all of that lithium to medicate the mental cases on every street corner in the U.S. it will make more sense.

  4. says: KARL

    when the first generation of production electric vehicles was introduced in the mid 1990s. ??????
    I Think if you fact check the first generation of production electric cars was the 1830’s not 1990.

    The following list of of electric vehicle manufacturers was compiled over the past 15 years from a variety of sources including the archives of the Electric Car Owners Club, early magazine advertisements, personal knowledge and other sources. This directory is by no means complete and additional vehicles manufacturers continue to be added as they are found.

    1834 (yes 1834) Thomas Davenport
    1838 Robert Davidson
    1851 Charles B. Page
    1852-1966 Studebaker
    1874 Sir David Salomons
    1881-1906 Jeantaud
    1888 Fred Kimball
    1890-1896 Morrison
    1893 William Morrison
    1894-1897 Immisch
    1895 Volk
    1895-1897 Morris & Salom
    1895-1899 Bersey
    1895-1899 Canadian Motor Syndicate
    1896 to present Oldsmobile
    1896-1902 Riker
    1896-1906 Lohner
    1897 Neale
    1897 – 1898 Elieson
    1897-1898 Barrows
    1897-1900 E.M.P.
    1897-1900 Headland
    1897-1902 Lux
    1897-1909 Krieger

    Just an FYI and yes the new ones are much better than the first ones.
    Go Tesla.

  5. says: UppityProle

    Buried in the article is this howler:

    Tesla plans to release three different versions of the Model S sedan based mostly on battery life. The basic Model S with have a battery designed to run 160 miles on a single charge. It will cost $49,900 after a $7,500 federal tax credit.

    The second battery option will have a 230-mile range, but will add about $10,000 to the price. The Model S with 300-mile range should cost around $20,000 more than the basic version.

    So you can buy a car with a 6-gallon gas tank for $50,000. The optional 10-gallon tank costs $20,000.

    And we, the taxpayers, subsidize the buyers’ gullibility at $7,500 a pop? O brave new world!

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