The issue of electric vehicle range anxiety got a thorough airing last week, in the now notorious Tesla vs The New York Times battle. It started when Times reporter John Broder wrote a story about his recent Tesla Model S test drive. While acknowledging that the car itself is a thing of beauty (Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, to be precise) Broder detailed a litany of complaints about the driving experience on a 400-mile trip from Washington D.C. to Boston, primarily focusing on battery life and range. The whole thing ended ingloriously, short of the destination point with a spent battery and a tow truck involved.
Of course, taking a 400 mile jaunt (actually more, considering that Broder detoured through New York City) along some of the most heavily traveled arteries in the U.S. during the dead of winter is a dicey proposition under any circumstances, but if Broder set out to demonstrate that electric vehicles are not ready for prime time, he ended up proving something else entirely.
Tesla vs New York Times
After Broder’s article came out, Tesla Motors founder and CEO Elon Musk responded with a blow-by-blow rebuttal based on a data log of the trip, arguing that Broder deliberately made decisions that guaranteed the battery would run down. Broder issued a forceful reply explaining some of the major discrepancies between his account and the data log.
Aside from the data log, though, if you take a look at the exchange, a couple of things stand out that can’t be explained away. First, it’s hard to argue with Musk’s citation of hundreds of other successful Model S test drives by other journalists in all kinds of weather conditions, including a 600-mile trek from the mountainous Tahoe region to Los Angeles by another Times reporter.
Second, and more to the point, it seems that Broder was unprepared to make a trip of this sort, and that undercuts his entire argument. If his intent was to give an account of real-world EV driving conditions on Tesla’s East Coast Supercharger network, then it’s hard to imagine that a real-world person would get behind the wheel of cutting edge automotive technology and launch into a two-day winter driving experience without first making sure that they familiarize themselves with the equipment, above all the charging protocol.
In other words, it’s not so much that Tesla’s charging network was unready for Mr. Broder, but that Mr. Broder, for whatever reason, was unready for this trip. Other than that, it’s difficult to see what point the article proves.
Range anxiety is withering away
Taking a look at the big picture, clearly the electric vehicle charging infrastructure has not yet penetrated the U.S. market to the extent that gasoline stations have. If you plan on going on a long trip in an EV today, you need to plan it around the availability of charging stations.
However, some parts of the U.S. already do have ample access to charging stations, due to the availability of home and workplace charging as well as public charging stations.
For that matter, the whole fueling station convenience issue is rapidly on its way to flipping. Aside from the skyrocketing upward trend in the number of charging stations, opportunities to gas up are becoming fewer and further between following a long-term trend of decline in the number of retail gas stations.
Even just taking public availability into account, there is a practically limitless potential for EV charging locations, including public parking lots, shopping centers, restaurants, professional offices (doctor, dentist, etc) and public destinations like zoos and other attractions.
The main point is that range anxiety is quickly becoming a non-issue in the real world. Eager EV buyers in some regions can jump in right now, while others will have to wait.
Preparing for an EV future
That wait is not going to be a long one. When President Obama urged action on climate change in his State of the Union address, he stated that a key part of that goal is transitioning the nation out of petroleum fuels and into alternative fuel vehicles.
The Obama administration already got a good jump on that mission in its first term. Though part of the strategy involves promoting fuel cells, biofuel and natural gas, the administration has also focused strongly on electric vehicles, which offer the opportunity to fuel up with solar power (Tesla is already onto that, by the way) along with wind and other forms of clean, renewable energy.
The administration’s umbrella initiative, EV Everywhere, has recruited the nation’s top employers along with academic and federal research institutions to accelerate the development of more affordable EVs, and to build an EV charging station infrastructure that penetrates deeply into every market.
EV Everywhere includes the newly launched Workplace Charging Challenge, a public-private project aimed at encouraging more employers to offer workplace charging stations to their employees.
As another part of that effort, last year the administration started up a major public-private research initiative called the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, with the goal of improving EV battery range and reducing the cost of EV batteries.
Making it easier to find an EV charging station is also part of the plan. The Department of Energy has already launched an online alternative fuels location finder that includes EV charging stations, and it has teamed with Google and other stakeholders to develop the primary platform for a national EV charging station database.
For communities that want to help accelerate their transition to an EV future, the Energy Department has also developed an online EV readiness assessment tool, which doubles as a step-by-step guide to recruiting stakeholders and resources.