February 2008 Archives

The Tesla White Star is not a Hybrid

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Yesterday, Tesla Motors delivered their first production Roadster to their first customer: Elon Musk, chairman of Tesla's board. It has the "beta" transmission, and production will trickle out vehicles through the first half of 2008 until they have the final transmission design finished and tested.

There was a minor event marking the delivery of "P1" to Tesla headquarters, and a few members of the press were invited. According to several reports online, Elon Musk and Ze'ev Drori gave an interview and mentioned that the White Star would offer a range-extended model as well as the pure electric.

Even though this has been know for a while, this news has picked up traction and some are saying that Tesla has sold out their vision of producing pure electrics and switched to making hybrids like everyone else is doing.

This is totally wrong. To explain, I should first explain what's good about a pure electric vehicle, what's bad about hybrids and how what Tesla is doing is better than a hybrid.

Electric Vehicles

Briefly, here are the advantages of driving a pure electric vehicle:

  • Much lower well-to-road carbon and other pollutant emissions.
  • Zero emissions when powered from renewable sources.
  • Greatly reduced maintenance.
  • No more trips to the gas station.
  • Quiet.
  • Electric is the ultimate flex fuel.
  • No added energy infrastructure required.
The biggest downsides are cost and charge time/range.

The auto industry has been mass-producing cars for a hundred years, so they have figured out how to mass produce them cheaply, or more correctly they define what people expect to pay for cars. As electric vehicles become mainstream, their costs will come down. Battery technology is currently a barrier to reducing cost, but there is lots of working going on in that area, with many avenues for significant improvement.

We have all been trained by the oil company propaganda machine to worry about the range of electric vehicles, even though most of the day-to-day driving needs for the vast majority of drivers would be met by the 100 mile range of the GM EV1 that was produced in the late 1990's.

But range isn't really the issue. Do you ever hear a car ad that brags about, or even mentions, a car's range? The range of a gas car is of minor importance because it's quick to refill a gas tank. With electric vehicles, the charge time can be much longer. But it doesn't have to be. In fact, charge time can be a huge advantage over a gas vehicle.

Consider the Tesla Roadster. It has a range of between 160 miles (worst case, driving like a maniac on the freeway) and 270 miles (mellow city driving). That's more than enough for almost anyone's daily driving. When you get home, it's just like your cell phone: you plug it in and it's fully charged long before you're awake the next morning. (It takes under five hours to charge a completely discharged Roadster with an appropriate electrical connection, significanly less if your daily commute is under 200 miles.)

Plugging in your car at night is a huge time savings compared to making the weekly trek to the gas station, and far less expensive (about 2 cents per mile).

Charge time does become an issue if you want to drive more than 200 miles in one day. The good news is that the limit to the charge rate isn't the design of the car, it's the capacity of the outlet. It's possible to charge a Tesla Roadster battery pack in about an hour if you have access to enough current. It's not practical to put such a large circuit in your home, but it would be practical to install several in parking lots at restaurants, malls, etc. So, drive your 200 miles, stop and put a couple of bucks into a charging station and your Roadster is all ready to go after you've eaten a leisurely lunch.

Once electric vehicles reach critical mass, gas cars will seem stupid by comparison. Why would anyone choose to drive a horrible pollution factory which has to be frequently maintained and manually filled with a carcinogenic and highly flammable fuel at enormous cost, most of which is sent overseas to support totalitarian govenrments?

Hybrid Vehicles

Hybrid vehicles seem like a great compromise, half way between a gas guzzler and an electric vehicle. They can in fact offer better fuel economy for smaller vehicles, but they throw out every other advantage of an electric vehicle. They still have all of the stuff from a gas vehicle that requires frequent maintenance: oil changes, muffler, catalytic converter, spark plugs, fuel filters, etc. You still have to go to the gas station periodically, and you're still running an inefficient gas engine.

But it's worse than that. In a hybrid, you punish the engine by adding the extra mass of a battery pack, reducing fuel economy and power. You also burden the battery pack with the weight of an engine and gas tank. This isn't the best of both worlds, it's the worst of both: very limited pure electric range from the battery, and poor acceleration from the gas engine.

The best of the hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and the discontinued Honda Insight, deliver great gas mileage and make for a significant improvement over the typical gas guzzler. Other hybrids are a complete fraud, offering very little in the way of improved gas mileage, instead they claim improved acceleration from the electric boost.

My wife and I do the vast majority of our driving in a Honda Insight. We've been driving one since the summer of 2001 and really like the car. But do we get the great fuel economy from the electric hybrid, or from the small aerodynamic design? I can't help but wonder if we could get better mileage from a truly optimized pure gas vehicle. I know we can do better from a pure electric.

Even through we love our Insight, hybrids are a horrible compromise. They seem like a desperate attempt by the auto companies to hold on to the revenue stream that comes from the ludicrous amount of maintenance required by a gas powered vehicle, while pandering to a growing concern for reducing environmental impact.

Range Extended Electric Vehicles

There's a variation on the hybrid design that makes a lot more sense: take a pure electric vehicle and add a small efficient gas-powered generator that can extend the range of the vehicle for long trips.

The gas engine only needs to run when you are taking a long trip, so most of the time it doesn't need to run at all. It's a small engine, and not hooked into the drive train, so the extra weight is greatly reduced compared to a traditional hybrid. Also, the engine doesn't have to run wide range of RPM and torque combinations needed for a drive train, instead it can run in its most efficient mode getting maximum power out of the gas it burns.

You still have a lot of the gas-engine maintenance issues to deal with, but you do get all of the other advantages of a pure electric, plus you can drive farther between charges for those long road trips. This could open the door to a lot of people owning a vehicle that allows them to drive nearly all of their miles in pure electric mode, without having to keep a gas guzzler in the garage for longer trips.

Tesla's White Star

Tesla's next model after the $98,000 two-seat Roadster will be the much more practical White Star, a four-door, five-passenger sport sedan that will range in cost from $50,000 to $70,000. Tesla will offer the White Star in two models: pure electric and range-extended electric. By offering these two options, far more people will be able to consider owning a vehicle that can be driven pure electric for the vast majority of their driving needs.

Look for details on the White Star to be announced in the second quarter of this year, at which point we should also get its real name. (White Star is just the code name, the Roadster was originally code-named Dark Star.)

The White Star will be followed a few years later by a higher-volume lower-cost economy vehicle, code-named Blue Star. It takes time to start a whole new auto industry, and Tesla is leading they way. I hope they succeed and inspire a great deal of competition from other car makers, either today's big auto makers or the crop of startups that will displace today's giants from the market if they don't adapt to the changing world economy and global environment.

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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