Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tesla, EVs, and their mass adoption

Figure: Tesla Roadster, the sporty Electric Vehicle

The current Fortune has an article about the teething troubles of the Tesla Roadster, an electric vehicle (EV) being touted as an all-electric sports car (click here for more pictures). Apparently, more than a 1000 people, including some who-is-who s, have signed up to take delivery of the first fully electric sports car. The article states that excitement remains high, never mind that Tesla is having problems keeping the delivery date for most orders.

Tesla's website says that the Lithium ion cell powered vehicle can cover 220 miles per recharge. Now that is quite impressive, if you consider that according to the AAA an average American drives only 29 miles per day. As long as you are not driving cross-country the Tesla Roadster should almost replace your conventional sports car, almost because recharging the 6,831 Lithium ion cells on the Tesla Roadster takes 3.5 hours as compared to the 5 minutes of tanking-up the conventional Porche Boxster. The long recharge time is still not a deal breaker - if you can remember to charge your cell-phone every night then plugging in the car every evening shouldn't be that hard either.

The question is, will EV technology follow the conventional wisdom that early adopter products migrate down to the mass market? Does it make economic sense to buy such a car for the John Doe on the street, if not now, then 5 years into the future?

The Tesla motors website says that the operating cost for the Tesla Roadster is under 2 cents per mile. The operating cost for a comparable Porsche Boxster is about 20 cents per mile (calculated from this website, with gas at $4 per gallon)*.

Unfortunately, the Tesla Roadster 2009 edition costs about $109,000 while the Boxster costs less than half, about $50,000. Or, put another way, you will have to drive

(109000-50000)/(0.20-0.02) = 327,778 miles,

before the extra price of the Tesla Roadster can be justified!!!

Since Lithium ion batteries will not last 327K miles (neither will the rest of the car), I think that EV technology is not getting into the mass market anytime soon. Even if the price of gas triples, you will have to drive more than 100K miles in your EV before it saves you any money. And I haven't even factored in the lost opportunity of investing the $59,000 difference elsewhere.

So clearly the argument of saving on energy costs is meaningless if the EV is going to cost an arm and a leg. Question is, can EV manufacturers, or liberal government subsidies, narrow the price gap between EVs and gas-powered vehicles?

*assuming that the operating costs only cover energy costs

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