Tesla Model S

Within the past few years, the buzz-meter on electric cars has been cranked up to 11, it seems. The Chevy Volt showed up on the 2007 show curcuit, and gradually, almost agonizingly, is making its way to the showroom. Then along comes Tesla, with its six-figure roadster, and now slightly more moderately priced Model S sedan. Then Nissan pulls the wraps off its Leaf EV, and Ford is giving a sneak peek at its electric future courtesy of the Jay Leno Show.However, none of these vehicles has yet reached the critical benchmark that I predict will presage the large-scale adoption of electric cars; the 300 mile range. Why is this magical number so important, you might ask? Because that figure spans the distance between most of the major metropolitan areas in the U.S. Here are some sample distances between major metro areas in the U.S.

Boston to New York: 220 miles
Los Angeles to Las Vegas: 280 miles
Chicago to Detroit: 285 miles
Dallas to Houston: 240 miles
Atlanta to Charlotte: 240 miles

Currently, there is only one pure battery electric car that has been announced that reaches this benchmark. The Tesla Model S with the top-range battery option (the standard battery has a range of 160 miles). The Leaf, the Ford eFocus (or whatever it will be called) and most of the other pure battery EVs have announced ranges in the ballpark of 100 miles per full charge. For urban and suburban commuting duties, that will likely more than suffice for the majority of drivers. But at least in the short-term, it appears EVs will be ill-suited for road trips. Not only for their range limitation, but also the reacharge time. The one advantage of internal-combustion powered vehicles is the ability to go from an empty tank to full in usually 5 minutes or less. Best-case scenario for electrics is an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes for a 100-mile pack.

Now, if you’re stopping for a leisurely lunch somewhere, and there just happens to be an EV charging station, that likely won’t be an issue. But if you’re like the typcial American road-warrior male, it’s a race against the clock, getting up at 6 a.m. hitting the road, 10 minute stop for gas and fast food, and back on the road. In this brave new world, either our driving habits will have to adjust to the more leisurely reality of electric cars, or the technology of electrics will have to come up to meet our impossible expectations. I think it will probably be a little of both.

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The other relative unknown at this point is the ubiquity and location of electric charging stations. It’s probably no secret they will be abundant in trendy, liberal urban areas like Santa Monica, San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C. and Boston. But what about in the middle of the desert on I-15 on the way to Vegas? Or in the Texas countryside in Centerville (halfway between Dallas and Houston)? Perhaps these seemingly remote locations for charging stations might not get all the media attention, ribbon-cutting ceremonies and self-congratulatory press conferences that they’d get in major urban areas, but are arguably strategically just as important.

I congratulate Tesla for making the bold step and pronouncement of the availability of a 300-mile battery on the Model S. But until a truly long-range battery is the rule of electric cars, rather than the exception, they will remain a niche novelty to most American car buyers.


By Edward A. Sanchez