Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Tesla Electric Car: Not Ready for Prime Time

The electric car is advanced by many as a clean, environmentally-friendly solution to our energy needs. Before reading a New York Times article describing a test drive of the Tesla Model S electric car, I believed that it was a viable, serious alternative to the ubiquitous, ancient internal combustion engine. This article, and the blog response by Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, has changed my mind. Now I think the car is a joke and is part of our energy problem, not a solution.

The New York Times article by John Broder describes a harrowing experience, in what should have been a routine winter drive from Washington, DC to Connecticut, and ending in New York City. He started out with a full charge in suburban Washington. He recharged at a 480-volt Supercharger station in Newark, Delaware, waiting 49 minutes for a full charge, which should have given him 242 miles of driving. This is more than enough miles to the Supercharger station in Milford, CT, which was his next charging stop. As he drove through New Jersey, however, the estimated range fell faster than the miles he drove. Broder slowed his car to below the speed limit, and kept the cabin cold, but he still lost miles. As he became worried that he wouldn't make it to the Milford Supercharging station, he called Tesla, and got various pieces of battery-saving advice from different officials. Some of this advice, such as turning off the cruise control, was wrong.

After an hour of charging at the Milford Superstation, the car told him that he had 185 miles remaining, which should have been enough for him to return to the station the next morning to recharge. He spent the night in Groton. When he parked the car, it told him he had 90 miles of range, twice the 46 miles he planned to travel back to Milford the next morning. After a cold, subfreezing night, the car told him he only had 25 miles left. 72% of the battery energy disappeared overnight. He didn't have enough charge to reach Milford. A Tesla official told him to “condition” the battery by sitting in the car for 30 minutes with low heat. This bad advice further reduced the miles remaining to 19 miles. Tesla found a charging facility in Norwich, only 11 miles away. Broder made it to Norwich, and after an hour of charging was cleared by Tesla to head to Milford.

Broder never made it to Milford. The car ran out of charge before he got there. Tesla dispatched a tow truck for him. The towing experience was anything but routine—the car had an electrically actuated parking brake that would not release without battery power, and had no manual override. It took 45 minutes to drag his car to the flatbed of the tow truck.

Five hours after leaving Groton on a trip that should have taken less than an hour, Broder pulled into the Milford Supercharging station. After 80 minute of recharging in Milford, Broder was able to reach his final destination, the Tesla dealership in Manhattan.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk, instead of apologizing for the car’s shortcomings and offering to improve it, instead made bizarre accusations that Broder deliberately sabotaged the test drive and lied about the results. Both Broder and Rebecca Greenfield from the Atlantic Wire questioned Musk's accusations. Whether or not Musk was correct about Broder traveling faster than he claimed (Musk said that at times Broder actually went above the speed limit of 65 mph!), and that he set the cabin temperature to a comfortable setting for most of the trip, and that he didn't wait long enough to recharge (read the charge times above, and compare to the times you usually spend gassing up a car), Broder's account of his test drive are incredibly damaging and essentially not refuted.

I’m blogging about this because I see in these reports and accusations not only issues with a particular car, but important fundamental problems in our society. Let me list the crucial problems with the car as exposed by Broder, and I’ll dig deeper in my analysis to criticize society:

  1. A car whose battery drains charge when the weather is cold is not a solution to our energy problems. At least when I fill up my car on a cold winter night, I expect to have a full tank of gas the next morning. Broder claimed that the battery lost about 70% of its charge when he spent the night in Groton. It also lost charge when he was driving to Connecticut. The Tesla car battery drains charge like a house drains heat on a cold night when a window is wide open. This is not energy efficient. The lost charge must be replenished from electrical power. This means that we must generate more power to fuel these cars than we otherwise would have had to.

    I’m puzzled by the lack of concern over what the impact of the electric car will be on our electrical power infrastructure. Since the Tesla electric car and other ones are now just expensive novelties, and since Tesla doesn’t charge customers to fill up at their Supercharger stations, there’s nothing to worry about. But what about if these electric cars become mass produced? What happens if electric cars become, for example, 20% of all cars on the road?

    I’ll run some numbers to find out exactly how 20% of automobiles being Tesla electric cars will impact our electrical power grid. There are approximately 250 million registered vehicles in the U.S., about half of them (125 million) being automobiles. That would mean about 25 million Tesla electric cars. With a fully-charged 85 kwh battery, the EPA rates the car should do 265 miles. Considering Broder’s experience described above, this is very generous to Tesla, but let’s go with these numbers. Assume that a car averages 12k miles / year. That means that one Tesla car consumes 3849 kwh / year. Multiplied by 25 million Tesla cars, this comes out to 96 billion kwh of electrical energy consumed by Tesla cars per year. The total U.S. electrical consumption  in 2011 is 3856 billion kwh, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The 25 million Tesla cars will add about 2.5% to our energy consumption. This doesn’t sound like much, but we will have to expand generating capacity to handle this.

    What will the electric car do to the environment? Currently about 2/3 of the U.S.’s power generation is driven by fossil fuels. Unless some major breakthrough happens, we will need to use more fossil fuels to generate more electricity that these electric cars will consume. I also must remind people that the basic technology of fossil fuels heating up water, producing steam, which drives turbines, which generates electricity, dates from the late 19th century, about the same time as the internal combustion engine. The Telsa electric car is a high-tech wonder whose motive power comes from very old technology.

    The basic societal problem here is short-term thinking. The people who can afford the $60k to $100k for a Tesla car might believe they are helping the environment, since their car produces zero emissions. But where does the energy that drives these cars come from? As I said above, the electrical energy that drives the batteries come mainly from fossil fuels, using old technology. People don’t think about the long-term consequences of the switch to electric cars.

  2. The lack of a manual override for the parking brake represents engineering incompetence. Didn't the engineers involved in the brake’s design ever think that the brake might need to be disengaged was when the car was being towed? And one of the reasons for towing an electrical car is that it’s run out of charge? If there’s no charge in the battery, and there’s no manual override for the brake, then there is no way to disengage the parking brake. Moving a car to the tow truck becomes a much more complicated and lengthy process.

    Incompetence is nothing new, but it seems to be increasing in recent years. The Bush Administration was a case study in incompetence. There’s less excuse for this post-Great Recession, because with the high unemployment rate companies have been able to choose the crème de la crème for any professional or management job. Couldn't Telsa have chosen, among the hundreds who apply, an engineer with the brains to figure out that a manual parking brake override would be necessary?

  3. Broder mentions frequent calls to Tesla, with many leading to poor advice. This brings me to another societal problem, poor customer service. I just personally encountered poor customer service from Express Scripts, a pharmacy insurance provider. I was furious after several calls that were poorly handled and didn’t lead to any solution. I’m sure that everyone reading this has encountered examples of poor customer service, especially from call centers. This has become a societal problem because of outsourcing, layoffs, high turnover, and lack of initiative, responsibility, and intelligence among low-paid people that companies, in their zeal to cut costs, put in customer service positions.

    If I were CEO of Tesla, and I had advance notice of a New York Times reporter test driving one of my cars, I would have given Broder the cell phone number of my best engineer, and made sure that the engineer was available at all times to take Broder’s calls. According to Broder, it was Tesla who set up the test drive and arranged the date. So ignorance among Tesla executives is no excuse. Since Tesla left Broder basically on his own, even though they knew that he would report on the car in the New York Times, one can only imagine the customer service that regular consumers get.

  4. Finally, Elon Musk's blog response demonstrated extremism and lack of taking responsibility, which are both major societal problems. Musk claimed that Broder was dishonest, and deliberately sabotaged the test drive. Musk admitted to no faults, no problems, and no feedback from Broder at all that deserved any apology. He took no responsibility for any of the car’s failures or shortcomings. According to Musk, all the alleged problems with the car were the machinations of a deceptive reporter.

    Extremism such as Musk’s is prevalent today, especially in politics. Republicans can find nothing of value in what Democrats advocate, and vice versa. “It’s my way or the highway” has become a mantra in politics. This is not a constructive point of view, one that will lead to solving problems. Extremism is also connected to lack of taking responsibility. If you’re completely right, and the other side is completely wrong, then you have no responsibility for any of the problems we face. It’s all the other side’s fault. This is what I get from Musk’s response. He’s completely right, Broder’s completely wrong, and there is nothing for Musk to take responsibility for. If the Tesla car has no problems, then Musk has no reason to improve it at all. Fortunately the marketplace will punish Musk if he maintains this attitude (or his board will fire him). In politics, the extremist idiots just keep getting elected.