The Beginnings of a Tesla Gold Rush

In the beginning of October of last year, controversy spiked over electric vehicles when video footage of a Tesla Model S bursting into flames went viral. The incident sent Tesla stocks plummeting, and reopened the debate about the viability of electric cars. As the stocks are now up by 35% since the beginning of the year, and the waiting list is three months long, it seems the crisis has passed. In fact, in 2013 buying a used Tesla Model S was more expensive than buying a new one as the well-off impatiently circumvent waiting lists.

Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson © 2012, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson © 2012, some rights reserved

The electric car is not a new invention. In fact, Woods Motor Vehicle introduced the first electric vehicle (EV) in 1902. As the competition narrowed between cars of steam, battery and internal combustion engine (ICE) in the beginning of the 20th century, the ICE became the dominant type with the launch of the Ford Model T car in 1908 as it was considered the first affordable automobile on the market. The electric was left in the dust for most of the 20th century until concerns over climate change and pollution drove the technology forward in the 1980s.

The latest wonder-child of the bunch, The Tesla Model S, was launched in the summer of 2013, and by the end of the year there were more than 25,000 cars sold. The United States is the largest market of approximately 21,000 cars, followed by 2,000 in Norway and 1,200 in the Netherlands. The Model S has won multiple awards, including the 2013 Automobile Magazine Car of the Year and the 2013 Green Car of the Year. It is also the highest scoring car ever of Consumer Reports. So why doesn’t everyone own one.

The electric car has had limitations due to the shorter driving range and longer recharging times than a gasoline car. Just a few decades ago, it had a driving range from about 60-100 miles, whereas an ordinary car could travel around 300 miles before having to top up on gasoline, which takes only a few minutes. The Electric car, on the other hand, takes hours to recharge.

There is well-documented phenomenon called “driving range anxiety”, where people are so worried that their electric cars will run out of battery that they often choose not use it if it means a trip will require more than 50 % of the battery life. But the reality is that battery technology has improved to the extent that an electric car travels just as far as an ordinary car before having to top up. Currently, the electric car on the market with the greatest driving range is the Tesla Model S. It travels up to 300 miles and is fully recharged in 3.5 hours. With a Supercharger, the battery life can be replenished in as little as 40 minutes. In the United States, these have been placed on interstates so that taking the Tesla on a road trip should be no problem.

In addition to this, electric car manufacturers want to create battery-switching stations to cut recharging time. According to EV World, a robotic battery swapping would take approximately one and a half minutes, less than the time required to top up on gasoline. The price tag, however, is approximately $500,000. It is not an issue of technology, but rather necessitates a willingness to invest in green infrastructure. In the UK, the government has established “plug-in car and van” grants, subsidizing up to £5000 of an electric car, and £8000 of an electric van. In addition to this, 15 EU countries have established tax incentives for electric vehicles, and 17 countries have created tax disincentives for petrol-powered vehicles.

Because there is no mass production of the electric car, purchasing one is an option for very few. Large car companies have little interest in a drastic shift in their industry; an industry that makes a large profit not only off the sale of petrol-powered cars, but from the repairs and selling of parts. Electronic cars have a longer average life-span than a petrol-powered car, and so the incentive is less for profit-maximizing companies to make the switch. Given that the most replaced and repaired parts on a petrol car are the combustion engine or the exhaust pipe (neither of which exist on an electronic car), it is a less commercially prosperous business and disincentives its production from a corporate viewpoint.

Another factor to consider is the interest of the state which, depending on its structure and individual characteristics, can have diverse interests. When the state has oil as its main source of revenue, it has an economic incentive to discourage investment in electronic vehicles. In addition, the technological shift required to support electronic vehicles is a massive infrastructural undertaking. Adoption of electrical cars requires the building of networks of supercharging and charging spots as well as battery switching stations, requiring heavy investments both on individual and state level; something which can be incredibly difficult to attain, especially in times of recession. For example, the ground transportation system in the US accounts for approximately 20% of Employment. A technological shift to electric cars will cause economic and structural changes to this sector; and will affect a large portion of the population.

The greatest challenge facing the electric car is the general unwillingness to give it fair chance. We have the technology and innovation, what is lacking is the will to invest. As CO2 pollutes our cities and the threat of climate change is looming above our heads, a successful shift in the balance of power is much needed. The arguments against the electric cars are moot, really. It is not a question of if, but when.



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