Thursday, July 2, 2015

What Will It Take for Me to Buy My First EV?

In recent weeks several industry pundits (Elon Musk among them) have predicted that the costs of electric vehicle (EV) batteries will fall to $100 per kilowatt-hour by 2020. The $100/kw-hr figure is presumed to be the price point at which the sticker price of EVs make them cost-competitive with gas-powered vehicles. At this price level, lower maintenance and operating costs would then be a bonus, not part of the equation.

But costs are not the only concern - range anxiety also must be solved. Most EVs today (apart from the expensive Tesla) have range in the area of 50-70 miles. Reports speculate that Nissan's new Leaf, due out possibly in August 2015, will have range in the area of 100 miles. The Chevy Bolt, due out sometime in late 2017 (?), may have range in the area of 200 miles. But is this enough?

For 90% of my driving, I commute and shop locally. Rarely would I drive more than 40 miles a day, from beginning to end. And many of these days I drive just to and from work - as few as 16 miles round trip.

But 10% of my driving takes me further. My nearest airport is 70-80 miles distant, for a round trip of 140-160 miles. While sometimes I park and fly, for longer trips my wife drops me off at the airport and returns.

Even longer are my trips to visit practitioners in my area, and drives to visit clients and family. 700 miles a day is perhaps the maximum for me, which is 10 hours of highway driving time at 70 mph. I could own another car for these longer-distance drives, but that doesn't make much sense financially.

My wife and I could also switch cars - one an EV, the other a gas-powered model (or an EV with a range extender, such as the Chevy Volt). But, we tend to purchase just one new car every 5-7 years, and hold onto each car for 10-14 years. And, for long trips, we like to take the newer vehicle, as it is generally more reliable.

So, my question is - to fit my lifestyle, how can an EV handle a 700-mile day? There are two ways.

The first way involves shorter range but fast recharging. I wouldn't mind a 200-mile range, which would require me to stop and recharge (both the battery, and myself) every 3 hours or so, if the recharge process was fast. Anything longer than 10 minutes would not sit well with me. And 5-minute recharge times would be desired.

Alternatively, a 350-mile range would convey me from breakfast to lunch, or from lunch to dinner. If such range was available, then 45-minute meals during recharging could be planned (although 30-minute stops for recharge would be even better, if I was interested in a lighter meal or "fast food").

Of course, if self-driving cars come along, then longer range make more sense. There would be no need to stop every two hours or so to stretch my legs and refresh my mind, if the car takes over the chore of driving. Also, no need for caffeine-fueled wakefulness with self-driving cars, which in turn requires the more frequent stops due to ingestion of coffee or diet sodas.

On a related subject, I strongly look forward to self-driving cars, someday, for each year as I get older I suspect my driving skills decline. Auto manufacturers are already aware that self-driving cars will likely lead to lower demand for cars, as car-sharing services become far less expensive than outright ownership of a vehicle. Yet, some increase in demand may also result, as the elderly - who often give up (voluntarily or involuntarily) their driving privileges - attain increased mobility with self-driving cars. To a degree, others (teenagers, and those without drivers' licenses) will likely use cars more, as well. And driving distances for commutes will likely increase with self-driving cars, as time in the car can be used productively; this is especially true if the cost per mile goes down, as might occur with EVs.

So, as auto manufacturers consider what will truly transform purchaser preferences away from gas-powered cars to EVs, please note that it is not just a competitive sticker price that matters. It is also the range, and recharge time, that will strongly influence purchaser decisions. Either a 200-mile range with a very short recharge range, or a 350-mile range with a 30-45 minute recharge time, is desired. And, once self-driving cars come along, the 350-mile range car becomes even more preferred.

Research developments around the world hold out the promise of higher energy densities for EV batteries, as well as shorter recharge times. Unlike some technologies, the transition from the lab to commercialization often takes years, due to the significant time required to integrate and test battery technologies, as well as to tool factories for their production.

Still, I hope that - by 2020 - I will buy my first EV. With a sticker price comparable to cars today, either with a range of 200 miles and a 5-10 minute recharge, or with a range of 350 miles and a 30-45 minute recharge. If self-driving cars exist by 2020, that would be an added bonus.

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