Days after Consumer Reports declared that the Tesla Model S might have been the “best car ever,” Tesla Motors’ stock surged 57 percent. While the stock was soaring, financial services corporation Morgan Stanley notably doubled its price target on the company, from $47 to $103. “What Tesla has accomplished isn’t luck, it’s real,” Morgan Stanley wrote in a note to clients.
Indeed, it isn’t luck. The company has managed to build an electric car that not only goes head to head with the Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, and Porsches of the world, but beats them in an objective test. And that takes some great engineering.
But when all the woo-hooing is finished, a bigger challenge still lies ahead for Tesla and other electric automakers. That’s because Tesla’s formidable accomplishment occurred at an elevated price level, which neatly suits the benefits of a big, expensive electric car battery. ”They didn’t fight the price point,” Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, told Design News. “They simply said, ‘Let’s make the best car.’ ”
Unfortunately, a $90,000 car with an 85-kWh battery makes more sense for luxury buyers than it does for the larger swath of mainstream consumers. ”Clearly, you need another car if you want to take a long trip,” Fisher told us. “Or you need to rent a car, which is an inconvenience. But most people who buy $90,000 cars have more than one vehicle in the family.”
For most consumers, however, car buying is more a matter of pragmatism. They need cars to get them to work, to the grocery store, or to grandma’s house. Less frequently, they need a vehicle to drive the kids to college or take the family on vacation. Most potential buyers don’t want to rent a car every time they need to take a 100-mile roundtrip. Nor do they want to pay $90,000 so they can take a 200-mile roundtrip.
Amidst the euphoria over the Model S’s wonderful reviews, there’s a thread of thinking that says Tesla’s accomplishments will trickle down. In other words, the 200-mile range of the Model S will soon be available in a $50,000 car, then in a $30,000 car, then in a $20,000 car. That’s the way it worked for such features as electronic stability control and navigation. It might also have been what Elon Musk was thinking when he boldly predicted last year that half of all cars on the road would be pure electric in 15 years.
As we’ve said many times, however, the successes of electronics don’t apply to battery chemistry. There is no Moore’s Law for chemical storage. Moore’s Law is about manufacturing -- pushing the state of the art by reducing the feature sizes of microelectronic devices. Batteries, on the other hand, pose a science challenge. Making them better is more like curing cancer.
That’s not to say we won’t get there. To date, however, it has never happened as fast as the optimists predicted. You can look back at any newspaper, any magazine (including Design News), over the last 20 years and find scads of articles that predicted some new battery chemistry would be ready to power electric cars in five years. But, too often, the well-meaning claims dissolved into a tale of technical and economic woe after those five years passed. Meanwhile, the standby chemistries (lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride, for example) were inching along with slow, hard-earned gains.
Like it or not, we‘re going to continue to need those gains. To appeal to the mainstream of the automotive market, EV makers will need better batteries. They’ll have to find batteries that balance energy and cost in just the right way. The question is whether the twitching investors who are now anxiously jumping aboard the Tesla bandwagon will have the patience to see the plan come to fruition.
In that sense, not much has changed. The truth is, it’s still about the battery.