It Works for Tesla: EV Buyers Should Have Battery Pack Size Options

By · April 21, 2014

BMW i3

BMW chose a range-extender gas engine for its new i3, rather than a range of battery packs. Still, the i3 consumer has a choice between a 100- and 200-mile car. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Tesla Motors launched the Model S with three battery options—40, 60 and 85 kilowatt-hours. The 40-kwh pack was dropped last year before it ever went into production, because only five percent of buyers were opting for it. That says something interesting about Tesla, since consumers were saying no to the cheapest point of entry. In fact, surveys I've seen show buyers opting for the most expensive, 85-kwh pack over the 60.

It’s human nature. Comedian Eric Bogosian has a routine positing a guy buying a BMW 5-Series. When he pulls up at a stoplight next to a 7-Series, he gets pissed off that he didn’t go for the upmarket choice. Something similar is at work with Tesla buyers, because the 60-kwh model has a range estimated at 230 miles at 55 mph, and the 85-kwh ups the ante to 300 miles. Tesla also gave buyers the option of a “Performance” model with faster zero-to-60 times, again on the theory that people will want the best of the best.

Nissan LEAF

A Nissan LEAF at the New York Auto Show. Two models, base and premium, may be coming. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Price is Paramount?

Although BMW, for one, allows customers to choose a range-extender model i3 with an auxiliary gas engine, no automaker besides Tesla offers more than one battery pack. Yet, we heard late last year that Nissan is considering offering of multiple battery pack sizes. That was confirmed again at the auto show, when Nissan product chief Andy Palmer told reporters that the idea of two or three multiple pack options with different ranges (maybe up to 150 miles) is being intensely debated internally, possibly for 2016 or 2017.

At this stage, the focus is on keeping the cars affordable. Here's the argument: EVs are expensive, and most people don’t drive more than 40 miles a day, so keeping the price down is paramount. Right after press days at the New York Auto Show, the German American Chamber of Commerce held a “Is the Future Electric?” forum, and I was able to ask about Tesla’s actual experience, versus that industry assumption.

Douglas Skorupski, manager of product strategy for Volkswagen, played the price card. “The average car in the U.S. is something like $23,000,” he said. “Electric cars at $40,000 or more are a challenge, and VW competes in volume segments. There are circumstances in which drivers need extra range, but we need to focus on price—when that comes down, we can increase sales.”

Jack Nerad, executive editorial director at Kelley Blue Book, concurs. "Tesla has proven that some luxury buyers will opt for much longer range, but persuading non-luxury buyers to invest thousands if not tens of thousands in additional battery capacity is going to be a difficult task."

Of course, the packaging of bigger battery packs could also represent a challenge for some electric models, especially those converted from traditional gas-powered vehicles.

Absolutely a Good Idea

But Chelsea Sexton, a veteran industry advisor and consultant, said she is a “big fan” of automakers offering different pack sizes. “It’s absolutely a good idea,” she said. Sexton thinks the sweet spot for range is probably between 80 and 120 real-world miles, and we’re not at the point where the battery EV is a road-trip car, but consumers would benefit from more choice.

EV Panel

The New York EV panel included (from left) Chelsea Sexton, Doug Skorupski of VW, John Voelcker, Jacob Harb of BMW, and Nic Lutsey of the International Council on Clean Transportation. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also endorsing the idea is the panel’s moderator, John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports. “In the same way that auto companies offer engines with different levels of performance and fuel efficiency, a range of packs sizes and prices will make electric cars more appealing to a wider range of buyers,” he said. “Suburban U.S. drivers have longer and more dispersed travel patterns than those in Europe or Asia. So the first company that can offer an affordable electric car with two or three battery-pack options giving different ranges is likely to do quite well against the current crop of sub-100-mile cars.”

I totally agree with that. Range anxiety, justified or not, is still holding back a significant number of potential EV buyers, and Tesla’s experience proves that people will pay for bigger batteries (and greater performance, too).

I wanted to get a wider perspective on this. Mike McQuary, CEO of Wheego, says it’s all about keeping the cars affordable. “Everyone would take bigger packs if they were affordable,” he said. But Brian Wynne, president of the Washington-based Electric Drive Transportation Association, thinks choice is key. “We think that drivers have different needs, so the more options we have for consumers, the better.”

The Cars (May) Be Coming

Wynne said actual market experience is giving automakers some sense of EV buyer behavior, and pointed to news reports that the next generation Chevrolet Volt, due late next year as a 2016 model, will be offered with more than one powertrain option, and will include both a low-cost base model and a new premium offering with longer range.

At the auto show, Nissan held a press conference, and one common assumption was that the company was going to announce a new, longer-range LEAF. It didn’t—the announcement was about free public charging in 25 cities, with an EZ-Charge card that will handle billing from four companies. But Nissan’s Fred Diaz, a senior vice president with a specialty in after-sales, was asked about plans for beefing up the packs. “I can’t say anything about longer-range batteries because we can’t talk about future product,” he said.

C’mon guys, get off the one-size-fits-all mentality. Study those Tesla sales reports and give consumers two or more pack choices.

Comments

· · 26 weeks ago

One size fits all does not work for all people. My wife commutes 40 miles in her 2011 LEAF. The 40 mile commute never changes, but her battery efficiency does. During 20 degree weather the LEAF range drops to 40 miles. My wife drives a gas car in very cold weather to insure she gets to work and home safely. During 80 degree weather the LEAF range is 75 miles. Most EVs today state a 60 to 80 mile range. We need a larger battery pack just to go the factory stated range in all temperatures.

(PS: I wish the EPA would force EVs to state range at speed and temperature. Example: 40 miles range at 60MPH, 20 degrees outside temperature, with car heater set to 72 degrees.)

When you factor in the huge variations for temperature swings, some people may be sidelined because todays battery packs leave no margin for error. Today's battery packs suit people with shorter commutes, less temperature variations, and access to at work chargers. Others like me, need about double the current range in order to fully utilize an EV as a dependable commuter vehicle with our particular commute and climate.

The real range killer for our EV is cold. Maybe some forward thinking EV manufactures could offer, as an option; liquid heated battery packs and liquid heated cabin heaters based on a gas or diesel parking heater. One gallon of diesel could heat your cabin and battery packs for an entire month. These have been used in extreme cold climates for decades. Why not use it to extend the range of EVs in very cold climates?

Hey Nissan, give us a LEAF with double the range and we'll trade in our 2011 LEAF and buy it.

· · 26 weeks ago

This really does work for several reasons.

First, it's true: "one size fits all", doesn't. (Often it seems like the choice is "one size fits none".)

Second, people like having two or three choices, even when they only ever actually choose one.

Finally, when people look at various things, but cars especially, they compare them based on the lowest-priced one available even if they will pay lots more for the one they actually buy, and even when they know that at the outset. This is why, for instance, Mercedes has the starting price on the S-class at "only" $92k, even though the actual delivered price is typically more like $140k. They could buy an Aston Martin V8 Vantage for that, but there's no sub-$100k version of the latter, so they never even consider it.

· · 26 weeks ago

Both of the above comments are spot on. Those of us in colder climates need a vastly improved heating system and/or a bigger battery. Using an EV in cold weather takes a disproportionate amount of energy from the battery. And, there is a marked distinction in efficiency between cold and warm weather overall. For example, my 16.5 mile trip to work will typically use about 4 KW of my battery in cold weather (with no heater usage). Lately, with the milder weather here in Philly I am seeing 2KW being used for the same trip! Yes, some downhill allows coasting and regenerative braking(and it is less so on the return trip), but bottom line is at least 50% improvement over cold weather. As mentioned, factor in the heater use and the car has been known to utilize 8 KW to get to work. That basically(worst case scenario, I admit) reduced the I-MiEV's range to 32-35 miles on a single charge. Right now, at the opposite end of the spectrum, I am seeing ranges in excess of 85 miles. No need for heater, no need for a/c, best of all worlds. A larger battery, of say 50%(to 24 KW)in the I-MiEV would help a lot. In the LEAF, that same 50% would equate to what, a 120 mile range before deductions for weather, hetar use, etc.? A few years down the line, when that battery is yielding only about 75% of its original potential, it would still give 100 miles. As Murray said, some sort of diesel based cabin heater is needed. You up the battery size(by at least 1 factor of .5), add in a new heater and the car is great for cold weather folks. I have been thinking about possibly purchasing a new EV when my lease expires next year, but until the battery size issue is addressed, I cannot see that happening. Oh yeah, workplace charging and increased Level III availability will take some of the presssuue off of these problems too.

Lou

· · 26 weeks ago

What are the possibilities for offering a STANDARDIZED 2nd range-extending battery that could be quickly swapped out, a la "A Better Place"? Here in Arizona heat - not cold - is the problem. So I guess I should be thankful with respect to the issue of range. (I don't have an advanced degree in physics but it would seem like heated coils in seats and steering wheels offer a better or at least 'good enough' solution to comfort requirements than an expensive bigger battery.)

A standardized range-extending battery that could be quickly swapped in and out could use the space currently occupied by gas-powered 'range extenders' or perhaps removed entirely and the space used for other purposes. How much range could be added to a Volt with such a battery the size of its range extender?

· · 26 weeks ago

I couldn't agree more with this article. I'm currently stuck in a Hybrid due to my 105 mile round trip daily commute. It's ironic to me that those with a very long daily commute stand to gain the most from an EV (due to the ultra low cost per mile), but are the very same who can't use an EV due to their short range. (With the exception of Tesla - which is too expensive to achieve a return on investment compared to a standard Hybrid)

A Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus EV with a little larger battery would do it for me...too bad for now.

· · 26 weeks ago

@Mattcrook - If you have access to a Level 1 charging station or 240V socket at work, I'm wondering if a Volt would work for you. Providing you are not dealing with a NET elevation gain or a cold climate you can count on close to 45 miles of all-electric driving for each complete charge. It isn't the whole enchilada but it is close.

· · 26 weeks ago

@Mattcrook - make that "Level 2"

· · 25 weeks ago

A good battery charging infrastructure can solve all the problems associated with EV short-range. My 110-mile daily commute is possible today thanks to my Model S, 85Kwh battery, but had there been a charging infrastructure, I would have bought a much cheaper electric vehicle, like a leaf, a Ford Focus or even an Mitsobishi.

· · 23 weeks ago

Rather than bigger, heavier, more expensive batteries, I'd like to see a QC network rather than the Level 2 220v network. Several days a month I need more range from my LEAF and search for a QC station. I don't have time on a busy day to sit on a Level two charger for several hours. Not going all-QC in the US market is a big mistake.

· · 23 weeks ago

I agree, the QC infrastructure needs to be ubiquitous. It needs to get to the point where one doesn't need to plan. If you can simply count on a QC being where you need it, you can just drive until you see the "low battery charge" warning, and pull into the next service station. That's pretty much how people drive their gas cars, isn't it?

That said, we also need larger batteries. While we don't need to match a gas car's 300-400 mile range, a 40-50 winter range simply is not good enough. We should be aiming for a 100 mile WINTER range, which would end up being 150-200 miles on the sticker. These two together in an affordable package will absolutely destroy ICEs. Tesla is the only company that gets it.

· · 23 weeks ago

@dcxplant & Brian - I don't agree. The only way to be able to hit the road in an EV will be some commercially viable variation of the A Better Place concept. For the immediate future, a bigger battery equates to more weight and more money out of pocket for something most people won't need most of the time.

What is needed IMHO is a manufacturing standard for a universal 'range extending' battery or batteries that would be pre-charged and stocked by EV 'gas stations'. Assuming it would be possible to incrementally add these batteries to the desired range - perhaps in a dual purposed luggage compartment - it might be possible to convert the existing ICE fuel infrastructure to an EV-oriented one without lots of additional investment.

As things stand, it isn't just the QCs that are expensive. It is the modifications to the grid that would be required to service a large array of QCs - and hard-core ICE drivers are likely to disagree with the EV definition of "quick". A universal range-extending battery might give electric utilities the incentive they need to spring for backup battery storage for renewable energy by allowing them to go in the business of selling 'electric gas'.

'Trucking' the charged batteries could eventually be eliminated as the necessary grid enhancements were achieved and distributed electrical energy storage at your neighborhood 'gas' station is put in place. That business model has to be attractive for an industry whose very existence is increasingly threatened by competition and energy price swings.

P.S. Plugincars appears to have eliminated their readers' ability to initiate discussion topics. So I would really appreciate feedback about this idea, e.g. is it technically feasible?

· · 23 weeks ago

@world2steven,

I like where you're going, but I disagree with your assertion that this is the "only way" to do a road trip in an EV. Tesla's model of reasonable range and recharge time has a lot of promise as well. Sure the batteries are expensive today, but 1) their prices are coming down and 2) as the supercharger network gets more dense, you need less range in your car to make it between them. I know this second point isn't really in Tesla's model, but there's no technical reason it couldn't be.

In many ways, a battery exchange system can be simply considered another implementation of "quick charging". As far as I'm concerned, they accomplish the same end, although each with their own challenges.

I do like the concept of using the batteries at the refueling station to help balance the grid - it certainly makes for a better business case. There are also other battery technologies that may be ill suited for the main battery, but would work for a secondary battery (such as aluminum air).

· · 23 weeks ago

@Brian - OK I'll grant you that even I would be willing to cool my heels for 30 minutes after a 200 mile drive. But even if I and the rest of the world could afford Tesla-like EV batteries, wouldn't ubiquitous large arrays of QCs pose cost problems for the grid infrastructure upgrades that would be required?

The main problem I can see for a battery exchange system is the desirability of (need for?) "quick charging" at a granularity level below an entire battery - sort of like you can get 5 gallons of gas instead of filling the whole tank. The weight and expense of the batteries in an exchange system work against the concept if it can only be implemented at the battery level instead of, say, the cell level.

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