The 2018 Nissan Leaf, next-gen Volkswagen e-Golf, Chevy Bolt, Audi R8 E-Tron sportscar and Q6 E-Tron SUV, an un-named Ford, Aston Martin DBX, and Porsche Pajun (we could go on) are held up as examples. But, can the traditional car companies really do it? And if so, what's been taking them so long.
The Tesla formula is really simple. Take the cheapest and most energy-dense lithium battery cells available, build a thin, rectangular pack and place it in the floor of the passenger cabin. To get around the low-power output ability of these individual cells, use a lot of them. Then, stick the electric motor, inverter, and gear reduction unit between the rear wheels. Immediately, this creates a vehicle with the lowest possible center of gravity and maximum amount of rotational inertia – the two most important fundamental elements for creating a great-handling car.
Just as important, this set-up also allows the vehicle to offer the most amount of range for the least amount of dollars, with ancillary benefits like a flat floor in the passenger compartment and extra storage space up in the "frunk" (front trunk.) And, since its minimal drivetrain doesn't intrude far vertically, basic function never gets in the way of form, leaving body designers lots of latitude for shaping and styling.
Finally, top off this ultimate EV package with a one-hour-or-less "supercharging" network that owners can freely access (in every sense of the word) for those occasions when they want to roam farther than an overnight, at-home charge can take them. Make the installations (eventually) all solar-powered and close to amenities for hungry travellers. Extend that umbrella by partnering with destination locations, such as hotels, and installing convenient high-speed charge stations in their parking lots.
So, what's kept the established automakers from using this same recipe? In a word, commitment. They haven't yet gone "all in" on electric vehicles. And why would they? Sure, they've dabbled in electric drive vehicles over the decades with high-tech halo concepts and, more recently, compliance cars, but when internal combustion drivetrains are paying the bills quite nicely, why invest heavily in a technology that promises no near-term profit potential? In a business environment where increased shareholder value is demanded every quarter, risking a substantial amount of money on a technological outlier is indeed a difficult sell.
If they had of exercised foresight, however, they might have spent the many millions necessary to build an EV-specific platform (yes, the BMW i3 is a recent exception, and we'll get to that in a bit.) Instead, they've brought us electric models that are basically conversions of established gasoline ones. Even the Nissan Leaf, whose maker is one of the biggest and earliest proponents of lithium battery electric vehicles, is built on
Using this so-called "flexible" approach, compromises have begat compromises. With less real estate for battery packs, automakers have opted to use a pouch cell with a higher C rate – that is, a cell that puts out more power but is less energy dense than the 18650-format cylindrical cells in Tesla packs. This, as well as the much higher cost-per-kilowatt hour (kWh) of these cells, has led to packs that tend to be in the 24-kWh neighborhood and offer only about a third of the range of a Tesla Model S.
Besides limiting the size of the battery pack, this chassis borrowing has also led to placing the electric motor up front where it powers the front wheels (ugh) – the originally rear-engined Mitsubishi i-MiEV and, again, the BMW i3 being exceptions. There, underhood, it conspires with the inverter, DC-to-DC converter and other bits and bobs, to further negate the packaging possibilities of a pure EV platform. Lift the lid of a Fiat 500e or a Ford Focus EV, and you'll find it stuffed with components, rather than an extra convenient storage space, as in the Tesla's nose.
With all the new electric-model noises noted above, it certainly appears as though the industry is turning a corner and attempting to bring product to market as compelling as that from the technological leader. While this all looks promising on the surface, I'm not totally convinced of their conviction just yet. Let's take a quick look at a few of these efforts.
First, BMW. Sure, the i3 follows the Tesla path in that it's a ground-up design with rear-wheel-drive, and even surpasses it with respect to its carbon composite chassis. Its reliance on an optional gas engine for driving past its official 81-mile electric range instead of employing a longer-range battery, though, belies the company's commitment to truly get past gas. It's a great early effort, but with future models in the i sub-brand following the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) formula, the Bavarians aren't exactly knocking loudly at the all-electric gate.
Ok, how about Nissan, then. Its Leaf has been the go-to car for early adopters of lesser means or needs, with about 172,000 units moved worldwide. Its next iteration will quite possibly boast a 200-mile-or-more range, making it competitive with the future $35,000 Tesla Model 3 in at least one respect. Since both cars are still mostly mysteries, it's hard to make a real comparison, but there are several reasons I suspect I'd rather have the 3 in my garage.
Putting aside pricing, styling and driving dynamics, the big difference here is refueling infrastructure. Sure, Nissan has put a good deal of effort into the CHAdeMO network, but these level 2 stations only refuel at a rate of 62.5 kW at most, and usually less. Furthermore, a good many of these stations are located at dealerships on the West coast (with a few Eastern city exceptions), and not always accessible 24 hours a day. With this new bigger battery comes a need for even more charging speed, and this is where Tesla's 135-kW monster connection excels. I can deal with a 30-45 minute stop every few hours, but make that a two-or-more-hour stay and I'm less amenable to the prospect.
It is this whole package – styling, price, performance, technology, recharging network – that other automakers can't yet compete with. Yes, an electric Porsche Pajun might be an awesome challenger to the Model X, and we look forward to hearing more details, but unless the Stuttgart company makes a deal with Tesla – an option CEO Elon Musk has said it is open to – it's unlikely to be supported by a charging network with the coverage and convenience of the Supercharger.
Likewise, the Chevy Bolt is expected to be priced lower than the 3. At least, it will be cheaper if buyers can take advantage of the $7,500 Plug-In Electric Drive Vehicle Credit and Model 3 customers can't (and who can say how that will turn out, for sure). But again, the SAE Combo charging network that the Bolt will use is, at this point at least, practically nonexistent, slower than the Supercharger at a maximum 90 kWs, and not free. The Chevy is also unlikely to have a larger battery option, or the level of software sophistication that the Tesla 3 is expected to have.
Still, technology is a moving target and it's impossible to predict how long Tesla can hold its edge.
The automaking industry has faced many challenges in the past and has, mostly, overcome them. And it's not just an entrenched establishment that Tesla has to worry about, either. We shouldn't forget that there are companies out there with far greater financial resources that could come up with a product (hello, Google and Apple cars) that surprises everybody and takes the market by storm. Ten years ago, who heard of Tesla Motors?
Right now, more than ever, the automotive landscape is in flux, and as we see electrification silently slice an increasingly larger swath of territory formerly dominated by internal combustion, Tesla remains the outfit to beat, despite missteps. Now that it has shown there's actually money to be made in this new alternative sector, the rush is officially on. If you're placing bets on winners and losers in this battery-powered future, the things to watch out for are ground-up designs, battery performance/price innovation, and recharging infrastructure. Or, in a word, commitment.