Tesla Motors vs. New York Times: what it says about decarbonizing transportation

The Tesla vs. New York Times spat is a proxy for the debate on how to best decarbonize the transportation sector, Stepp writes.

Noah Berger/Reuters/File
A Tesla Model S electric sedan is driven near the Tesla Motors factory in Fremont, Calif. Electric Vehicles have a big role to play in decarbonizing transportation, Stepp writes, and they can assume that role by becoming a drop-in replacement for gasoline cars.
The Electric Highway

The New York Times reporter John Broder recently published his account of an East Coast road trip he took with the Tesla Model S electric vehicle (EV). It marked an important development: Tesla has opened two new public “supercharging” stations some 200 miles apart in Delaware and Connecticut that can fully replenish the Model S battery in an hour and potentially provide consumers the ability to drive the well-traveled Interstate 95 corridor at near-zero carbon emissions. Unfortunately, Broder’s test results came up short, showing the limitations of existing EV technology, the need for more innovation, and the division of opinions on how the United States should decarbonize transportation. (Read More: Putting Some Emphasis on Electric Vehicle Charging Technology)

The set-up was simple: Broder was to travel from Washington D.C. to Milford, Connecticut in the souped-up Model S. But according to Broder, he faced a host of inconveniences as the Model S fell short of its projected 300 mile range, resulting in the car losing charge mid-drive and the need to re-route to find additional charging stations. Since then, he and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have traded accusatory statements, (MuskBroderMusk,Broder), with even the New York Times Public Editor chiming in with an investigation.

The back and forth ignited a mini-Internet firestorm. The Atlantic Wire, for example, heavily scrutinized Musk’s rebuttal while Chelsea Sexton at Wired defended Tesla by characterizing EVs as being different from gas cars and thus deserving of different expectations. “The day-to-day experience EVs offer is so much better than gas cars for 95% of driving. Long-distance road trips are among the last 5% of usage scenarios,” Sexton writes, before concluding that “it’s ridiculous to expect EVs to deliver the same experience as the incumbent product.”

This final point really gets to the heart of the debate. Ultimately, the Tesla vs. Broder spat is a proxy for the debate on how to best decarbonize the transportation sector. 

Consumer Expectations

On one hand, there are those like Sexton (and David Roberts at Grist) that believe decarbonizing transportation requires fundamental changes in consumer behavior. The most often used comparison is the shift from land-line phones to mobile handsets. Mobile phones didn’t become a dominant technology by mimicking the performance of land-lines – they offered many new productivity features and robust social accessibility that made it easy and beneficial to rapidly change behavior, such as dealing with charging mobile batteries and being connected all day, even at a higher cost. EVs are like mobile phones because they require consumers to think differently about refueling, driving capabilities and route planning compared to what they’re used to. Some behavior change – more so than what Broder exhibited – must be expected.

David Roberts takes this a step further and assumes that consumers also need to reframe their expectation of the transportation system as a whole, from sprawl, highways, and long commutes to urban centers, public transportation, and short trips. In this sense, decarbonizing transportation requires consumers to change how and where to live and travel. In this context, EVs have a small role to play as a zero-carbon option for taking short trips and commuting to work, but they doesn’t necessarily need to meet many, if any, existing expectations of gasoline-based vehicles because the whole system has to change.

From both of these perspectives, EVs are an entirely new technology to be used much differently than the cars of today.

Cost and Performance

On the other hand, there are those like former Executive Director of the Sierra Club Carl Pope and former Vice Chairman of GM Bob Lutz that believe decarbonizing transportation requires EVs meeting most, if not all, consumer cost and performance expectations. This parallels the thinking of many EV companies, which aim to (eventually) offer vehicles at comparable prices as gasoline equivalents with similar performance. In fact, the Tesla Model S brochure states, “Whether it’s running quick errands with the kids or a weekend getaway to the mountains, enjoy worry-free driving every day.” (Read More: High Cost Prevents Electric Cars From Penetrating the Market)

In other words, EVs have a big role to play in decarbonizing transportation and they can assume that role by becoming a drop-in replacement for gasoline cars. Changes to the transportation system are necessary in that EV charging infrastructure is needed to eliminate range anxiety, but fundamentally changing consumer behavior to live differently – as Roberts believes – isn’t necessary. In this sense, EVs are an entirely new technology that should be used in exactly the same ways as the cars of today.

The one core message to take from the Broder-Tesla kerfuffle is that both are correct, but with a caveat: making EVs cost and perform like gas cars is a real barrier to EVs playing any role, big or small, in decarbonizing transportation.

Transforming the Transportation System Philosophy

There is very real consumer anxiety in addition to range issues, like driving EVs under normal weather conditions (e.g. winter in the Northeast states, hot summer days, etc.) as well as the classic chicken-and-egg problem of the need for building vehicle charging infrastructure. Tie these performance barriers to the higher sticker price of EVs compared to gas cars and it’s no surprise EV sales growth is slow. No amount of additional luxury benefits or system change – such as the impressive information and display technologies highlighted by Broder – is enough to overcome their real limitations. Only significant technological innovation in batteries and charging products can eliminate them.

The same can be said for transformative system and consumer behavior change. Without a doubt, some consumer change is inherently necessary (as with any new technology), such as getting used to charging vehicles at home compared to driving to the local gas station (though it wouldn’t hurt if gas stations transitioned to charging stations). But that level of behavior change is easier to come by rapidly with better and cheaper EV technology. And Roberts’s belief that the transportation system needs to change is absolutely correct, but still requires innovation. Without better technologies, it won’t be feasible in any timescale relevant to solving climate change to create a more efficient, affordable electrified transportation system that includes EVs, buses, trains, and any host of people-movers that don’t emit carbon.

As Boing Boing Science Editor Maggie Koerth-Baker opined in the New York Times Magazine, “You can change the technology. You can change the infrastructure and culture. And sometimes, you have to change both, easing people into accepting a new tool by making it look and feel like the old one you want to replace.” In the case of decarbonizing transportation, new, cheaper technology, behavior change, and system change are needed, but the better and cheaper technology must come first to make the rest possible.

Source: The Tesla-Broder Debate and What It Says About Decarbonizing Transportation

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