Updated: Saturday, October 21, 2017, 3:01 AM
DETROIT — Elon Musk predicted two years ago that a Tesla should be able to travel almost 746 miles on a single charge by 2020.
It was considered a bold statement from a CEO known for making bold statements, but it was also a sentiment that reflected a widely held belief in the inevitability of, and need for, increasingly longer-range electric vehicles if the vehicles were ever to truly gain traction with consumers.
Electric vehicle battery technology has improved since that 2015 prediction, and some vehicles continue to push the limits for range. Some versions of Tesla’s Model S luxury sedan already rate at more than 330 miles on a charge under normal conditions, and an Italian Tesla owners group said in August that it managed 670 miles driving with no air-conditioning at 25 mph.
But recent assessments by industry watchers and auto executives are tapping the brakes on the idea that the foreseeable future of mainstream electric vehicles will be tied to an ever-expanding range.
Some experts say they believe the sweet spot for battery range might already have been reached.
“I wouldn’t expect to see vehicles go much beyond about 300 miles per range, and I think most mainstream EVs are probably going to be in the, kind of where the Bolt is now, 200 to 240 miles of range, and I think the 200-mile threshold is really kind of the sweet spot for EV,” said Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst at Navigant Research based in the Detroit area.
The idea will get tested as an increasing number of automakers roll out new electric vehicles in the coming years.
Ford and General Motors, for instance, made major EV (shorthand for electric vehicles) announcements in recent weeks, with Ford saying it would invest $4.5 billion and introduce 13 new electric vehicles in the next five years and GM promising to have more than 20 EVs on sale by 2023. Plenty of other automakers — Volvo, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz among them — have also made recent EV announcements as countries like China threaten to eventually ban gas engines.
A major reason that EV battery range might not see significant increases in the near term is simply cost, which increases with more capable electric-vehicle batteries. Adding more battery to an electric vehicle also adds weight, which would affect vehicle payload — a consideration likely to be more important as automakers launch electric trucks and SUVs.
When Nissan brought its 2018 Leaf to a technology conference in Detroit in September, the company said it was targeting value customers with the 150-mile electric range vehicle, with a price tag starting at under $30,000. That level marks an improvement over the previous version’s 84-mile range, but it falls well short of the Bolt and the various Tesla models. The company does plan to release a longer-range version, but the issue of adding cost gets at a key issue for automakers.
Both the Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 — Tesla’s attempt to launch an electric vehicle for the masses — only get below $30,000 with government incentives. The Model 3 starts at $35,000, but there’s a waiting list, and the base model may not offer what Tesla fans expect, meaning the true cost would likely be higher. The Bolt, which is now available nationwide, starts at $37,495 before a $7,500 federal tax credit.
Abuelsamid noted that each manufacturer has a limited number of credits, and he expects both GM and Tesla to hit that limit as early as next year. That would mean the cost for some of the most popular EVs will likely go up because the Trump administration is not expected to seek an extension of those credits.
Britta Gross, GM’s director of advanced vehicle commercialization policy, discussed the issue of battery range in August at a state conference weighing the best route to expand Michigan’s public charging infrastructure, saying that she does not believe the future of electric vehicles is in batteries that can power a vehicle for close to 800 miles on a charge.
“No, I don’t see that happening at all,” she said, noting that longer ranges add cost and an automaker’s priority now is in reducing the cost of technology for electric vehicles.
Battery range has been a key focus for those trying to determine what it will take to get more consumers to buy electric vehicles, which are a small, though growing, fraction of the U.S. vehicle market. Range anxiety is a phrase used to describe the concern that a vehicle will not have enough charge to get an electric vehicle driver to his or her destination, potentially leaving them stranded. Limited public charging options in some areas can magnify the concern.
But most daily driving falls well short of the Bolt’s 238-mile range or even the 150 miles possible with the Leaf.
“Americans’ driving patterns really don’t change with electric vehicles, so regardless of whether your vehicle has an 80-mile all-battery range or now maybe 238 like the Bolt EV, most Americans are still doing about 40 miles a day of travel commuting to and from work,” Gross said.
And that 40-mile estimate might even be generous. An AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey released in September found that the average daily commute is less than 30 miles.
Gross said range becomes an issue on longer trips because of limited public charging infrastructure, which in Michigan is mostly clustered in the Detroit area. The conference this summer, organized by the Michigan Public Service Commission, was a response to a proposal from Consumers Energy for the utility to provide additional charging stations. Consumers rescinded the proposal after getting pushback from various entities, including the attorney general’s office, which raised concerns about utility ratepayers footing the bill for electric vehicle charging.
Most electric vehicle drivers charge at home, often plugging in overnight, so charge time is not much of an issue. But EVs lose the convenience battle against gas-powered cars on longer trips because even most fast-charging options — typically 50 to 70 miles of range per 20 minutes of charging — cannot yet match a stop for fuel at a gas station.
Rebecca Lindland, senior director and executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said a range of up to 240 miles is more than sufficient for several days of typical driving for most people, but she agreed that fast-charging limitations are a problem.
Charging time “absolutely needs to come down,” she said.
The range issue gets at a key perception problem for electric vehicles. Consumers who are not familiar with electric vehicles or plugging in a vehicle at home might worry more about battery range than is warranted.
Abuelsamid noted that some people purchase a truck so they can haul their boat twice a year when it might be more cost-effective to buy an EV for daily driving and rent another type of vehicle to handle other kinds of heavy-duty tasks.
“If consumers were completely logical — which, of course, we know that they’re not — then they would buy only what they know they actually need,“ he said. “They tend to set their requirement based on their worst-case specification.”