Tesla’s Answer to Range Anxiety

Tesla Motors has drawn significant attention recently with the gradual launch of its “Autopilot” suite of autonomous driving tools for its Model S sedan, designed to relieve owners of some of the tedium of highway driving. In a press conference on Thursday, March 19, however, the country’s most well-known electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer announced a software update to address a more common concern among potential EV owners—tracking down a place to charge the car. Tesla founder Elon Musk took to Twitter on Sunday, March 15 with a cryptic announcement claiming that his company would be putting an end to what some call “range anxiety,” the worry some EV drivers have that they will exhaust the available electricity in their battery before finding a place to plug in and recharge. Because EV infrastructure needs time to catch up to the well-established gasoline-fueled incumbent, it is important that EV drivers are able to easily locate charging stations. Thursday’s software upgrade from Tesla should make that process easier, if not totally worry-free. The over-the-air update to the entire fleet of Model S vehicles allows the car’s onboard computer to calculate exactly how far the driver is from the next supercharger station, the company’s proprietary network of high-speed chargers. “This makes it effectively impossible for a driver to run out of range unintentionally,” according to Musk. Updates to navigation software will also assist in trip planning, charting a path to the user’s destination with the vehicle’s effective range constantly in mind. Once at a supercharger, it takes about 30 minutes to regain approximately 170 miles of range. A Model S at one of the company’s supercharging stations. Apart from the apparent benefits to Tesla owners, these updates represent a growing movement in the automotive industry toward getting more out of every drop—or watt—of fuel. Smart navigation software, plugged in to real-time traffic or weather conditions, will help drivers use less energy, and, in the case of gasoline vehicles, less fuel. For EV owners, Tesla’s software update illuminates one of the major remaining challenges to widespread electrification: infrastructure. As more drivers consider purchasing an EV, the small-but-growing national network of charging stations must be able to keep up with growth. This presents a “chicken or the egg” scenario in which more EVs are needed to rationalize additional charging stations, and more charging stations are needed to stimulate increased EV adoption. Attempting to break down this challenge, a recent study conducted by Cornell University researchers Lang Tong and Shanjun Li goes so far as to suggest that the current federal tax credit of $7,500 towards the purchase of a new EV may be better put to use in the promotion of new charging stations. Tesla’s national supercharger network and its coverage area. Whether one chooses to side with the chicken or the egg, the study highlights the important role played by government in incentivizing nascent technologies to compete with the entrenched incumbent. Fuel diversity, offering consumers the broadest possible choice for mobility, is a critical facet of a long-term energy security strategy. Tesla’s ambitious plan to build its own refueling infrastructure—and make it free to Model S owners—has undoubtedly helped to drive sales of its first mass-produced car. It will be interesting to see if and how similar plans unfold at the national or state level.