Tesla Motors magic pill to solve range anxiety doesn’t quite instill range confidence

On Sunday, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk did one of his famous cryptic tweets claiming to have solved a big issue for electric cars — range anxiety.

Tesla press conf at 9am on Thurs. About to end range anxiety … via OTA software update. Affects entire Model S fleet.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 15, 2015

Supposedly electric car drivers are quivering in their shoes any time they dare to risk driving their electric car.  Supposedly we’re all deathly afraid of running out of electricity and getting stranded.  In actuality after a few weeks electric car drivers have enough experience to avoid this problem (most of the time) and it’s not like gasoline car drivers never run out of fuel either.  But the range anxiety bugaboo is strong enough to cause some people to delay buying electric cars, and gives GM and Toyota and others excuses to sell plug-in hybrids so that drivers have their gasoline life-line.

It’s now past 9am Thursday, and we can say the new feature is pretty cool but it’s not exactly a solution for range anxiety.

I think electric car drivers need to develop Range Confidence rather than remain trapped by Range Anxiety.  In fact, I’m in the middle of writing guidelines to develop Range Confidence.  The basis is learning the capabilities of your vehicle, knowing where the charging stations are located, and experimenting with both to learn new skills.

But let’s get to Tesla’s announcement before we discuss that in more depth.

With version 6.2 of the on-board software the Model S will now have a Trip Planner which is meant to give Range Assurance.   According to Tesla, Model S owners will now be able to take long long long road trips with confidence.  Simply enter a destination into the trip navigation system, and the car will automagically plot a route (taking into account elevation gains/losses) that ensures enough recharging stops to make it to the destination.

In part this relies on the Tesla Supercharger network coverage being adequate to handle (almost) any trip.  In the U.S. 90% of the population is within 175 miles of a Supercharger station, and 95% is within range of a “destination” charger (a high power Tesla-specific charger that’s becoming commonly installed at higher-end hotels).

The Trip Planner route will minimize driving time in two ways.  First is the obvious, by choosing an optimum route over the land just as any GPS unit will do.  The second is to monitor charging progress, and to notify the driver when the car has enough charge to make it to the next supercharger station.  That is, instead of sticking around to get a full charge, the trip planner will help minimize charging time to minimize overall trip time.

That’s an important trick to taking a long trip with an electric car.  The driver should leave as soon as the vehicle has enough charge to comfortably reach the next destination.  It doesn’t pay to wait until the car is fully charged because of the effect of tapering off the charge rate as the battery pack fills up.  On the other hand it’s important to have enough juice in the car to redirect to an alternate destination in case the plans go awry, so I hope Tesla’s engineers took that into account as well.

While driving the Model S will monitor state of charge, distance to nearby charging stations, and an estimation of whether the next planned stop is still reachable.  If anything changes while driving, the car will alert the driver and route them to an alternate charging station.

This is all very smart – and lets Tesla do all the heavy thinking for the driver.

Does it end “range anxiety”, however?  That’s what Elon promised, does it deliver on the promise?

It might – so long as there are sufficient supercharger stations.  The trip planner as described is useless if there aren’t sufficient charging stations, especially the supercharger’s.

One step to eliminating range anxiety is to eliminate as much charging time as possible.

For example, A few years ago Coda Automotive made a plea to automakers to instill Range Confidence through increasing charging power as high as possible.  At the time Coda’s cars offered 6.6 kiloWatt on-board charging where the other electric cars had paltry 3.3 kiloWatt on-board chargers.  The higher charging rate gave Coda owners more autonomy by doubling the miles gained per hour of charging, reducing the charging time.  However, even though 6.6 kW charging is faster than 3.3 kW it’s not fast enough to make a significant difference in reducing long waits at charging stations.  The Tesla Supercharger with its 130 kW charging rate does make a significant difference in charging time and miles gained per hour of charging.

The anxiety we feel while driving around is uncertainty over making it to the next charging station, whether that charging station is working, whether it’s occupied, whether it’s ICE’d out, and whether our trip can work while waiting several hours to recharge.

A real time data service we access while driving, like Tesla’s new Trip Planner, will help with some of those concerns.  But the rest also depends on we, ourselves, gaining experience with our vehicle and with the charging process.  A study published in November 2013 by Transport Policy said as much, after studying 70-80 MiniE drivers.  The study found that as they gained experience, about 3 weeks were enough, the drivers reported having the confidence to just drive around without worries.

From my electric car driving experiences, what reduced my anxiety was to learn the capabilities of my vehicle and the charging infrastructure through getting out there and driving.  That’s what the Range Confidence guidelines I’m writing try and teach.

Most of us can’t afford the Model S that gives us access to the infrastructure and services Tesla Motors is supplying.  It means the dashboard info system showing charging stations is probably derived from an incomplete database.  It means we’re doing as well as we can with smartphone apps like PlugShare.  It means we’re limited to inadequate charging infrastructure, especially when it comes to fast charging.  It means we don’t have a neatly integrated Trip Planner that takes care of our every need.

Therefore most of us must learn the skills and knowledge to plan out long trips on our own, and to develop the experience which gives us range confidence.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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