Last week and for the third time in less than two months, a Model S from electric carmaker Tesla Motors caught fire after being involved in an accident. Shares of the company fell at least 7 percent for two consecutive days. The business, run by celebrity CEO Elon Musk, had already reported a net loss of $38 million for the trimester ending in September.
The fires in Model S vehicles originated in their lithium-ion batteries, which are of the same kind of problems that caused the grounding of the entire fleet of Boeing Dreamliners in January. Battery fires are not, however, the main issue Tesla has to deal with to build a good image and compete with other car manufacturers. The real issues are cost and infrastructure.
In a talk at NYU’s Courant Institute last Friday, Carnegie Mellon professor Manuela Veloso argued that it is not fair to ask complete autonomy from robots while an entire structure is built to help humans. She mentioned in particular the case of roads — instead of making cars that can approach every terrain, a gigantic net of smooth roads, with signs and other amenities, has been adopted. In analogy, it is not fair to ask complete responsibility from electric car companies without the government or private groups improving general infrastructure.
But while many carmakers already have hybrid or all-electric vehicles on the market, amenities specific for electricity-powered cars are practically non-existent. We can consider, for example, their capacity for long distance driving. While the average urban driver needs a car with fuel autonomy of about 20 miles per day, most people buy cars with consideration for vacations and other long-range trips. However in the US, conveniences such as battery-swap stations for Tesla owners are planned in the near future only for small trips from Los Angeles to San Francisco and Washington, D.C. to Boston.
Regarding financial costs, a report by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government found that at the 2010 rates of purchasing and operating, savings on gasoline over the lifetime of an electric car would not offset the higher cost of investment. The same report predicted a change in this picture, assuming that in the following 10 to 20 years, gasoline prices would increase and battery costs decrease. Still, the estimated quantity of electric cars in operation by 2020 is small according to another report by J.D. Power and Associates — just 7.3 percent of cars will be hybrid or all-electric.
The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2004 came from energy used in transportation, and 95 percent of that energy came from petroleum-based fuels. Electric cars can play a central role in reducing transportation-related emissions. But that will only be achieved with significant public and private investments that allow them to be more than a luxury to show off around one’s neighborhood.
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Carnegie Mellon professor Manuela Veloso argued it is not fair to ask complete responsibility from electric car companies without the government or private groups improving general infrastructure, when she actually spoke about robots. WSN regrets this error.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Nov. 14 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]