Thoughts on Elon Musk and Electric Cars

Elon Musk announced he's going to reveal his new Truck design this Thursday.  This is good timing, because it should still be interesting news when families get together on the Thanksgiving holiday.  I would hypothesize that Tesla truck orders/interest show both an initial bump, and a post thanksgiving bump, as families get together and talk over the holiday.  I'm interested, though I don't plan to buy one.  A truck just doesn't fit into my lifestyle.  Still, it's a new category for the company to get into, and if he meets the price points he's previously targeted he'll be solidly in the range of a lot of truck buyers.

It's always interesting to see press about Musk.  On the one hand, there are the tech and electric car enthusiasts who really want him to succeed.  On the other, there are the people who have a strange desire to see him as a villain who must fail.  I tried looking up his political views to figure out why some people hate him so much, but wasn't able to find anything too far outside the Overton Window that was deserving of derision.  I think much of the coordinated, negative advertising journalism against Musk is likely paid for.

Who would pay for this kind of muckraking?  All I can offer is wild speculation.  I doubt it's the major car manufacturers at this point.  It hasn't been that long since the Model 3 became the 6th best-selling car model, but the negative press against Tesla predates just this last year.  Oil companies is another hypothesis, but I have a hard time seeing this one, too, since it feels like it's too many steps removed, and electric cars aren't that big a market to merit much concern for them - especially a few years ago when all this started.  Maybe because it's so cheap to buy negative journalism they throw a few dollars at him because why not?

The final possibility is car dealerships.  Tesla famously eschews the use of dealerships, preferring to sell directly to consumers.  They have a business model similar to a cell phone manufacturer, who sells you to technology and then provides over the air updates on a regular basis (only with longer support cycles).  A friend of mine owns a Tesla and he says every month or so his car gets new features.  So Tesla's interest in changing the paradigm appears to run afoul of established interests in the industry.  Is it enough that they'd buy up a bunch of negative articles about Musk?  Again, he's not a big enough player to matter much, but direct sales is a bad trend to set.

This would at least explain why other electric cars don't receive as much bad press (like the Bolt and the Leaf), because they don't upset the dealership model.  I do know you can't buy a Tesla in some states because the dealerships have passed legislation to block direct-to-consumer sales in response to Tesla.  If it's a big enough deal to pass new legislation, presumably it's big enough to spend a few dollars on negative press.  Since the cost is so low, you might as well do the smear.  I expect to see the normal round of smear articles on the heels of the Truck reveal on Thursday.  If they don't appear, I'll admit I was wrong in my prediction.  (Unless I forget, at which point someone remind me in the comments.)

Elon's Dream

I read a biography about Musk a few months ago that helped me understand a lot of what he does.  If you start from the premise that Musk really really wants humanity to go to Mars, and not just as a demonstration but to have actual self-sustaining colonies on Mars, most of what he's doing comes into focus.  Obviously, SpaceX fits into his vision of getting off the Earth and over to Mars.  Then once you're there you need power, so he has a solar panel industry because there are no fossil fuels on Mars.  You can't just rely on solar, you'll need batteries as well to power you through the night, so he has the power wall.  You'll need a way to get around, so he created an electric car company.

Airplanes require fossil fuels, too, and are an interesting problem.  If people live on different parts of Mars they'll need ways to get from city to city.  Maybe they could drive, but that's not as viable for getting around quickly.  If, instead, they had a hyperloop this would replace airplane travel on the red planet and wouldn't require them to depend on Earth for supplying jet fuel.  (Remember Mars is smaller than Earth, so hyperloop travel would be able to cover most long-distance travel requirements.)

Lots of the things Elon does fit into this way of thinking to one degree or another.  Something like the Boring Company makes sense, because underground tunnels would work even better on Mars than they would on Earth.  When he shot his Tesla into space on a rocket this was both a publicity stunt, and I'm sure they were also testing certain logistical aspects of getting a car into space so eventually they might get one to Mars.

I think that's nice, but my interest is more terrestrial.

Electric car review

One of the reasons I started this blog was to communicate concepts I find myself explaining frequently.  It hasn't reduced the number of times I have to explain those concepts (except online, where I can just link to the post) but it has helped me sharpen my delivery.  I own an electric car (though not a Tesla ... maybe someday) and people often ask me how I like driving an electric car.  After two years of driving one around, here's my review.  First, I think something like battery electric vehicles are the future for cars.  The industry is changing a lot, but I think it's still at the 'practical as a luxury car' stage.  In other words, despite the fact that the Model 3 was the sixth best-selling car in the US last quarter, it's still not a viable option for most people based on price alone.

In contrast, I bought my Nissan Leaf because it was one of the cheapest options that still had the most features.  That's because I bought it used.  Often people will lease a Leaf or other electric car, but then decide not to keep it after the lease is up.  This means you can get a nice, two-year-old electric car that had just one owner for cheap.  I paid about $9k for my 2014 leaf two years ago, and it had a lot of convenience features with only 40,000 miles (64,000 km) on it.  Since then I've put over 20,000 miles on it.  I bought a van around the same time, and have put about a third the number of miles on it as I have on the Leaf.  If you're in a 2-car household the bulk of your miles will first go to the electric car.  The drive is nicer, and it's really cheap to drive it around.

How cheap?  This wasn't a straightforward question to answer when I first got the car.  You can't do miles/gallon, because there are no gallons.  Indeed, since volume is the denominator you have to find a whole new way of thinking about it (MPGe is bunk).  I decided to figure out how much it cost to drive the car 100 miles.  This depends on the cost of electricity, so your miles may vary, but the end calculation based on miles/kW/$/kWhr was about $0.70 per 100 miles.  Compare this to the aforementioned van, which gets about 20 mpg.  Gas costs about $2.75 per gallon, and it takes the car 5 gallons to drive 100 miles = $13.75 / 100 miles.  Driving the Leaf is 1/20th the cost of driving the van around!  That was before we got solar panels, so it's an even better deal for me now.

Think of it this way, I've put about 7,000 miles on the van over two years, so at an average cost of $2.75/gallon I paid close to $1,000 to drive that distance.  For the Leaf, I drove over 20,000 miles and paid less than $150.  It would have cost $2,600 more to drive the van around the whole time!  (Add to that the oil changes I haven't had, and maintenance that's non-existent, and cost of ownership is easily $3,000 less over two years than the gas vehicle - and I only paid $9,000 to begin with.)  It's no wonder that whenever we want to drive somewhere we take the Leaf if we can.  This also explains why getting your first electric car will be where you save the most gas.  We might have driven a lot more miles in the van but it never made sense to do so. (About 4,000 out of that 7,000 miles was from when we took it on a cross-country vacation with the family, so if you subtract that we really only drive it 1,500 miles per year, compared to 10,000 miles on the Leaf).

Personally, I would not recommend getting an electric car with a range of less than 150 miles.  Depending on where you live, you might require a bit more than that, but these cars with ranges over 300 miles are mildly-nice perks I wouldn't pay the extra money for.  Less than 150 miles of range and you're restricting how far and how often you can go places; range becomes a serious consideration.  I keep my car charged at home, and when I leave I figure I can drive it as far as I have range for (minus some cushion of about 20 miles of range).  But I don't drive more than 120 miles most days.  (If I'm going on a road trip, I'm not taking the Leaf.)  That means anything extra would go completely untapped.  I don't plan to ever charge away from home, because I don't want to have to sit at a charger somewhere.  A range of 150 miles, for me, is more than enough to fit my needs.

Most of your charging is going to be happening at home.  Right now I have my Leaf charging at the airport, but I never rely on being able to charge it anywhere but at home.  As electric is getting more popular the charging stations are filling up faster.  Since you have to plan on whether you'll have the range for the trip before you leave the house, you're not going to rely on having an open space at a charging station, even if you know ahead of time they're installed at your destination.

Now, over 2 years/20k miles I've only ever charged for convenience at the airport, and never anywhere else on the go.  I don't go to charging stations, or stop off to charge somewhere - not even a little bit.  I charge at home.  It's easier.  If I don't have enough miles I take the van.  Because it doesn't make sense to wait around for your car to charge.  I certainly wouldn't pay extra to get faster public charging features, because I'll never use them.

About home charging: if you get an electric car, plan to spend the money to install a Level 2 charger in your garage.  (Live in an apartment?  Don't get an electric car.)  It costs about $100-$200 to install the outlet, and another $300-$500 for the EVSE ('charger').  This isn't optional.  The difference in charging speeds between Level 1 (normal outlet) and Level 2 (specialty outlet) is huge.  Early on, before I got the Level 2, I ran the Leaf down almost to empty.  I plugged it into the normal 120 V outlet that night and it still wasn't fully charged the next morning!  It was another 3-4 hours away.

That's the down side.  Here's the upside of in-home charging, though: it happens at home.  When I get home, I plug in my car, and when I want to go somewhere I unplug it.  With the Level 2 charging, it stays charged pretty much all the time.  The range limits me in how far I'm going to drive before I come home again, but if you have at least 150 miles of range that's not really a serious limit.  A Tesla looks like a nice option if I also wanted to be able to go on a road trip.  Maybe it's a good second electric car, or if it's your only car.  But especially if you're in a 2-car household, you won't need more than about 150 miles of your range day-to-day.

I'd get another electric car - and plan to.  The Leaf with 85 miles of range has worked out well for me, but my circumstances are different from most.  I work from home when I don't drive to the airport.  Most of my driving is close by, and I was able to find a nice car that had been a lease return, instead of paying full price for something brand new.  Chances are, an electric car is still not a good choice for most people.  But each year there's a marginal increase in the people for whom this is a practical strategy.

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