Could Tesla's Model X drive us towards electric cars for all?

October 12, 2015 by David Tyfield, The Conversation
Back to the future? Credit: jurvetson, CC BY

The launch of Tesla's long-awaited Model X electric car has received the sort of adulation that we've come to expect of new products from Apple. The Model X is a SUV with gull-wing doors – as made famous by the DeLorean from the film "Back to the Future" – giving it the appearance of a supercar, to go with its hefty pricetag. But filter out the hype, and the question is whether this will make the slightest difference to encouraging a broader shift away from fossil fuel-powered cars to electric vehicles.

Let's take a look at this question from the perspective of China, the world's largest car market and one officially committed to leading the world when it comes to . At around US$130,000 each, and likely more including import duties, it's obvious that this is a car that will only be affordable in China to a tiny elite. Tesla's cars seem like rich men's toys with no significance to the problem of popularising electric cars. Yet in fact that's exactly what the Model X could do.

Rather than judging the extent of a shift to electric vehicles only by the slowly growing sales of electric cars, consider instead what's needed to transform our entire approach to urban mobility. This will require considerable change in a number of areas, most of which are not technological, but social, cultural and political.

So the "success" of electric vehicles revolves in large part around changing "common-sense" in these areas – a big and complex challenge, where so far change is slow in coming. But one strategy that does seem to be effective in disrupting the dominance of the fossil-fuelled internal combustion engine is designing and selling glamorous, elite, branded electric cars – a niche in which Tesla leads, including in China.

Sales of electric cars sold as "conventional" cars remain stubbornly dependent on government subsidies. This is chiefly because of the cost of the batteries, which leads to the car's price rising unfavourably in comparison to combustion engine vehicles, while bringing little additional consumer appeal and many unfamiliar risks. Conversely, sales of Tesla's cars do not rely on subsidy – the company is self-sustaining in terms of the cycle of revenue and investment in R&D.

So a key factor that works massively in favour of Tesla's strategy and against the conventional electric car is consumer demand. Teslas are bought for the car itself and its image, not primarily because they are electric or environmentally friendly. In this case, then, the more elite and exclusive the better. This particularly matters in China, where display of social status through consumption, and especially through cars, is a national obsession.

With this in mind, the new deluxe Tesla sports SUV may actually contribute towards bringing an electric vehicle future closer in several ways. It cements Tesla's reputation as a top-class luxury brand, alongside Ferrari or Maserati – an object of intense aspirational consumer desire. And as a highly visible car (normal electric cars are both so few in number and look so much like any other that they go unnoticed) seeing them on the streets also shapes what electric cars mean to people. In other words not a milk float or golf buggy, but the epitome of what a 21st century car could be. This shift could drive demand which, moving steadily down the income scale, increases demand for similar, less flashy electric vehicles.

Tesla's distinctive approach to home-charging combined with long-range batteries is also stimulating greater efforts from government to put charging infrastructure in place. This is vital as a more widespread charging infrastructure is key to mitigating one of the main hurdles preventing drivers buying electric vehicles: the fear of running out of power. Sales also support Tesla's efforts to transform the economics of lithium batteries, where cheaper, more powerful batteries would begin to shift the cost-competitiveness to the buyer away from conventional towards electric vehicles.

And there are other systemic effects that growing sales of electric vehicles may bring about, especially in China. Larger sales of Teslas in China add to the intense pressure felt by Chinese car companies regarding Tesla as a foreign interloper that threatens to grasp the lead in the electric vehicle market. This may shake things up further in a country that is ostensibly committed to leading the way in developing the electric vehicle, driving further innovation and investment.

So while we can safely say that the Tesla Model X will not sell in sufficient numbers to transform our roads and cities single-handedly, it may yet inspire a step-change in manufacturer competition and innovation, government support and consumer demand for more generally, not least in China.

Explore further: Audi to unveil rival to Tesla X at Frankfurt Auto Show

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gkam
2 / 5 (4) Oct 12, 2015
The gullwing doors were made famous by the Mercedes 300SL.

And we will all be better off when we have a majority of electric vehicles.
fay
1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 12, 2015
construct a usable mass market electrocar and you wont have to change any "common sense" because the very same CS that now tells us to buy fossil will tell us to buy electro when the electro is better. But of course constructing such car is literally physically impossible right now and will be for at least 10 years. And during these 10 yrs some miraculous tech has to happen because its clear lions just arent gonna make it.
gkam
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 12, 2015
fay, it is already happening. Look up how many electric vehicles are out now, and how many more are coming out. Then, look into the changes in battery technology, and upcoming output and the prices, and see the utility involvement in getting this working, and you may have to change your perception.
Eikka
4 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2015
consider instead what's needed to transform our entire approach to urban mobility. This will require considerable change in a number of areas, most of which are not technological, but social, cultural and political.


In other words: "it's not the cars that are the problem, it's the people."

To see the fallacy in thinking, one only has to look at every communist revolution in history. They all start with the premise that they have discovered the "perfect system" that everyone should want to have, and when they discover that this isn't the case, they start forcing people to conform to the ideal.

The problem with that fallacy is the unintended consequences of committing it. By changing the people, you change how the society works, so for example if you force everyone on public transportation and carpooling, you get workforce mobility issues and systemic unemployment because people can't move around as freely as before.

Eikka
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 13, 2015
Basically, any thing that requires you to upturn -everything- about its environment to make it work is doomed to fail.

It's essentially trying to fit a square block through a round hole, and when it doesn't fit you reject your own failure and start to argue that the hole should be square instead.

Well, in the case where the "hole" is people and society, you're really just arguing that you personally know better what the shape of society should be than the society of people itself. Good luck with that. There's a whole load of people like you in line to become the next Chairman Mao and perform the next Great Leap Forward.

Eikka
3.4 / 5 (5) Oct 13, 2015
look into the changes in battery technology, and upcoming output and the prices, and see the utility involvement in getting this working, and you may have to change your perception.


The single Tesla/Panasonic gigafactory will gobble up one sixth of the whole world's lithium production to produce 35 GWh of batteries per year.

With a practical lifespan of 10 years per battery pack, the factory will be able to sustain and supply a fleet of 4 million electric vehicles on the roads.

There are 254.4 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States which means a single Gigafactory will be able to supply batteries to just 1.5% of the vehicles. That would grow to 9.4% if ALL the world's lithium production were to be used to make lithium batteries for the US market alone.

When you -actually- look at the numbers, it becomes painfully obvious that we just can't make enough batteries, and all the price/availability predictions can be thrown out the window.
gkam
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 13, 2015
Gosh, Eikka, you just destroyed California single-handedly. In your dreams.

We already know the potential problems with these technologies, but thank you for your interest and input. We think we can do it. Sorry about you folk and your own problems.
MR166
1 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2015
"Conversely, sales of Tesla's cars do not rely on subsidy – the company is self-sustaining in terms of the cycle of revenue and investment in R&D."

How can you call a money losing company "self-sustaining"? Even with all the tax breaks they plan to lose money until 2020 at best.
gkam
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 13, 2015
It is called an "investment", and was well worth it. Did you notice how Musk gave away his patents to the also-rans? Notice how fast he changed the world doing it? I guess selfishness is not the best way for society to progress after all, is it?

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