Range is more than distance: How legacy auto hides the facts

Electric vehicle range is about a lot more than just distance. Here’s what big auto doesn’t want you to know: @elonmusk @tesla

Legacy auto doesn’t want you to know how far behind their electric vehicle technology is and what a big impact that makes on the end-user experience. But I have bad news for big auto and lazy journalists: Today we’re going to take a deep dive into electric vehicle range, and explain why it’s about so much more than just the distance an EV can travel.

Is 201 Miles “Fine”?

According to an article published on Jalopnik this week, 201 miles of range on a $185,000 car is “fine”. The logic goes something like this: Most people don’t drive 201 miles on most days, so why do you need 201 miles of range? The average American only drives 30 miles a day, so 90 miles ought to be enough for anybody? Right?

This might seem convincing if you’re never driven an electric vehicle, but if you know anything about EVs this sales pitch smells a little bit like bullshit.

Defining Some Terms

Feel free to skip this section if it’s old news.

Electrical power is measured in watts. A kilowatt means “1000 watts”, similar to how “kilogram” means “1000 grams”.

Let’s say I have a fan in my room, and that fan needs 1 kilowatt of power to operate. If the socket was only providing half a kilowatt, there might not be enough electrical power to run the fan.

Energy is power multiplied by time. If I left the fan running for an hour, to calculate the total energy burned I multiply the power the fan used (1 kilowatt) by the amount of time the fan was running (1 hour) to get 1 kilowatt-hour.

People frequently confuse kilowatts with kilowatt-hours, but they’re not the same thing. The amount of energy a battery can store is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). If I have a 100 kilowatt-hour battery, I could run my 1 kW fan for 100 hours before the battery died. Alternatively, I could plug in 100 fans that used 100 kW of power altogether. With 100 fans plugged in, the battery would only run for an hour. Does that make sense? Ok, good.

Efficiency is a measure of how much energy an electric vehicle needs to move a certain distance. If my electric car needs to burn 1 kWh to travel 1 mile, it has an efficiency of 1 kWh / mile or 1000 watt-hours / mile. A vehicle could be less efficient and require more energy to move if it’s bigger, less aerodynamic, or simply because the technology is inferior.

What does this have to do with Taycan?

Bringing it back to the real world, you’ll find that both the Taycan and the Model S have a 100 kWh battery pack. That means the amount of energy in each car’s battery pack is the same. That’s a head-scratcher, isn’t it? If both cars are using the exact same battery, why does the Model S have a range of 373 miles, while Taycan can barely scratch the 200-mile mark?

Some data from fueleconomy.gov will help a little light on what’s happening here. Notice that in the EPA’s testing, the Taycan burned 49 kWh in 100 miles of driving.

The Model S, meanwhile, only burned 30 kWh in 100 miles of driving. But even the 373 mile Model S was no match for the efficiency of the Standard Range Model 3 which only burned 24 kWh in 100 miles of driving! Even though you can’t see electricity, it’s a fuel just like gasoline. To make a fossil fuel analogy, the Taycan burned twice as much fuel (or “gas) as the Model 3 to go the same distance!

This is the difference in fuel economy between a Ford F-150 and a Toyota Prius. They might both look like similar electric cars, but the Taycan is a gas guzzler while the Tesla is the most fuel-efficient car you can buy.

Who cares about efficiency?

When it comes to electric vehicles today, you care about efficiency. I care about efficiency. Everyone cares about efficiency. Why? Because of fueling.

With a fossil-fuel-powered car, if you want to drive a big inefficient piece of junk you just have to stop at the gas station a little more often. A little inconvenient, but gas stations are everywhere and filling up is quick. Not so with the state of EVs today.

While charging networks are growing rapidly, it’s harder to find an EV charging station than it is to find a gas station. Charging is a much longer process than filling gas. If you were to plug an EV into the same power outlet you use to charge your iPhone, it would take 48 hours or more to charge the battery completely. With a faster 240-volt dryer outlet, you can charge overnight in your garage in as little as 6 hours. Even fast chargers on the road, designed to be as quick as possible, will quite typically take 30 minutes – 1 hour to charge your battery completely.

Because it takes a long time to put energy in the battery, efficiency is extremely important! Imagine that putting gas in your car was extremely slow. Gasoline would enter your tank one drop at a time.

Drip. Drip. Drip. It takes an hour to fill up your tank completely.

Naturally, you’d want to avoid burning too much gas. A more efficient EV offers several benefits:

More Distance

If your car burns twice as much electricity, you’re only going to be able to go half as far with a given quantity of energy stored. That might not matter if you don’t usually drive far away and are planning to charge at home every night.

But not having to charge every night is nice. I usually only charge my Model 3 once or twice a week. The less often you have to charge the less you have to worry about, so not needing to charge as often is indisputably a benefit.

And what about longer trips? A destination that’s 220 miles away is easy to reach without stopping for charging in a Tesla, but will require a charging stop in a Taycan. You can try and spin it by saying people don’t take road trips every day, but is the Taycan supposed to be a boring daily driver? Cars are about freedom, and a less efficient EV means less freedom and less capability.

Why care about efficiency? Because it means you can drive more and charge less.

More Affordable Vehicles

A corollary to efficiency is battery cost. Since the most expensive part of an EV is the battery pack (think $5,000 to $15,000!), the amount of battery storage on the vehicle makes a huge difference when you’re calculating the cost of producing the vehicle. Legacy automakers can try and hide their cost disadvantages by taking a hit on margins and setting an MSRP that is competitive with other EVs on the market, but eventually, gravity will set in.

If your EV technology is less efficient, your car can’t compete on price. Let’s say a battery pack for an EV costs $100 / kWh. The Taycan battery would cost $10,000 to achieve 201 miles of range. Now consider the Model 3 Standard Plus: Although it achieves 250 miles of range (25% more than the Taycan), it only has a 50 kWh battery pack!

Yes, really -– the $35,000 Model 3 is capable of traveling 25% further than Taycan with only half the battery! In our $100 / kWh scenario, this would mean the Model 3 battery costs only $5,000 –– half as much as the Taycan’s. But the reality is even starker: The half cost calculation is based on the assumption that Porsche’s battery costs are the same as Tesla’s. In reality, we know that because of the Gigafactory and years of experience, Tesla’s costs are much lower than Porsche’s.

More efficient electric vehicle technology means you can offer the same specs at a lower price. If Porsche wanted to offer a 250-mile Taycan, they would need at least 25% more battery: $12,500. But because the additional battery cells add weight, need cooling, need additional labor, and more your final cost might end up closer to around $15,000. When it costs your competitors 3 times as much to make the same 250-mile vehicle, you’re going to be able to undercut them on price or enjoy much fatter profit margins.

Why care about efficiency? Because it means you pay less for more range. We’re talking about lower monthly payments, lower insurance, without lower range. That’s huge.

Faster Charging

Having a more efficient EV can actually mean getting to your destination faster.

Imagine you’re on a road trip, 20 miles away from your destination. You know there’s a charger at home, so you just need enough charge to make it back. If your vehicle uses 1 kilowatt-hour per mile, it needs 20 kWh of energy to make it home. Meanwhile, a more efficient vehicle that only needed half a kilowatt-hour per mile only needs 10 kWh of energy to make it back. For a given charging stall off the highway, you essentially only need to pump half as much “gas”. Since electrical fuel pumps slowly, this can add up to many hours saved over the life of your vehicle.

Waiting for a car to charge because it’s inefficient is lame. If a Taycan owner and a Model S owner both take a road trip leaving at the exact same time, the Model S owner will arrive sooner than the Taycan because the Taycan will spend more time charging. (Assuming identical charging speeds at each charging stall).

Why care about efficiency? Because it means you’ll spend less time waiting for your car to charge, and more time driving your car.

More Fuel Savings

Let’s take a look at the EPA fuel economy rating comparison again, specifically the “You save or spend” line. Notice how fuel savings on a Tesla are double or more what you get on a Taycan. What does this mean?

It means that your electricity bill will be around twice as high with Taycan as it would be with a Tesla, given the same driving. Note that the more efficient Model 3 costs 78¢ to drive 25 miles, while the larger Model S costs 98¢. Taycan crosses the dollar mark at $1.58 per mile. This makes the electric vehicle cost savings versus gasoline cars less pronounced and partially explains why Electrify America stations have been price gouging customers with charging stops that cost as much as a gas fill-up.

Do I really need to explain this further? An electric vehicle that’s less efficient needs more fuel to do the same thing, and fuel costs money. This will hit you in your bank account every month.

Why care about efficiency? Because it will bring down your power bill, and put cash in your bank account.

Driving like a Maniac

A more efficient vehicle is a vehicle you can have more fun with, without worrying about draining the battery. You see, the single efficiency number is an over-simplification: Electric vehicles burn more or less energy depending on hills, how hard you push down on the accelerator, climate control, and lots of other factors.

If you want to have a lot of fun driving like a maniac -– accelerating as quickly as possible, maneuvering around other cars, traveling at high speeds with lots of drag –– you’re going to burn through your battery a lot faster than if you were driving like a grandma.

Porsche can wax poetic about how it designed its electric car to be a true Porsche, but you’re not going to get to enjoy it if you’re crawling around at 20 miles per hour with the air conditioner off hoping to make it to the next charger before the battery dies.

More battery means more battery to spare. That means you don’t have to think twice before deciding to floor it down the highway when you get a chance: You know it won’t impact your day. Taycan owners don’t have that luxury. Since the car only runs for about 40 minutes – an hour, you can’t have too much fun without checking how the battery is doing first. This is kind of counter-intuitive since “efficiency” has typically been associated with boring Priuses. But in the world of electric vehicles, efficiency means “performance you can enjoy every day”.

Why care about efficiency? Because it means you can have fun with your car.

More Power for the Computer

The vehicle drivetrain isn’t the only thing that’s being powered by your EV battery: the computer needs power too! If your lame, inefficient EV drive technology is sucking up all the juice there’s not as much left over to run a big power-hungry computer or sensors needed for self-driving.

Since more powerful computers need more electrical power, a less efficient EV drive limits the computer power you can include onboard. Powering those computers and sensors will further decrease your range, making the overall vehicle even less efficient and all your problems worse. This makes a huge difference for overall Robotaxi competitiveness, in addition to just the raw fuel cost savings from a more efficient drivetrain.

One Company has a Better Car

We’ve now established two things:

  1. A more efficient EV is a much better car
  2. Tesla’s EVs are a lot more efficient than the competition: Up to 2x

As a matter of fact, even the original 2012 Model S crushes modern legacy auto EVs in terms of efficiency:

This is going to be hard for people to wrap their minds around. The internal combustion engine is now a 100-year-old technology. Every car you buy is pretty much the same. Some are better than others, there are all kinds of designs, but the engine is old news. No company has some technology that is dramatically differentiated on the market: For every product segment, there are multiple choices from multiple companies. They can all make pretty much the same car.

What happens when one company has a unique technology that allows it to make vehicles that are clearly much better than similarly priced offerings from the competition? We’re about to find out.

Sidenote: To be clear, I didn’t mean to pick on the Taycan specifically here. I think Taycan is a great car overall. People are saying it’s the best Porsche you can buy. I just chose it as the example because of the Jalopnik article and the fact that it’s the newest… but you could substitute the name of any other legacy auto EV.

Look away! Nothing to see here!

Naturally, there has been a lot of hand waving by the legacy auto industry in an attempt to hide how far behind they are on EVs from the public. Legacy auto wants you to think making EVs is easy, that it’s just like making gas-powered cars, and that they have the capabilities to design a vehicle that could “kill” a comparable Tesla model.

By and large, the public and most journalists have not realized the enormous significance of Tesla’s efficiency advantage. This is key to successfully bringing affordable EVs to the market.

Here are some of the techniques I’ve noticed legacy auto using to hide the fact that they can’t match Tesla on specs:

Pretend until someone checks

One brilliant strategy employed by Porsche was to simply claim the Taycan had 300 miles of range. People went around talking about the Taycan as a 300-mile car for years until the EPA rated it and found it barely got 200 miles. After the EPA rating, Porsche just said: “Well, when we tested it we got 275!” Another superb performance from the team that brought you the $40 billion Dieselgate fraud! Bravo, encore! This is a truly ingenious strategy that I doubt I could have ever conceived of on my own.

Use a bigger battery

When Ford unveiled the Mustang Mach-E, it looked like a decent Model Y competitor with 300 miles of range. That is, until you read the fine print: The Mustang Mach-E needs a 100 kWh battery pack to try and come close to what Model Y can do with 75 kWh.

Most consumers will just see a similar range and not know the difference. But soon educated consumers will realize: I can’t go as far. The car costs more. Battery replacements cost more. It charges slower. The electricity bill is higher. I can’t drive as aggressively. It’s just not as good.

Consumers will typically notice the higher cost of the battery, but you can hide this from them by slashing gross margins and lowering the price. This is handy when you need to hide the fact that your vehicles are not competitive from investors. You can also move production to Mexico to cut down on other costs like labor, which Ford chose to do with the new Mustang. Yup –– if Ford’s EV technology was better, they might have been able to build the future of the Mustang in America.

Kind of sad, to be honest. EVs are the future but moving Mustang production to Mexico doesn’t feel like a future people can get excited about.

Spread Misinformation through $TSLAQ Journalists

This is a tactic Volvo used with the Polestar 2. Russ Mitchell, a notorious $TSLAQ journalist who is infamous for biased articles on Tesla that frequently contain blatant inaccuracies, had this to say about the Polestar 2:

With a 70-kilowatt-hour battery, a range of 310 miles and an expected base price of $63,000, the car will compete directly with the long-range version of the Model 3, which carries a similar price and the same range. 

Los Angeles Times

If you followed the earlier discussion about efficiency, it quickly becomes clear that Russ is detailing a true battery brekathrough by Volvo. If the Polestar 2 can get 310 miles of range on a 70 kWh battery while the Model 3 needs a 75 kWh pack to do the same, that means the Polestar is more efficient than a Model 3! That would be an efficiency rating of 225 watt-hours per mile, compared to 240 for the Model 3. But what does Polestar’s website say?

Oh. That’s weird –– the official Polestar website lists a targeted 275 mile EPA range on a 78 kWh battery pack. That’s a huge difference compared to what Russ claimed! Assuming Volvo can hit its EPA range target, the efficiency rating of 283 wh / mi is closer to a Model S than a Model 3.

When you look at who Russ follows on Twitter, it’s almost exclusively Tesla short-seller troll accounts. These accounts are part of a disinformation campaign orchestrated by people who are betting against Tesla’s stock. Their agenda is not to pursue the truth: It’s to make sure they make money on their stock market bets. Russ is constantly fed the Tesla short-seller party line so he can regurgitate it in the LA Times and on Twitter. He’s even donated his own money to support short-sellers harassing, stalking, and attacking Tesla customers.

The bright side about people like Russ is that if you need to hide the truth, he can help you do it. Based on Russ’s article you would think that the Polestar 2 was just as good as a Model 3, and that Volvo might actually have a cost and efficiency advantage relative to the Model 3. Reviewing the data from the official website, it quickly becomes clear that this is not the case: Polestar is less efficient than a current Model 3.

This might seem like a small thing. Maybe even just a typo? But we just talked at length about how efficiency is the most important thing when it comes to EVs. In an article about the launch of a new electric vehicle, the most important information is completely wrong in a way that dramatically overstates the technology’s competitive position. It seems that it’s quite easy to get journalists to lie straight to the public’s face: Just find one who wants to believe what you have to say.

“Sure, this EV is just as good as a Tesla. It’s more efficient –– not less”

Consumers and investors suffer from a constant recurring pattern of incorrect information like this. Did Russ just forget to do a quick Google search? Is it something more malicious? I don’t know, but I’ve contacted the LA Times and Russ numerous times since the article was published to point out their mistake. I haven’t heard back from anyone yet.

The “oh shit” moment

Sure, you can try and hide the fact that your EV technology isn’t as good for a while. Maybe, you tell yourself, we’ll figure out the technology before anyone notices we’re behind.

You can lie to people’s faces until the first time someone checks your EV out. You can use a bigger battery to hide the fact that your range is abysmal. You can easily find a journalist who doesn’t care about the truth and will help you tell your story.

But sooner or later, the bullshit hits the wall. Sooner or later, people realize your car just isn’t as good. As for what happens after that…

I guess we’re going to find out.

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4 thoughts on “Range is more than distance: How legacy auto hides the facts

  1. I love your deep dives, Steve!

    Your section – in this installment – on “MORE AFFORDABLE VEHICLES” was especially meaningful to me; as an investor in TSLA.

    Quick Question: Do you believe, as you’ve stated in this piece how easy it is for MSM (who rely on legacy auto for ad rev) and short sellers to twist data, that the EPA metrics on EVs provide the consumer with fair comparisons across make / model?

    In other words, if you could, would you update the metrics that the EPA provides?

    Thanks for all your detailed coverage.

    Have a great holiday season.

  2. While I agree with almost all your points, your calculations use a lot of wrong numbers and invalid comparisons. That’s dishonest, and doesn’t help the credibility of your arguments.

    First of all, the Taycan doesn’t have a 100 kWh battery: it’s 93.4 kWh — while Tesla’s “100 kWh” battery actually has a nominal capacity of 102.4 kWh. Not a huge difference, but certainly not “the same”.

    Also, the Model 3 SR+ doesn’t have 50 kWh. That was supposed to be the usable capacity of the SR battery, which never got produced. The SR+ has ~55 kWh usable, which probably translates to ~58 kWh nominal. (The LR officially has 74 kWh usable AFAIK, while the nominal capacity is believed to be somewhere in the range of ~78-80 kWh, depending on who you ask…)

    Of course you might still be able to special-order the software-limited SR for $35,500 or thereabouts — but that one doesn’t have 25% more range than the Taycan. Also, since it uses the same physical pack as the SR+, its software-limited capacity is irrelevant for cost comparisons.

    While pack costs are obviously higher than cell costs, you can’t just add pack costs for Porsche but not for Tesla. And while it’s probably true that Tesla has lower per-kWh battery costs than Tesla, that’s got absolutely nothing to do with efficiency, i.e. it’s totally off-topic here.

    Also, what does Taycan’s lower efficiency have to do with EA’s higher per-kWh price? That makes no sense.

    Last but not least, while you can argue that higher power train efficiency leaves more power for the computer, the published overall efficiency numbers already include the computer’s consumption — i.e. you can’t conclude anything about the computer’s extra allocation from these numbers…

    1. Thanks for providing some additional data. This is just meant to be napkin math, not anything official. As we all know these numbers are constantly changing and evolving as the technology improves.

      As for the $35,000 thing, I said the hardware was capable of traveling 250 miles (if the software was unlocked). Obviously, that would mean spending more than $35k, but you get the point I was making.

      Appreciate you taking the time to leave detailed and thoughtful comments for other readers

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