With rave reviews for its new sedan and visitors to its small collection of flagship stores numbering in the millions, Tesla Motors is riding high. The California-based automaker released its hotly anticipated Model S luxury electric vehicle (EV) to a fanfare of publicity last month.
Although Tesla has not yet given figures for the Model S’s first month of sales, the company anticipates selling 20,000 of them in 2013. Were this to happen, as well as being a massive shot in the arm for the U.S. EV industry, it would also raise some major questions about the future of EV technology.
Up to now the conventional wisdom has been that mass market appeal for an EV will only come in a small car.
To this point the top-selling all-electric vehicle in the U.S. car market has been the Nissan Leaf. In designing the Leaf, Nissan banked on the idea that take up for an electric car is going to be the greatest among people searching for a small runaround, practical for getting to the office and picking the kids up from school, but not designed for long journeys. This type of consumer isn’t troubled by range anxiety (still, arguably, the biggest barrier to EV’s large-scale commercial success) and is presumably evolved enough not to get an inferiority complex from the size of his vehicle.
However, Nissan has sold only around 13,000 Leafs in the U.S since the car came on the market in December 2010 and sales for the first half of this year are down to a disappointing 3,148.
At the same time medium-sized hybrids like the Chevy Volt have performed better. The Volt, which also came out in December 2010, has achieved sales of 16,500 over the same period. Meanwhile, the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid — another medium-sized sedan — has clocked 2,552 sales from late February (when it first came out ) to May.
Of course the success of the Prius Plug-in and the Volt is not just down to their size. The hybrid technology means that buyers needn’t worry about the car running out of charge; a major turn-off for a lot of consumers.
But the same can’t be said about the Model S and so far (though we’ve yet to receive the concrete figures to confirm it) demand for Tesla’s all-electric has been very high.
Could it be that conventional wisdom is wrong? Could the future for EVs be big, rather than small?
There are certainly some major advantages to building big.
A bigger chassis means more engine space and more room for batteries. As a result the Model S can manage 0-60 in 5.6 seconds, with the highest rated battery option on the car coming in at 85 kWh, which translates to a 300-mile range. Compare this to the Leaf’s range, which has been rated at just 73 miles by the EPA.