More than 10 years after Tesla released its first vehicle, the Roadster sports car, some competitors are still unable to match its 245-mile range. And recent improvements to the drivetrain and suspension of the electric-car maker’s Model S sedan, whose long-range trim now travel 370 miles on a full charge, have only widened Tesla’s lead.
A consistent refrain from Tesla critics is that increased competition from established automakers is one of the company’s greatest threats. Once the likes of Volkswagen, General Motors, and Mercedes-Benz begin taking electric vehicles seriously, the thinking goes, they will overwhelm Tesla with superior engineering, manufacturing, and service.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Tesla’s ability to generate consistent profits and stabilize its troubled manufacturing and service operations, but the company has maintained an advantage in one key area of engineering: maximizing the distance a vehicle can drive between charges.
Tesla’s Model S, Model X SUV, and Model 3 sedan have more range than any other electric vehicles available in the US (the Model X’s long-range trim has a range of 325 miles, while the Model 3’s long-range and performance trims have a range of 310 miles). No competitor has even 300 miles of range, and some, like the Audi e-tron SUV and BMW i3 compact car, have around 200 miles or less.
Only making EVs has helped Tesla maximize performance
At just 16 years old, Tesla has a fraction of the experience of its more-established competitors, but focusing entirely on electric vehicles may provide an advantage in maximizing performance. Traditional automakers like Ford, Toyota, and Honda tend to use existing parts, rather than creating new ones, when designing a new vehicle, said Sandy Munro, the CEO of the manufacturing consulting firm Munro & Associates and a former Ford executive. Doing so can reduce costs if the new model is similar to older ones, but it can backfire.
“If you’re designing something radically different, or if you want to have something that’s going to be a world-beater in the marketplace, that parts bin is the worst thing imaginable,” Munro said.
Some automakers, like Audi and Mercedes-Benz, have for new electric vehicles repurposed platforms originally used for cars with engines and gas tanks, rather than electric motors and battery packs. But since Tesla has never produced cars with gas-powered engines, it has designed each of its vehicles with only electrification in mind.
“One of [Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s] big advantages is, basically, that the vehicle is designed to be an electric car,” said Mark Ellis, a senior master of lean design and battery consultant at Munro & Associates, of the Model 3. Musk “designed every aspect of this car to be as efficient as possible.”
Tesla excels in battery-pack design and cell chemistry
Munro & Associates has torn apart and examined the battery pack and powertrain of the Model 3, as well as those of other electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Bolt EV, Nissan Leaf, BMW i3, and Jaguar I-Pace. The Model 3 has the best battery-pack design of any electric vehicle he’s examined, Ellis said, citing the placement of battery cells in relation to the current collectors (which connect the cells to each other), and the fact that nearly every component in the pack is glued together, which reduces vibration.
“It’s the best design of any battery pack I’ve seen so far,” Ellis said.
It helps that Tesla uses cylindrical battery cells, rather than prismatic cells, which tend to have a rectangular shape. Prismatic cells expand and contract when they charge and discharge, which means the battery packs that hold them need extra parts to manage the expansion and contraction processes. Those parts add weight that Tesla’s battery packs don’t need.
And Tesla’s battery cells, which are made by Panasonic, have a higher energy density than those used by other automakers due to their superior chemistry, Ellis said.
The Model 3’s range also benefits from a motor that has a more favorable ratio between its weight and the amount of power it can produce than any other electric-vehicle motor Munro & Associates has examined, aside from that of the I-Pace, Munro and Ellis said. Munro was also impressed by the Model 3’s suspension bearings, which can have a significant impact on range.
Range is an important factor for EV shoppers
A long range is not just a matter of pride for an electric-car maker, it’s an essential factor in attracting customers, as limited range has been cited as one of the biggest obstacles holding electric vehicles back from wider adoption. The average gas-powered vehicle can drive around 300 miles on a single tank of gas, which represents the threshold at which so-called range anxiety is no longer a problem for electric vehicles, said Michael Harley, the executive editor at the automotive-research website Kelley Blue Book.
In the same way that fuel economy is one of the top priorities for someone who’s shopping for a gas-powered vehicle, range is likely the primary factor a consumer will consider when shopping for an electric vehicle, Harley said.
“Tesla’s doing a very good job of focusing on what most people that are diving into this technology are worried about, and that’s range,” he said.
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