200 Miles is New Bogey for Electric Car Range

By · January 26, 2015

Chevrolet Bolt Concept

The unveiling of the Chevy Bolt EV concept car, at the 2015 Detroit auto show, kickstarted a race for the affordable 200-mile electric car.

Limited driving range has consistently ranked as a top concern among car buyers considering EVs. But with the recently unveiling of the Chevrolet Bolt concept car—and quick replies from Nissan and Tesla—the race for an affordable long-range electric car reached a new level of competition. All three companies are targeting 200 miles on a single charge, thus establishing a new industry-wide target for a relatively affordable vehicle running solely on batteries.

“Tesla is trying to beat everybody to the market with an affordable all-electric vehicle with 200 miles of range,” said James Bell, head of consumer affairs for General Motors, in a video from Detroit. “Guess what? Chevrolet just knocked on their door, and knocked it down. Now the Bolt’s here, and you’ll have it available in showrooms for about $30,000 next year.”

By next year, Bell apparently means the end of 2016. Tesla’s target release for its Model 3—also expected to provide 200 miles on a charge—is 2017. That means the introduction of the two models could be within a few months of one another. (To the degree that Tesla needs to first release the Model X, and to launch and begin production at its massive new battery factory, the 2017 date will be challenging.)

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, in Detroit, suggested that his company’s affordable 200-mile car will be slightly less expensive than the Bolt. He said it will be priced at $35,000 before any tax incentives—while GM said the Bolt will be offered for $30,000 after a tax credit (that is currently valued at $7,500). Of course, if these promises are fulfilled, the two cars could carry nearly identical price tags, with trim levels and options likely to make the difference.

The Bolt is a small crossover, while the Tesla Model 3 (yet to be unveiled) will be a small sedan approximately the size of a BMW 3-series. Musk said the Model 3 will be “unlike anything on the road.”

Add Nissan and Others

Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s chief executive, not to be left out of the contest, told reporters at the Detroit auto show where the Bolt concept was unveiled, that Nissan is also in the race for an electric car with 200 miles or range. “Obviously we will be competing,” he said. “We are the leaders and we frankly intend to continue to be the leaders.”

With these three carmakers working to offer a 200-mile EV for around $30,000, it’s unlikely that other electric car players, notably BMW and Volkswagen, will be far behind.

Regardless, it will be a tough challenge to offer an all-electric car with a battery pack big enough for 200 miles or range at the intended price targets. Given today’s level of efficiency—about 3.5 miles per kilowatt-hour of stored energy—a 200-mile car will need a pack of about 55 to 60 kWh. Tesla’s 60-kWh Model S sells for $70,000. The size of the packs available in electric cars currently offered for around $30,000 is closer to 24 kWh—providing around 85 miles of range.

So, either the price of a vehicle with a larger pack will need to be cut in half, or the size of the smaller pack will need to double without adding much cost. And this transition needs to occur in less than two years.

Targets for price, specifications and schedules for next-generation vehicles are commonly not met in the auto industry. Yet, past surveys of EV drivers indicated that the magic number for electric car range—or at least enough to eliminate range anxiety—could fall slightly below 200 miles.

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