Tesla is leading the electric vehicle race because it has more high-powered battery tech — and it takes more risks. For more than a decade, Tesla has been designing battery-powered vehicles from the ground up and using software to make the batteries more efficient. It has scrapped many weighty, traditional luxury features in favor of aerodynamics, taken measures such as ditching multi-gear transmissions in favor of dual motors programmed to send varying power ratios to the front and rear wheels.
But car industry experts also say the company has taken more risks than traditional automakers, making its batteries ever-denser and out of different materials than competitors. Some point to a handful of spontaneous battery fires under investigation by federal regulators as potential fallout. And it’s too soon to know — as with any new vehicle — what kind of durability the vehicles may offer in the long run. Even the oldest Tesla sedans have been on the road for less than eight years.
Battery range has helped Tesla maintain its grip on the electric vehicle market at nearly 60 percent of new sales in the first nine months of 2019, according to data from the website InsideEVs, as new electric vehicle models from at least four major car companies have hit the U.S. market over the past year or so, and the company gears up to face its first real challenge.
“My belief is that Tesla is more willing to risk their battery not lasting 8 to 10 years and just dealing with the consequences on the back-end,” said Michael Ramsey, a senior director and analyst specializing in the evolution of the auto industry with Gartner’s CIO Research Group. “Part of their success is related to their willingness to go way past what the industry would normally would do,” he said.
Tesla did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Tesla isn’t the only electric vehicle company under scrutiny for its batteries. Nissan had to change its battery chemistry on its early Leaf model because of significant battery degradation over a short time period, particularly in warmer climates. And Audi recalled its e-tron SUV last year because of the potential for moisture to seep into battery packs and create a fire risk, Bloomberg News reported. Audi said it was because of a wiring harness glitch.
Federal regulators have also investigated General Motors for battery fire risks in cars including its plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt in 2011, which GM agreed to fix.
Nissan declined to comment on its early Leaf battery issues. General Motors did not respond to requests for comment. Audi spokesman Mark Dahncke said the issue has been fully resolved.
Tesla was the company that brought the electric car to the masses, first with the launch of its sporty Roadster in 2008 when traditional car manufacturers were still largely focused on hybrids. In 2012, it launched its flagship Model S, followed in 2017 by its more affordable Model 3. The company’s market capitalization recently reached $87 billion, exceeding the combined value of Ford and General Motors. And it’s expanding in the all-important market of China, where CEO Elon Musk performed a revelatory dance that went viral this week.
People buy Teslas not just for their battery range. It has features like Autopilot, which steers the car on highways and executes lane changes. The cars are also less visually jarring than many competitors, some of which eschewed traditional designs while working on aerodynamics.
But in a key development, it helped eliminate range anxiety by helping reduce the possibility that its vehicles would run out of juice in the middle of a road trip. The batteries are tucked under the floor of the main body of the car.
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has made substantial investments in battery technology and research. Last year, Tesla announced it would buy Maxwell Technologies, a firm focused on energy density and breakthrough storage technology that Musk has championed. In 2015, the company entered into an agreement with Canada-based Dalhousie University professor Jeff Dahn, a world-renowned battery researcher, to make lower-cost lithium-ion batteries that last longer and have higher energy densities.
Tesla’s improvements have added up to industry-leading energy densities, referring to the amount of energy that is stored in a particular battery unit, said Logan Goldie-Scot, head of clean power research at BloombergNEF.
Tesla also opened its Sparks, Nev., Gigafactory in 2016, a dedicated large-scale battery plant that it says became the world’s highest-volume battery plant in 2018. Panasonic produces the battery cells, which Tesla assembles into packs and modules for its vehicles.
Most other major EV makers contract battery production with companies like South Korea-based LG Chem, which in December announced a joint venture with General Motors to build a battery-production plant in northeast Ohio.
Rich Benoit, who runs Electrified Garage, an independent Tesla repair shop in New Hampshire, said incremental improvements over time have led to a sizable advantage for Tesla. One example is Tesla’s decision to opt for dual-motors for its front and back wheels over using multispeed transmissions to increase power.
He said Tesla has learned how to gain efficiencies in the interaction of those two motors — what the power ratio should be between the front and back wheels for the best control, acceleration, power and range, for example. Its Internet-connected cars have gathered data to fuel those improvements.
“They’ve had absolutely the longest lead time of anyone else — any other manufacturer out there,” said Benoit, who has taken apart dozens of Teslas to see how they work for his YouTube channel “Rich Rebuilds.” “When Porsche was still making Caymans and Boxsters, the Tesla Roadster came out,” referring to Tesla’s debut 2008 sports car — “they’ve had years of [research] and development and sourcing different vendors to kind of perfect their technology.”
In electric vehicles, a higher energy density means more potential range from a smaller package, saving weight and improving efficiency, according to analysts and battery researchers.
Tesla’s Model 3 carries roughly 24 percent higher pack energy density as compared with a 2018 Nissan Leaf, according to data compiled by BloombergNEF research. That resulted in about 90 miles more range, though weight considerations and Nissan’s smaller battery size also factor in.
Tesla also uses a different battery chemistry — aluminum, in addition to the standard nickel and cobalt — than other major automakers. The battery researchers said that choice has led to maximum range because of a higher-capacity battery chemistry, though downsides included a higher fire risk and shorter cycle life, or life span over hundreds of charges.
Other automakers have opted for manganese instead of aluminum, with lower storage capacity, portending less range but potentially longer life cycles, those researchers said.
The tradeoff for Tesla: higher energy densities and higher-capacity materials tend to put out more heat, requiring more advanced cooling systems and temperature management systems to preserve the battery, the researchers and analysts said.
Will Chueh, a Stanford University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering professor who focuses on lithium-ion batteries, said Tesla’s choice of battery material also represents another bet: more range means less charging, offsetting some concerns about cycle life. Consumers won’t have to charge their cars as much if they have 300 miles of available range, so Tesla can afford to use a battery with a shorter cycle life, in addition to taking proactive measures such as active cooling to preserve the life of the battery. “The larger the battery is the fewer times you have to cycle it," he added.
As the batteries age, however, they become less potent, which can affect the driving experience. “As the battery degrades, you won’t be able to do the 2.5 seconds-fast acceleration because the battery can’t deliver as much power in that time as it did before,” he said. The range decreases and charging time goes up and available power lessens — which can translate to the driving experience, he said.
And some Tesla owners are already reporting battery issues as their cars age.
Harpreet Singh bought a Tesla certified pre-owned 2013 Model S with around 34,000 miles on it a year ago for nearly $46,000. The 32-year-old IT engineer says that his battery range has fallen as his charge times have gone up.
The car originally had 265 miles of range, he said. But in April Tesla pushed a software update aimed at protecting the battery from an unspecified issue and to improve its overall life. Singh said the updates took away about 40 miles of range.
“They have full control of how the car will behave,” he said. “I purchased the iPhone and Apple did the same,” he said, referring to Apple’s throttling of older phones.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed in the fall it is investigating Tesla Model S sedans and Model X SUVs after Tesla owners brought a petition alleging battery faults to the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation. The NHTSA petition alleged the updates reduce the driving range of affected vehicles.
An attorney representing those owners also filed a class action against Tesla regarding the 2019 software changes. The NHTSA petition alleged that the software tweak was in response to “a potential defect that could result in non-crash fires in the affected battery packs” that should have resulted in a safety recall, citing an “alarming number of car fires” in 2012 through 2019 model-year vehicles.
Most of those blazes appeared to be spontaneous — several of them high-profile and documented on social media. In one instance, a parked Tesla Model S exploded in a Shanghai garage. In another, a Model S burst into flames while driving in Los Angeles, according to news reports.
Vehicles have also caught fire upon impact. For example, in South Florida a Tesla driver was killed after the vehicle swerved through traffic and struck a median and trees, before catching on fire. Another wreck in South Florida led a family to sue the company alleging the battery pack was defective. That firm representing them alleged there were at least a dozen cases of Model S batteries catching fire either after a collision or while parked.
Tesla said at the time its cars were 10 times less likely to catch fire than gas-powered cars, though the fires can be harder to fight because of the concentrated build up of heat.
After the deadly South Florida crashes, Tesla told media outlets that the vehicles are engineered to be the safest in the world and, in the second, that no car could have withstood such a high-speed crash. Tesla has also previously said it has investigated spontaneous battery fires. In one case, Tesla told CNN the fire was “an extraordinarily unusual occurrence“ and that the cabin was protected from the fire due to the battery’s design.
The Environmental Protection Agency made waves in December when it announced that Porsche’s highly anticipated all-electric Taycan Turbo sports car would carry a range of only 201 miles—with a $150,000 price tag. Porsche’s range estimates were initially set around 280 miles.
“This will give you range anxiety in a hurry,” tweeted Tesla investor Ross Gerber, a vocal Tesla booster on social media. “Taycan is DOA.”
Porsche spokesman Calvin Kim said the Taycan prioritized performance, but the company believed its range was sufficient for most drivers, who were expected to utilize home and office charging and Volkswagen’s charging network.
Many traditional competitors have been launching electric SUVs, banking on appealing to consumer demand for bigger, greener vehicles. Because they’re larger and heavier, they face greater challenges on range, according to experts. Still, the base-model Tesla Model X SUV, with a smaller battery pack than competitors, delivers an EPA-rated range of 238 miles. Tesla’s Model Y crossover, set to arrive later this year, is expected to carry a 280 to 300-mile range, though the automaker has also promised a cheaper standard-range version at 230 miles.
The Model Y’s closest competitor, Ford’s upcoming Mustang Mach-E crossover, is targeting ranges in the same ballpark at the Model Y — representing the top end of what the Tesla competitors can produce — for late 2020. Ford did not have immediate comment.
BMW-owned MINI, which plans to soon introduce its electric MINI Cooper SE in the United States, revealed last year its range would be just 110 miles. BMW did not respond to a request for comment.
Jaguar’s I-Pace SUV is among the closest, with a range of about 240 miles. Jaguar spokesman Taylor Hoel said the company opted to use a different battery cell type in an effort to ensure the cars could be driven hard for longer periods of time, citing what he said were temperature management advantages. (Hyundai’s Kona EV has an EPA-rated range of 258 miles, but has only been available in limited, electric-friendly markets.)
Explaining the e-tron’s SUV’s 204-mile range, Dahncke, the Audi spokesman, said the company focused on maximizing battery longevity rather than range, illustrated by the preference for the less energy dense manganese battery chemistry. Audi also limited how much of the battery was usable to 88 percent to better preserve it, and sacrificed some aerodynamics to maintain a traditional SUV shape familiar to buyers.
Goldie-Scot, the analyst at BloombergNEF, says he expects the range gap to narrow in coming years as traditional rivals catch up and Tesla’s innovations inevitably slow down.
"Tesla clearly has had a large number of years to build up core competencies around the battery, the electric motor, that is resulting in it generally scoring at the top end on range,” he said. “As you look at technology advancements over the coming years — you start seeing a more blurred line between them.”
Still, EV shoppers like Dali Dimovski of Macomb, Mich., say Tesla’s superior range makes it the only option. He has been considering an electric vehicle for his 65-mile one-way commutes to the Ann Arbor area, where the 41 year-old is an automotive designer focused on interiors.
“One of the things about living in the Midwest is you’re always traveling to other parts of the Midwest,” he said. “That 300 [miles] is a magic number for a lot of us."