November 4, 2021
Community Voices / Electric vehicles and the Tesla experience
William Dietrich

With Washington state’s relatively low electricity costs and high gasoline prices, electric vehicles seem to be a good fit, observes Tesla owner William Dietrich … and they’re fun to drive. (Courtesy photo)

November 4, 2021
Community Voices / Electric vehicles and the Tesla experience
William Dietrich

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

I felt like a technology pioneer when I purchased a new Tesla Y electric SUV in June of 2020.

A year and a half later, I’m almost a cliché.

Monthly Tesla Y sales have doubled, and electric vehicle choice has exploded. With the state legislature and some local governments contemplating a future without fossil fuel vehicles, Northwest Washington car buyers must at least ponder going electric.

A tipping point may have come on Oct. 26, when Hertz announced it is buying 100,000 Tesla 3 sedans for its rental fleet. Tesla valuation soared to more than $1 trillion. Founder Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, had a stupefying gain in paper wealth of $25 billion in one day, making him worth more than Exxon Mobil.

That’s crazy, but EVs are not. Without any conventional advertising, Tesla is selling cars faster than it can build them. A company that once flirted with bankruptcy recently posted eye-popping gross profit margins per vehicle of 30.5%, while production-savvy Toyota achieved just 21%.

Tesla’s early innovations, such as online auto ordering, big central screens, glass roofs, push-button doors, “frunks” — front compartments for storage rather than engines — and software updates are becoming commonplace.

Dozens of other manufacturers are piling in. Rivian is slowly rolling out the world’s first electric pickup. Amazon has ordered 100,000 electric delivery vans. Ford, Chevy, Nissan, Kia, Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes, Jaguar, Porsche and Hyundai are among those offering EVs. Startup Lucid is building a $139,000 sedan with a 500-mile range.

Fully electric vehicles are still only about 3% of American sales, and the United States lags behind China and Europe in EV adoption. But sales numbers are climbing every month, constrained more by battery and chip supply than lack of consumer interest.

As a Tesla owner and tiny stockholder — seven shares! — I can’t claim objectivity. But I can share pros and cons to shed light on a transition as momentous as that of horses to the internal combustion engine.

Measuring efficiency

My 78-kilowatt battery only holds the energy equivalent of only 2.3 gallons of gasoline, but it can drive my 4,416-pound Y up to 300 miles in ideal conditions. Traditional engines put only about 20% of their energy into turning wheels, the rest being waste heat. Electric motors are up to 90% efficient. The 2014 Toyota Highlander I drove averaged 20 miles per gallon, while fueleconomy.gov calculates my Y at 121 mpg by comparing battery energy to gasoline energy. A Ford Mustang Mach E gets 93 mpg.

The government estimates my Y will save $6,250 in fuel cost over five years compared to the average gas vehicle sold today. My own estimate is that the Y saves me very roughly $100 every 1,000 miles, compared to my Highlander. Puget Sound Energy charges roughly 10 cents a kilowatt hour, or $7.80, to fully charge my battery. To drive my Toyota 300 miles took 15 gallons of gas, costing about $55 at today’s prices.

Whether you drive a pickup or a Prius, an EV means savings. In 2020 Washington ranked fourth in the nation in EV registration, behind only the more populous California, Florida and Texas, because of our relatively cheap electricity and expensive gasoline. By the end of 2020 the state had 50,520 EVs.

How far can we go?

Automakers calculate promised range in different ways, under-promising like Porsche or over-promising like Tesla. My Y has a theoretical 323-mile range, but that’s on flat ground at 50 mph in ideal temperatures. Battery packs quickly lose 3% to 5% of range as they age and my Tesla, after analyzing my driving habits — my kilowatt hours per mile — gives me a theoretical 304-mile top range at the moment.

Even that is optimistic. Except for long trips, Tesla recommends not routinely charging higher than 90% to preserve the battery. The company also discourages discharging below 10%. I figure 200 to 250 real-world miles, depending on speed, weather, and hills.

For me, this is adequate. From Anacortes I can drive to Seattle or Vancouver and back without recharging. I can not only drive to Mount Baker’s Artist Point, but when I glide back downhill to Glacier I end up with more range there than at the summit because of electricity regeneration from gravity.

Like buying computer RAM, the more range the better. But you can save substantially with a smaller battery if you are content with shorter trips. The cheapest EVs today include the Mini Cooper with a 110-mile range, the Nissan Leaf with 149 miles and the Hyundai Ioniq with 170 miles.

EV battery packs are typically warranted for 100,000 miles but projected to last far longer. Early Tesla buyers have driven as many as 300,000 miles, but it will take time to find the pack’s ultimate longevity. While Tesla will replace failed battery packs for the first eight years of ownership, replacement prices for cars outside of warranty have been quoted as high as $25,000. Such cases have been so rare that it’s difficult to predict costs once large numbers of EVs age and need replacement. 

Plugging in

I “gas up” at home, having installed a 220-volt outlet that will charge my Y over several hours. On longer trips I opt for the easy-to-use Tesla Supercharger network, but this costs about 2.5 times more locally, with the price varying by state. A round trip from Anacortes to Vancouver, Washington, with some side trips, cost me $30 in Supercharger fees, even after starting and ending with home charging. In Northwest Washington,  there are Superchargers in Birch Bay Village, the Cook Road exit to Highway 20 and the Angel of the Winds casino near Arlington.

EVs are most practical for those who can charge at home or work.

When selecting a car, figure out which public chargers work for your brand and how long they take to fill-er-up. Most EV drivers save time when home charging and spend time on long-trip charging. Total time “refueling” is probably a wash.

What if the power goes out? EVs are vulnerable on that one, but they are immune to oil embargoes, refinery shutdowns, and gas hikes. It’s a tradeoff. I charge up before a big windstorm and use my car’s on-screen planner to plot long trips and Supercharger stops.

A few enthusiasts have installed enough solar panels and storage batteries at home to “gas up” without using the grid at all. And the new Ford Lightning electric pickup, due next year, promises to reverse the electron flow so the vehicle could power a house up to three days during a power outage.

Electric cars have no tailpipe. It takes energy to manufacture batteries and generate electricity, but even worst-case scenarios of coal-generated power show that EVs have less than half the climate and pollution impact of a gas car. Puget Sound Energy uses coal and gas for two thirds of its electricity and clean for the other third. It’s unclear how widespread EV adoption will affect the electrical grid, power generation, and electricity prices.

It doesn’t get much more American than Tesla, which designs and builds here. Other EVs vary, with Ford’s Mach E, for example, made in Mexico. Tesla is completing a second American factory in Texas.

But is it safe?

Electric cars in general, and Tesla in particular, get five-star government safety ratings. The battery’s low center of gravity makes them hard to roll over, the battery brick is rigid and the absence of an engine creates big crumple zones. Even the glass roof is stronger than a traditional metal one. The Highway Loss Data Institute recently calculated that injury claims from electric car accidents are 40% lower than for gas cars. Our insurance dropped slightly when I traded the Toyota for the Tesla.

But can’t batteries catch on fire? Yes: Chevrolet, Hyundai and Ford have all had well-publicized recalls of electric cars to fix flawed battery packs. But per million miles driven, Teslas have been 11 times less likely to have a fire than gasoline cars, which suffered about 171,500 fires last year. Gas is explosive. 

Don’t self-driving Teslas heedlessly hit things and kill their drivers? Yes: A few idiot drivers have ignored warnings from their cars and died. The company now requires more proof of alertness, such as jiggling the steering wheel and keeping your eyes ahead, to make idiocy more difficult.

My Y does a good job of warning me of potential collisions and automatically braking. Readers may recall a recent notorious Texas case in which two died when their Tesla slammed into a tree. It was initially claimed the car was self-driving and that no one was in the driver seat. But the National Highway Transportation Safety Board later found that not only was there a driver at the wheel, he never turned the car’s autopilot feature on.

NHTSB says that for cars as a whole, there is one crash for every 484,000 miles driven. In the second quarter of 2021, Tesla recorded one crash per 4.41 million miles on its cars that were using autopilot, suggesting that the steadily improving technology is already 10 times safer than a human driver. Again, time will tell.

Vroom, vroom …

Electric motors are almost silent, but the instant torque makes EVs a “gas” to drive. My long-range Model Y, with two watermelon-size motors and all-wheel drive, generates 384 horsepower. If I had opted for the more expensive Performance model I’d get 456 hp, while the Model S Plaid has 1,020 hp and can go from zero to 60 in two seconds. My six-cylinder Toyota had 270 horsepower, and my wife’s Prius has 134 hp.

Power, torque and handling are what makes EVs sell themselves. Test drive at your peril; you’ll like it. Nostalgic? The pricey Porsche Taycan includes artificial vroom-vroom sounds that drivers can turn on or off. 

The Tesla drivetrain has 17 moving parts while a typical gasoline car has 200. An EV doesn’t need oil or oil changes, oil and fuel pumps, tune-ups or a muffler, belts, alternator, multispeed transmission or spark plugs. The promise is much less maintenance.

EVs have generally retained a better resale value than gas cars. But because batteries are heavy and the cars are peppy, many owners experience accelerated wear on tires.

Computer on wheels

Musk has called Tesla a software company and described his cars as computers on wheels. The navigation, voice commands and constant software improvements are quick and smart. The traffic-aware cruise control and autosteer work well, although I find watchdogging autosteer more taxing than steering myself. Other Tesla owners disagree.

On the minus side, updates can bring bugs as well as fix them, and full self-driving, or autopilot, remains imperfect. I wouldn’t spend the extra $10,000. If the software ever truly works, I might try it for the new $200 a month subscription fee.

When a driver takes their foot off a Tesla accelerator, the car slows quickly to pump the car’s kinetic energy back into the battery. With practice, this means very little braking and long-lasting brake pads. The car also holds itself in place at stoplights without brakes, even on hills. One important step in choosing an EV is investigating and trying its brake “feel.”

Love it or hate it, the Tesla 3 and Y are severely simple. It isn’t hard to look a little sideways at my screen for speed and map, but I do find it difficult to tap screen commands while driving. Some of the Tesla screen fonts are annoyingly small or faint. My solution to the lack of traditional buttons is to set the climate, wipers and lights on automatic and try the car’s nifty voice commands. “I’m cold” turns the heat up three degrees, for example. The simple steering wheel scroll wheels also work well.

But Tesla lacks Apple Car Play, Android Auto and Sirius XM, unlike many rivals. I can wirelessly play music from my iPhone in my car, but I can’t see my playlists on the big Tesla screen.

This means car companies are going to compete hard on style, color and buttons, knobs, jazzy screens and spritely software. The new Mercedes luxury EV has a screen that occupies the entire dashboard, for example. After getting used to my Tesla I find other cars look cluttered, but I’d still like a glove compartment button and a temperature knob.

The jellybean aerodynamics of my Y means its rear slope stores a little less than my squarish Highlander. On the other hand, the absence of an engine and gas tank means I have a “frunk” under the hood and an extra deep well in the back. The glass roof means more light and headroom.

I can’t squeeze a short kayak inside my Tesla as I could with the Highlander, but I could install roof racks. My Y also has a trailer hitch, a $1,000 option.

The bottom line

Most EVs are relatively expensive, although battery prices keep falling. Tesla has recently boosted prices because of demand, with the cheapest Tesla Model 3 starting at $45,000 and the Y at $58,000, up from $53,000 when I bought it. A Model S sedan starts at $90,000 and an X or Plaid runs into six figures. So do some EVs from other luxury car makers, such as Mercedes, Porsche, or the new Lucid.

The cheapest EVs start at just over $30,000 but most begin in the low 40s. While many makes still qualify for a $7,500 federal income tax credit, Tesla and General Motors do not until Congress extends incentives.

Tesla buying is different. There is no bargaining; you agree to their price and buy and pay on-line. The process is simple but impersonal, with no showroom sales antics but no handholding either.

Other manufacturers retain traditional dealerships, but short supply allows many to charge well over MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) at the moment. You may have to wait weeks or months for manufacture and delivery.

Sales and Service is Tesla’s greatest weakness. One communicates with sales and service by text; the delivery and service centers literally do not answer the phone. The closest is Lynnwood, and there’s usually a wait for service and parts. Tesla does offer mobile service for simple repairs in your driveway, but routine maintenance may not be scheduled for weeks.

Some EV brands have more repair shops, but early adopters complain that dealer mechanics aren’t trained to service EVs and that sales personnel are ignorant about the product.

EVs are different

My Tesla unlocks itself as I approach and is “on” when I sit inside; there is no “on” button. There is no written manual; it’s on the screen and online. The screen menus take some mastering. All this works well, but people who cringe at new computers or cell phones are going to groan. The cars are actually fun and easy to drive, but plan on a few days to figure them out.

I think my Y suspension is too stiff on bumpy roads, though other owners disagree. And while the car is blessedly quiet in city driving, I wish it had more soundproofing at freeway speeds. Some luxury EVs are cushier and hushed, but they cost considerably more. Be sure to test drive.

Even with all-wheel drive I don’t consider my Y an off-road car. It can easily traverse a maintained gravel Forest Service road, but I won’t take it on a rutted track to a bushwhack trail. It would need snow tires to be a good ski car. But I’d say the same of most suburban SUVs.

Teslas can tow, but not far. Future EVs may do better.

Fit and Finish is another Tesla issue. My own car was fine, but some owners have been unhappy with their car’s initial paint or rattles. The first cars off new production lines seem to have the most problems. When your car comes, inspect it closely.

And Elon Musk … he’s a genius. He’s eccentric. He’s inconsistent, touting zero emission cars one moment and investing in energy consumptive bitcoin the next. He’s fascinating, visionary, libertarian, contrarian, funny and occasionally infuriating. If you can’t stand him, try a different car company. 

So, welcome to the revolution. It’s reminiscent of the fast-changing personal computer world of the early 1990s. Buy now? Sure, life is short. Or, wait for what experts predict will be more EV choice and quality in a few years.

— Contributed by William Dietrich

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