Preserving the Environment

Inside the Race to Build an Affordable Electric Vehicle

September 4, 2014
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Inside the Race to Build an Affordable Electric Vehicle
Tesla and GM are working to make the first mass-market electric car. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The clash between automotive titans GM and Tesla will be a win for all of us.

One of the main reasons why electric vehicles (EV) haven’t quite caught on in this country? Their cost. But back in July, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced news that lots of people were waiting to hear — that his car company is working on the first EV for the mainstream.

Called the Model 3, Musk claims that the car (targeted for release in 2016 and available to the general public in 2017) will cost $35,000 and can travel 200 miles on a single charge. The only other major EV that can reach 200-something miles is the Tesla Model S, which starts at a much more costly $70,000.

If the Model 3 succeeds, Tesla could dominate a very niche and profitable sector. But not if General Motors gets there first.

MORE: Tesla’s Brilliant — and Generous — Move to Help Save the Planet

Quartz recently detailed the tense and exciting battle between the two auto companies vying to make the first mass-market electric car. Here, some of the most interesting findings:

1. Tesla or GM could sell a LOT of electric cars. Like the highly popular and desirable BMW 3 series, there is a serious market for entry-level luxury cars. And now that consumers are more open to plug-ins, plus the trendiness of sustainable products, the sky’s the limit. Experts tell Quartz that the potential of an affordable 200-mile EV could really sway buyers to make the switch to electric, since that’s the point at which people no longer feel scared about their battery running out of juice in the middle of nowhere. Sales of electric cars — which currently stand at 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles a month — could swell to 15 to 20 times that amount once this technology proves successful, Quartz reports.

2. Tesla’s “gigafactory.” The reason why EVs are currently so expensive: batteries are costly. However, as technology improves, batteries will get cheaper. For example, the Tesla Model S lithium-ion battery currently costs about $15,000 per car, but Musk is building an enormous plant called the “gigafactory” that aims to double the global production of batteries — thus cutting expenses. Musk expects his new batteries will cost about $10,500 each.

3. GM is worried. Can a 106-year-old car company (riddled with controversy and recalls) actually compete against the technological whizzbangery of 10-year-old Tesla and its charismatic rockstar of a CEO? Steve Girsky, GM’s vice chairman, says that former GM CEO Dan Akerson was worried about Tesla and assigned a small team to study Musk’s EV’s and how it might threaten GM’s business.

4. GM, however, has a card up its sleeve. Tesla isn’t the only one working on a cheaper super battery. According to Quartz, Korean chemical company LG Chemical is working on their own battery that could be 200-mile ready by 2016. And while LG hasn’t said which automaker is getting the battery, since LG is GM’s supplier, we have a good guess as to which company will get it.

5. Still, the smart money is on Tesla. “We just haven’t seen any incumbent carmaker that has been able to make a compelling plug-in car in the way that Tesla has,” Navigant’s Sam Jaffe tells Quartz.

The drama between Tesla and GM is already exciting, but the best part about this EV battle? The planet is much better off for it. With so many environmentally friendly cars potentially flooding our roads, this would reduce the demand on fossil fuels and maybe, one day, even put a serious dent in the earth-damaging oil industry.

Competition spurs the best in innovation and as Tesla spokesperson Simon Sproule said after Musk surprisingly released his electric car patents to all in June, “The mission of the company is to accelerate the widespread adoption of electric cars. If Tesla acts as the catalyst for other manufacturers … that will have been achieved.”

Guess we only have to wait two years to find out which company comes out on top.

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