You know what’s hard? Trying to get anyone to say anything remotely critical about the Tesla Model 3. Everyone wants it to succeed because electric vehicles are good, and affordable electric vehicles are even better. But the Model 3 cannot be the hero for the US’s energy woes if we don’t fix a few serious problems with our infrastructure first.
First, saying that the Model 3, and other cars like it, are “electric” vehicles is a bit optimistic in the US, because our old fossil fuel friend coal is still powering about a third of the country’s energy needs. While this is an unfortunate asterisk for EV owners, it has become a common refrain from critics who say that Teslas aren’t green enough.
That doesn’t faze Ben Prochazka, director of strategic initiatives for the Electrification Coalition, who says to think about it this way: Buying an EV now means your car has the potential to use better fuel sources that will be developed in the near future, which could also mean better fuel efficiency. “You’re plugging into an electric grid where there’s a whole bevy of electrical choices—it’s not a mono-fuel,” he says. “As our grid gets cleaner that becomes less of an issue.”
While it’s true the grid is getting cleaner—because the country’s fastest-growing energy sources are wind, solar, and natural gas—we’re still a long way from a zero-emission vehicle being the norm. Perhaps the best option on the horizon is the promise of distributed solar, where your backyard solar panels might feed into their own off-grid neighborhood network. Here’s where Musk’s big investment in industry-leader Solar City, paired with Tesla’s batteries, might make a big difference, as will some proposed incentives and tax credits to help sluggish adoption rates.
EV users still have to get that energy to their cars, and the country simply does not have enough public places to charge cars. “Range anxiety is real,” says Spencer Reeder, senior philanthropic program officer for climate at Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. and an implementation partner for USDOT’s Smart City Challenge grant program. “In many areas of the country there isn’t this density of charging stations.”
It is getting a little better, though. When Tesla launched its first car in 2008, there were about 500 charging locations nationwide; now there’s at least 30,000 public outlets. But trying to convince businesses to invest in charging stations that will benefit less than one percent of their customers is a tough job. And filling up your “tank” in an EV is not like pumping gas. You have to physically plug the car in and leave it somewhere, sometimes for hours. Ideally this would happen while you’re at home, during off-peak hours for the grid. But those who travel long distances, or live in an apartment without a garage, must rely on charging spots that are part of the urban infrastructure—and they’re not always in places that people need them.
Tesla’s Superchargers have helped shorten charging times, but the long-term solution is wireless charging, where your car is simply charged while it’s parked in a public parking spot or roadway. Inductive charging technology can already be found on roads in London, where buses get a boost at each of their stops, for example. It’s not been rolled out on US streets yet, but this is one feature that would dramatically improve the success of EV car-sharing programs. Some pilot programs, like Car2Go in San Diego, have switched from EV to gas, reportedly due to a shortage of charging stations. But it’s also because the humans driving them sometimes fail to plug them in.
Humans are, of course, the other weak link in our transportation system in general, and we might be looking at a future where self-driving cars become standard before the human-driven EV revolution fully hits.
There’s one encouraging fact here: All autonomous vehicles being developed right now are electric because they’re simpler cars that make running software easier. So as popular on-demand ride companies like Uber and Lyft switch to autonomous platforms, or cities roll out their own autonomous vehicle programs, they’ll be launching their own electric fleets and will help to fund a lot of that infrastructure. So buying a gas-guzzler won’t ever be part of the conversation for a growing number of Americans who are reducing their own reliance on cars, which is the bigger energy-saving move that our country really needs.
Tesla’s cheaper EV is definitely moving us towards a better future. But now it’s time for the rest of the country to catch up.