Tesla, maker of the Model S electric automobile, says it’s building a factory capable of producing more car sized lithium ion batteries in a year than are currently produced worldwide, in order to keep up with growing electric car demand. The Elon Musk led startup has famously eschewed the middle ground of hybrid automobiles pursued by competitors such as the Toyota Prius, instead opting to focus solely on cars that use no gasoline and plug in for recharging. However Tesla has not yet fully addressed just how far it believes it can get with the aging lithium ion technology, or what it believes will succeed it.
Thus far Tesla has come the closest to offering an electric car which can compete with standard gasoline powered cars when it comes to mileage ranges. Tesla says its Model S can get either 244 or 306 miles per charge, depending on which battery size the customer opts for, when averaging 55 miles per hour on the highway. As with all cars, this number drops when either traveling at higher speeds or when crawling through slow moving traffic. But Tesla is limited by the same challenge which faces manufacturers of other battery powered devices ranging from smartphones to laptops: since the arrival of lithium ion batteries to replace nickel cadmium two-plus decades ago, there hasn’t been a subsequent breakthrough in battery technology. That’s meant tinkering with energy consumption to achieve incremental improvements to the time required between charges, as opposed to the generational breakthrough that could instantly give devices five or fifty times as much battery life. But if Tesla or anyone else has a line on what that new battery technology is going to be, they’ve kept a lid on it thus far.
So even as Tesla prepares its new battery factory and publicly positions it as a more efficient way of producing lithium ion batteries, one must wonder when and how the next generation of battery technology will come. It’s at that point that smartphones may last a week of active usage instead of a day while becoming as thin as a credit card. It’s also the point at which Tesla can begin marketing its Model S as not only cheaper and more environmentally friendly than gasoline powered cars, but also easier to keep powered for longer periods of time.
Electric cars still face other challenges, including the relative lack of public charging stations around the nation, and the fact that most people who live in apartment buildings currently have no practical way to charge an electric car overnight. But offering a thousand miles or more between charges could be the kind of clear cut advantage that makes cars like the Model S so mainstream-desirable that society begins moving more quickly to accommodate an electric car infrastructure. In the mean time Tesla is early enough in its factory plans that even the process of choosing its location is still “underway” – though the company’s map highlights Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada as possibilities.