Tesla founder hits road with family to debunk 'range anxiety'

CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk poses during a television interview after his company's initial public offering at the NASDAQ market in New York, June 2...
CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk poses during a television interview after his company's initial public offering at the NASDAQ market in New York, June 29, 2010. BRENDAN MCDERMID

The company can’t build cars fast enough to supply demand, and investors can’t get enough, either, driving Tesla Motors stock up nearly six-fold since the beginning of the year. Nonetheless, founder and CEO Elon Musk clearly seems frustrated by critics who continue to focus on issues like battery range and charging times.

So, Musk has planned a cross-country journey hoping to put an end to the issue of range anxiety – at least when it concerns the Tesla Model S. The South African-born entrepreneur plans to spend six days driving 3,200 miles with five kids in tow. He says he'll spend nine hours charging.

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The figures that really matter concern the estimated 90 minutes a day – adding up to nine hours – that Musk expects to spend charging up his Model S sedan using the rapidly expanding network of so-called Supercharger stations Tesla is installing across the country.

“Should go long way in dispelling range anxiety worries,” tweeted Musk, an inveterate user of the Twitter service whenever he wants to reach fans and the media. “At 1.5 hrs/day, we will only ever need to charge when stopping anyway to eat or sight see, never just for charging itself.”

Musk first raised the idea of doing a cross-country journey earlier this year after a negative story in The New York Times. The reporter questioned the ability to drive a Model S from Washington, D.C., to Boston using the limited supercharger network available at the time, and noted that his test vehicle had to be delivered to the second station on a flatbed truck.

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Others, too have concerns about the limitations of electric vehicles – even among other battery-car manufacturers. This week, for example, Bob Carter, the senior vice president overseeing automotive operations for Toyota in the U.S., suggested battery-cars won’t “have a significant role to play (until) battery and charging systems improve significantly from where they are today.”

Unlike most of the battery vehicles now on the market – which are typically limited to under 100 miles per charge -- Tesla Model S buyers have the option to purchase extended-range battery packs that can deliver almost 300 miles under ideal conditions. As with all electric vehicles, such options carry a steep price. A well-equipped Model S – like the one Musk and family will drive across country -- costs more than $100,000.

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A large battery pack alone wouldn’t solve the problems with electric vehicles, however. Depending on the type of home charger a customer uses, the long-range version of the Model S can take as much as the better part of a day to recharge if its battery pack were completely run down.

Tesla’s answer was to come up with the Supercharger network. The network uses 480-volt direct current with computer controls designed to cut charging times substantially while minimizing wear-and-tear on the battery pack. The system can give an 80 percent “fill-up” to a Model S in roughly 45 minutes, which suggests Musk anticipates charging up twice a day on his family adventure.

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Tesla recently announced it will significantly expand the Supercharger network from its original plans, meaning hundreds of charging stations dotting the U.S. and parts of Canada within a few years. The goal is to have one within a minimum 100 miles of every Tesla owner in the country, Musk noted.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other Level III charging systems going in across the country, some set up by local or state government agencies, others operated by commercial firms, such as eVgo, hoping to catch in on the growth of the battery car market.

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In another tweet, Musk noted he has finished planning out his route. It’s a bit more complicated than what the owner of a gas-powered vehicle might need, limiting the family’s ability to take a spontaneous detour to check out a newly discovered tourist attraction, for example. But the more fast chargers are added, the trip should suggest, the more freely battery cars will be able to roam U.S. roads.