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Tesla Sold a Myth About Batteries That Everyone Wanted to Be True
July 30, 2023

Tesla Sold a Myth About Batteries That Everyone Wanted to Be True

Reading Time: 5 minutes

How Tesla Got Away With Its Battery Ruse for Years, The company reportedly exaggerated its vehicles’ range. We were easy marks., Tesla range deceptions: We bought the ruse, and an even bigger one about EVs, for far too long.

For much of the past decade, Tesla’s popularization of electric vehicles has centered on one innovation above all others: solving ‘range anxiety,’ or the worry that your EV will run out of juice midtrip. By packing more batteries into its cars and establishing a fast-charging network, Elon Musk’s automaker sold the seductive idea that EVs could be a drop-in, one-to-one replacement for gas-powered vehicles. Today, that idea is the most fundamental orthodoxy underpinning the ‘EV transition,’ shaping government policy and consumer tastes alike.

Only now, after building our entire conception of fleet decarbonization around the goal of making EVs immune to range anxiety, we are learning that Tesla’s emphasis on range superiority was built on deception. For years studies and government penalties have shown that Teslas have the largest gap between rated and real-world range. Now, new Reuters reporting reveals how systematically Tesla managed that gap: by reportedly rigging its range estimation software, by manipulating what its dashboards showed drivers, and even by creating a ‘diversion team’ to smother customer complaints. The resulting picture doesn’t just puncture Tesla’s aura of technological superiority. It calls into question some of the most basic assumptions we’re making about the electric future.

From the very beginning, even before Elon Musk was involved with the company, Tesla’s vision was simple: put enough lithium-ion batteries into a car to give it blistering performance and long range. This resulted in a high-end product that was tailor-made to be marketed to the emerging tech elite, with the promise that the resulting high price would be magically reduced through scale and technological innovation. In a landscape of modest, short-range but still not cheap commuter EVs, Tesla’s gas-rivaling range (and later, fast-charging network) felt like a vision of a viable future and not just another hair shirt for environmentalists.

That Tesla exaggerated the long ranges that defined its vision for electric vehicles shouldn’t be surprising. After all, some of the company’s earliest deceptions came around Superchargers (announced in 2012 as a grid-independent, solar-powered free charger network with the motto ‘drive free, forever, on the power of the sun) and the Potemkin battery swap station that first sucked me into the Tesla story. Tesla has used its remote access to customer vehicles to surreptitiously cut battery capacity and charge rates, as well as to perform stealth recalls in apparent violation of auto safety regulations. That its culture of deceit turns out to have been so focused on range only proves how important range is to Tesla’s brand and product strategy.

But the problem isn’t just that Tesla hoodwinked customers, investors, and regulators about the extent of its vehicles’ real-world range, an act evocative of the infamous VW ‘dieselgate’ scandal. This pattern only fueled an even larger myth: that loading up EVs with massive battery packs is a viable, sustainable, apple-to-apples replacement for gas vehicles. Only now, 20 years after Tesla’s founding, is the truth finally becoming more obvious: EVs remain too expensive for most buyers, even at high prices most long-range EVs don’t make money, and supply chains aren’t scaling anywhere near fast enough to put a 300-mile range EV in every driveway in time to slow climate change.

Thanks to Tesla’s leadership, consumers are buying the biggest battery EVs they can, thinking that they’re saving the planet when they’re actually hoarding unused batteries to ward off their personal range anxiety. Because Americans only drive 40 miles a day on average, and because 95 percent of car trips are 30 miles or less, the range figures Tesla has normalized are wildly overkill and exacerbate battery supply chain issues that are only just starting to bite. Only wild inefficiency can make it feel like EVs can replace gas cars perfectly, and even then, with the best charging network available, long-distance journeys will still never be as fast and efficient as they are with gas cars, because it will always take longer to juice up an EV.

The big lie at the heart of Tesla’s big-battery approach is that EVs can directly replace gas cars without any real behavioral change on the part of consumers. But no matter how desperate the public and lawmakers are to believe this—it would be nice!—it simply isn’t so: Internal combustion and battery electric vehicles are fundamentally different technologies, with different strengths and weaknesses. No battery electric will ever be as good at unplanned, long-range trips in remote areas as a gas car, just as no gas car will ever refill its tank overnight.

Instead of following Tesla’s lead and getting into a battery-size arms race that will make the future of cars even more expensive, oversized, dangerous, and wasteful than they already are, we simply need to accept that the market must change. Instead of giving the biggest incentives to the biggest batteries, government policy should focus on electrifying the vast majority of daily trips, which start and end at home and could easily be handled by vehicles with 100 miles of range or less. That means incentivizing home charging, not the roadtrips that make up a tiny percentage of trips, and nudging consumers toward using the smallest battery possible for those regular trips. That means incentivizing e-bikes, plug-in hybrids, and other small battery electric vehicles, not holding fleet electrification hostage to the 5 percent use cases.

When you realize how deeply misguided our big battery EV obsession is, built as it is on the basic fallacy that internal combustion and battery electric are directly interchangeable, it’s not at all surprising that the company that created this perception has reportedly been lying about its own range. Whatever legal or regulatory consequences await Tesla, we can’t see them as the end of this story. Just like its six years of empty Full Self-Driving promises, Tesla has gotten away with its range deception for so long because we wanted to believe it. To move forward, we must confront our bottomless desire to see dramatic changes in our material culture without requiring any kind of meaningful personal or collective change.

After all, this deep desire lies at the heart of many more of Musk’s yarns. From our cars magically driving themselves to the idea that smaller tunnels will ‘solve traffic’ to the idea that a brain interface will cure all known diseases—and on and on—Musk has sold us on a whole range of quick fixes to the world’s most profound problems that require nothing more than believing in him and giving him money. Musk has become the living embodiment of H.L. Mencken’s quote that ‘for every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.’ It’s time to stop believing that building a better future will ever be as easy as Elon Musk says.


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