In a New York Times article this weekend, a journalist has tried to take a long distance trip in a battery powered Tesla Model S luxury car. For battery electric cars, a long trip is further than the comfortable range of the battery. In the case of the $90,000+ Tesla S, with the largest battery anyone has ever put in a commercial car, that’s 200 to 300 miles (320 to 480 km).

The journalist failed. The conclusion was inadequate range prediction, poor advice from Tesla and cold weather left him stranded. He drove slowly, turned off the heating (which he really needed because it was very cold) and kept in touch with Tesla but still couldn’t achieve enough distance to reach the next charge station.

The Tesla Model S is a great car. It’s probably the best electric car ever sold. Within its driving range, it’s probably one of the greatest cars you can buy today. If it were here in Israel and I had the money, I’d buy one in a heartbeat. The issue is that Tesla just sells cars.

I’ve written extensively about my electric car conversion and driving in Israel but I have something that Tesla customers don’t have: I can switch batteries all over Israel in five minutes. This makes almost any journey in tiny Israel possible even though the range and battery size in my car are less than one quarter the size of the Tesla. My car is also one quarter the cost.

This easy distance driving comes after huge investment expense by Better Place: they’ve built almost 40 switch stations estimated at a cost of $500k each and I’m paying for these by subscription even though they’re free to use each time. In addition they built state of the art range prediction and route planning into every car.

In contrast, Tesla have started installing a small number of “Supercharger” stations. Tesla is creating corridors along popular routes. California was first with LA to San Francisco and Vegas. These stations can recharge their cars (only the most expensive models with the biggest batteries) for free to about 80% in 30 minutes. A full charge takes an hour. Supercharger stations only cost a fraction of what battery switch stations have cost Better Place to build and operate. They’re little more than high-powered electricity output sockets and are unmanned.

Incidentally, Tesla claim they have the “fastest charging station on the planet.” Tesla say they give owners 150 miles (240 km) in 30 minutes. By switching a depleted battery for a full one in five minutes, Better Place battery switch stations give me 80 miles (130 km) in five minutes, which is more than three times faster in miles per minute.

I regard Tesla’s Superchargers as more of a marketing tool than a serious option for mobility.

You can imagine the conversation at the dealership in Washington DC.

Customer: I’d like to buy your car, it looks nice, it drives way nicer than the Mercedes I was considering and my kids will be happy because the polar bears will be saved. But I have one question, can I drive it to New York?

Salesman: Certainly sir, Tesla are installing free Superchargers on the road to New York, stop at one, have a meal and when you’re done you’ll be on your way and able to reach New York.

Customer: Sounds great, I’ll take one!

The problem here is the correct salesman’s answer should have been: “Sir, how often do you drive your luxury car to New York and back?” Because if the answer is anything more than once every other year then a battery car is just wrong. And really, most people buying $100,000 cars would be flying DC to NYC.

I’m planning to drive my battery powered electric car to Eilat (220 miles or 350 km) at the end of the month. I’m going to stop and switch batteries three times. Of course that’s not as convenient as just blasting all the way down without stopping (though with kids in the car that wouldn’t happen anyway). But this will be my second trip to Eilat since moving to Israel four years ago! If I had to go every week, I wouldn’t have bought an electric car.

For driving 50 miles (80 km) a day in eight short journeys the electric car is astonishingly good. With the massive investment in infrastructure Better Place have made, my battery powered Renault Fluence ZE is pretty good at occasional 130 mile (200 km) day trips too.

But that is only because of the huge investment: absent this only die hard enthusiasts would bother making longer trips. And the whole world is waiting to see if Better Place can make a return on its investment: the current customers in Israel are overwhelmingly delighted with the service. Better Place need many more of them to prove the business model works.

I’m all for selling EV’s to people whose use for them is a fit for their capabilities. As soon as we try to pretend they are suitable for everybody now, the whole idea of completely electric transport is tarnished.

And I hate that. Because for what they are good at, they’re really, really good and hugely important for a secure energy future as we move away from being 95% oil dependent for transport.

It’s not that you can’t make long trips in a battery powered car, it’s just not the right tool for the job today in places where the infrastructure hasn’t been built.

A plugged in charging cable on a Renault Fluence ZE from Better Place – Photo: Brian of London

Brian of London made aliyah from the UK to Israel in 2009. For many years he has blogged and broadcast about Israel, technology and other subjects. Most recently he’s focused on the experience of driving an electric car every day. Brian has a scientific PhD but today owns a business in Israel.