A road trip on a single charge? Why the long-distance EV remains a pipe dream

August 16, 2021, 11:00 PM UTC

Mercedes-Benz is only weeks away from toppling Tesla in one all-important measure—it will claim the crown of longest range for an all-electric vehicle. 

The German automaker’s new EQS 450+ is a real feat of engineering, one that will give drivers 20% more driving range on a full charge than Tesla’s Model S. It is the first all-electric “luxury” sedan from Mercedes, packing a lot of power—up to 385 kW—under the hood. And it comes in a super sleek body shape, designed to cut through the wind. As Mercedes boasts, the new EQS 450+ is the “most aerodynamic production car in the world.”

And yet, after all that, EQS 450+ still falls far short of the holy grail—the 1,000-kilometer EV—a goal that seems frustratingly ever-more-distant even as EV technology advances inexorably forward.

The problem? For starters, battery chemistry.

With conventional lithium-ion cells bumping up against the physical limits of their capacity, customers will likely have to wait a few years for the arrival of battery technology that will enable EVs to reliably crack the 1,000-kilometer (621 miles) range barrier, despite a promise from Tesla nearly four years old. 

Until then, even the longest sedans with enough space between the axles to accommodate the largest battery packs will still fall far short of that mark, even under the most favorable driving conditions.

Long-distance claims

In a recent update, Daimler’s premium brand said the hotly anticipated Mercedes EQS would be delivered to the first customers in Germany at the end of next month (for a minimum price of €106,374, or $125,000). 

Boasting the lowest drag coefficient of any mass-produced car ever built—a claim Tesla CEO Elon Musk notably disputes—the Mercedes entry version EQS 450+ offers a certified European range of up to 780 km when selected with special aerodynamic wheels. The vehicle, which has yet to receive the equivalent EPA-approved rating for the U.S. market, will launch the brand’s battery electric range in Tesla’s home turf before the year is out.

In Europe, using a like-for-like comparison, it easily beats the equivalent 652 km advertised by Tesla for its Model S Long Range, which starts at a slightly more affordable price of €96,990 in Germany. The Model S is currently the top EV choice for consumers when it comes to long-distance trips.

Mercedes might not sit on the throne for very long, however.

Startup Lucid Motors, managed by former Tesla Model S chief engineer Peter Rawlinson, advertises a range of 517 miles (832 km) for its EQS competitor, the Lucid Air Grand Touring sedan, which will start at $131,500. This car should begin shipping to U.S. customers as early as the fourth quarter, with a possible European launch sometime next year.

Elon Musk’s promises

Neither Mercedes nor Lucid were supposed to leapfrog Musk, who had already promised his new Roadster would be able to transport as many as four people—including luggage—more than 1,000 kilometers when he unveiled the prototype in late 2017.

“You’ll be able to travel from L.A. to San Francisco and back at highway speed without recharging,” Musk said at the car’s reveal, implying a real-world range of around 1,225 km. 

Yet despite assurances from the CEO that Tesla was “making it now” in time for an expected 2020 launch date, the most recent statement from Musk in June suggested his team was still busy engineering the vehicle to further boost torque and motor speeds.

With no definitive proof the Roadster is coming soon, Musk’s critics have argued the early unveiling—an unscheduled surprise that stole the limelight from the Tesla Semi truck that was presented that same day—was a calculated attempt to suck oxygen away from the Lucid Air, which had debuted as a concept only months earlier at the New York Auto Show.

Back in late 2017, the then loss-making Tesla was still struggling to stay afloat. Saudi Arabia a year later decided to invest in Lucid Motors rather than Tesla, despite much lobbying—and even some premature boasting of “funding secured”—by Musk.

Adding to the confusion around Tesla’s range ambitions is the saga of the Model S Plaid+. With a promised range of 837 km, the Model S Plaid+ was supposed to sell in Germany for €149,990 euros. But Musk abruptly binned the model entirely days before the presentation. He explained why in a tweet.

The problem, though, is the original Plaid sedan manages only a range of 637 km. The cancellation, therefore, caused alarm among fans that its unique design, namely, the vaunted 4680 cells and structural battery pack, was not ready for market.

Going the distance

Today, Mercedes is no closer to solving the distance conundrum either. Operations chief Markus Schäfer told reporters in July that next year the company would unveil a concept called the Vision EQXX that would crack the 1,000-km barrier with the help of better aerodynamics and a more efficient drivetrain. When consumers might be able to buy such a model is anybody’s guess.

The immediate question still comes down to battery chemistry.

Experts doubt that today’s lithium-ion technology can be used to make 1,000-km-range vehicles economically feasible. Most expect this to happen only after the transition to more energy-dense cells that use a solid electrolyte to transport lithium ions rather than a liquid one.

And such a long range may not even be necessary.

Andreas Tschiesner, who leads the European automotive industry team at consultancy firm McKinsey, points to data showing that most consumers drive fewer than 80 km a day. Consequently, he argues the dreaded “range anxiety” will become a thing of the past once drivers gain enough experience with EVs—provided they can manage at least 400 to 500 km on a single charge.

“Everything above that is obviously very important for marketing and positioning the car, but in day-to-day life it’s not that important,” he said. “So I do think we will see…smaller batteries in the future, because people will see that these very large batteries are really not that important for many, many consumers.”

Silke Bagschik, Volkswagen brand’s sales chief for its ID range of battery-powered cars, agreed, but put the threshold a bit higher: “700 to 800 gets you really comfortably everywhere you need to go. I don’t think you need 1,000,” she said. 

Sure enough, VW is currently developing a midsize, or B-segment, sedan with an extremely low drag coefficient code-named “Aero-B” to replace the Volkswagen Passat. This car family will be able to drive up to a European-certified range of 700 km when it arrives in 2023. 

Nio remains a bit of a wild card. The Chinese brand aims to launch next year, including in Europe’s EV-crazy Norwegian market, its upcoming ET7. It claims the luxury sedan can drive over 1,000 km on one charge, yet this is a figure estimated using an obsolete driving cycle standard.

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