Better Place visitor center [photo: Brian of London]Enlarge Photo
It was another typically hyperbolic statement from Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk.
A simple tweet on a Sunday afternoon claimed that Tesla was “About to end range anxiety ... via [over-the-air] software update. Affects entire Model S fleet.”
As usual, the media erupted with wild speculation about what Musk could do to "end range anxiety” in cars the company had sold more than two years ago.
But when the actual announcement came, it seemed to disappoint a number of people: route planning and an alerting system didn’t sound so exciting.
So why do I think there is much more to this announcement than do other commentators?
A truth universally acknowledged by electric-car owners is that people who’ve never lived with a plug-in vehicle don’t really understand how they work in real life.
Gas pumpEnlarge Photo
Range anxiety is largely a mythical bogeyman. I view it as something that petrolheads tell other petrolheads to keep the cult of liquid fuel alive.
Electric-car owners know the range capabilities of their cars. They drive on regular routes, day in and day out, using similar amounts of electricity, and they know what their cars can and can't do.
Planning an out-of-the-ordinary trip, however, requires some help. Especially one that hasn’t been made before and when the overall trip, including return, is close to or beyond the car's range.
ALSO SEE: The Epic Failure Of Better Place, As Covered By Fast Company (Apr 2014)
What Musk actually announced on Thursday sounds quite similar to what failed battery-switching startup Better Place delivered several years ago in Israel (and Denmark).
In fact, I predicted as much last week.
Better Place Route Map
Musk spoke about two integrated systems, "Range Assurance" and "Trip Planner," that would work together.
Back in 2012 when I picked up my Better Place Renault Fluence ZE, I had capabilities remarkably similar to those Tesla announced.
Whenever my battery dropped below 12 percent, I would get a phone call from an actual person. He or she would ask if I knew where I was going--and would, if necessary, remotely re-route me to a charge spot or battery-switching station.
I filmed a video of the trip planning feature, including the system working out a 220-mile route from Tel Aviv to Eilat involving multiple battery switches along the way. Effortlessly.
Both of these features also took into account the real-time status of the infrastructure.
Better Place was aware of the status of everything in their network--switch stations, Level 2 charging stations, and cars--and if a switch station wasn't working, drivers would be alerted and re-routed.
Better Place Battery SwappingEnlarge Photo
Even back then, I knew the company had future plans that included demand forecasting at switch stations and demand management, including live diversion of drivers to alternate switch stations.
The important part, largely missed in other media reports, is the power of a single centralized operator that can control large aspects of the whole electric-car experience.
By running its own network of Superchargers, and with data from a growing network of simpler, slower "destination chargers," Tesla is building features that none of the established carmakers even seem to be interested in having.
From my experience with the much more limited-range Renault Fluence ZE, with its battery just one-quarter the size of the one in a Tesla Model S, this kind of assistance was immensely valuable. Even today I still use the trip-planning system often.
Tesla Model S - Trip Planner featureEnlarge Photo
Tesla has now become a highly-integrated vertical electric-vehicle business.
Perhaps it represents a failure in the rest of the market, one that forces Tesla to do more. Or perhaps Tesla is pursuing a deliberate strategy it had all along.
Either way, it’s much further ahead than most observers appear to see.
And this latest announcement puts even more daylight between Tesla and any other vehicle manufacturer.