The future may be coming for electric cars, but it's not yet clear what it will look like.
When modern electric cars first launched between 2011 and 2014, many shared similar specs: about 80 miles of range, overnight charging, a five-passenger hatchback body, and a price starting around $28,000 before tax credits.
Some models offered bigger batteries and cost more.
Now electric-carmakers are looking for new ways to set their products apart—and try to get consumers to pay more for their cars than competing models.
With gas cars, automakers set their cars apart with quieter, more powerful engines and more responsive transmissions with more gear ratios, and better fuel economy.
Volkswagen MEB platform architecture
As consumers embrace electric cars, those factors are not as varied. Almost all electric cars have nearly silent motors that deliver instant torque from a standstill. They no longer need transmissions. And while there's some variability in efficiency, they all achieve miles-per-gallon equivalent ratings of around 100 to 120 MPGe. Even within that range, they're so efficient that it makes little difference in energy costs.
So how will automakers in the future get consumers to pony up for more expensive models? Think range, and charging times—the fundamental features that make cars work the way consumers expect.
Bigger batteries with a longer range are one factor, and the most obvious one. But as Tesla, Nissan, and thousands of sales of shorter-range electric cars have shown, not everybody needs longer range. And there's an upper bound to what people are willing to pay for.
The next generation of electric cars looks likely to raise the ante on consumers who want faster charging. Beyond just an optional package that includes a 50-kilowatt CHAdeMO or CCS fast-charge port, the most expensive electric cars coming down the road can seven times as fast, with 800-volt systems that can receive 230 miles of range or more in less than 10 minutes.
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Those cars won't be available to the masses though, at least not for quite a while.
In Volkswagen's latest product announcement, as well as those from Aston Martin, Porsche, and others, such 350-kilowatt fast charging looks to be reserved for ultra luxury cars. More affordable models from ordinary brands will charge at much more ordinary speeds. That looks likely to be true even of most luxury cars from automakers that have the technology for faster charging.
Teaser for Aston Martin Rapide E due in 2019
When it introduced the new technology platform for its new electric cars in Germany in September, Volkswagen said it will be capable of using a new series of 150-kilowatt DC fast chargers. To plug into the even faster 350-kilowatt fast chargers that VW subsidiary Electrify America is installing in the U.S. and partner Ionity is rolling out in Europe, buyers will have to move up to the Porsche Taycan or the upcoming Audi e-tron GT with which it shares a platform.
Those are the only cars so far from the Volkswagen Group that will get the 800-volt battery packs that Porsche is working on that can accept a fast charge. Even other electric cars from VW's luxury brand Audi won't get the 800-volt battery pack.
From an electric-car driver's perspective, range and charging are flip sides of the same coin. In different ways, they each solve the problem of allowing drivers to travel farther in a day—to make them work more like the gasoline-powered cars that consumers have gotten used to.
As electric-car and battery prices come down, and as electric cars begin to lose their government tax subsidies, that capability still looks like one not all electric-car drivers may be able to afford.