A Thousand Kilometres on a Single Charge

The Hyundai Kona electric vehicle, which recently completed a 1000 km run on a single charge. Image by Dewhurst Photography on Flickr

The Hyundai Kona Electric just achieved more than 1000 km on a single charge. Is this good news for electric vehicles?

Well, a better question would be: is this even news for electric vehicles?

Let me start off by saying that this feat naturally serves two purposes, and neither is insidious. The first purpose is likely a certain type of internal testing (more below). The other, quite obviously, is marketing.

Whether or not this boosts their sales remains to be seen. Hyundai has sold over 100,000 Kona Electric vehicles globally since its launch in 2018. While Kona may be a great choice in the subcompact crossover category, its sales over two years amounts to just north of the sales that Tesla has managed in Q2 of 2020 alone. And that is with lockdowns all over the place.

A Tesla Model S can deliver around 600 km of driving range as per manufacturer specs. Can this vehicle deliver a 1000 km?

The answer is: most probably yes, under the right conditions. That is precisely how the Kona Electric team achieved the “golden” result.

Also, this makes for a great case study in marketing for new technologies under variable competitive pressures and technological saturation conditions.

The Right Conditions

Vehicle testing for driving range is performed using “driving cycles”, which simulate some real-world driving conditions. Driving cycles contain statistical information about patterns of acceleration-deceleration, average speeds, braking time, and so on, within a given time period (say 1000-1800 seconds for WLTP cycle).

Ideally, these statistics should vary from city to city to reflect real driving conditions and real drivers. But engineers can’t create all those tests, even with a harmonized standard, or let alone run them all. And they don’t necessarily need to. By condensing to a slightly generalized but representative driving cycle, an entire market can be tested for reliably. The range that manufacturers report on their brochures is the range derived from this procedure.

The reported range under the WLTP driving cycle for the vehicle is 484 km. So how did the team more than double the vehicle’s range?

Did they modify the vehicle in any way? No.

Did they turn off the AC? Yes.

Did they listen to music? No.

Did they switch on their DRLs? Yes.

Did they use a driving cycle simulation or test? Absolutely not.

The three test cars drove around the Lausitzring circuit for 1000 km at a consistent 30 km/h (average). 36 driver changes over 35 hours.

Does this reflect inner-city driving conditions? Maybe.

Does this reflect real-world vehicle use? It’s anybody’s guess.

The test was performed with the 64 kWh Hyundai Kona. Assuming that the battery delivers all of this energy (which it doesn’t), that’s roughly equivalent to: 64 kWh / 1000 km = 64 Wh/km.

This is less than half the energy requirement if you were to actually drive your own Kona day-to-day: 64 kWh / 484 km = 132 Wh/km.

Engineers can actually deduce whether a vehicle can deliver a thousand kilometres, by simulating the drive under the right conditions. But the only way to know for sure is to test it, which is what the Hyundai team did.

But do we gain anything from such a test?

What does the 1000 km metric mean for progress in EVs anyways?

Limited bang for your buck (or range for your Cybertruck)

Batteries remain costly, despite significant progress in chemistry, structural design, pack-level design, battery management, and thermal management.

Several new battery chemistry variants are under development to help improve energy density, power density, and safety. New models would reduce the need for complex thermal management. Manufacturers are attempting changes to vehicle body-in-white to obtain better structural-rigidity-to-weight ratios to support the battery pack itself.

All of this effort serves to bring down the cost per km of driving and the cost of ownership of the vehicle. Let’s examine the relationship between them for a bit.

If the cost per km of driving remains nearly the same throughout one cycle of a battery pack for a given type of driving pattern, then it only matters how far you want to go on it. Each kilometre is equally priced, not increasingly priced. People who want to go 500 km will go 500, people who want to go 1000 km will go 1000. This is the need-based paradigm.

The cost of ownership is a different story. The purchase decision is much more nuanced than the distance decision. Customers don’t only require higher range to allow for stress-free intercity travel, but require a host of features from their “ride”. Also, owning a vehicle comes with considerations of its maintenance and a second life (or end-of-life). These notions all lie well beyond the need of going from place A to place B at a certain time, with a certain flexibility, with a certain number of passengers and luggage capacity. By default, vehicle ownership is more a want-based paradigm. It only is akin to a need-based paradigm because we don’t yet have appropriate solutions to, for example, shared transit in all travel scenarios.

What might we surmise from this?

The not-so-overt-but-still-quite-glaring obsession with the 1000 km range metric comes from the want-based paradigm more than it comes from the need-based paradigm.

Let me clarify. Electric vehicles are great for the environment if their energy consumption per kilometre is as low as possible. At any rate, they are better than gasoline cars for mitigating urban pollution. For the energy consumption figures for a single trip and the lifetime energy consumption that production vehicles can achieve today, the other wants from the vehicle start to dominate.

Wants are meant to be served, eh? We’ll see about the needs as we go along.

The thousand-kilometre threshold just seems exciting at this point in time. It doesn’t hold any inherent significance.

The Hyundai Kona is simply a case in point in the marketing challenges faced by a vehicle technology that is in its infancy. In the early days, the focus was much more on the EV supercars, because the passenger vehicles were not yet fully there. The most exciting metric then was 1000 kilowatt power output. Now the production lines are coughing up subcompacts, and the unit has changed from kilowatts to kilometres.

The audience has changed.

A lesson for startups

Misplaced metrics and seemingly outmoded evaluation of customers leaves a strong lesson for company leaders in engineering, marketing, and enterprise. Especially for early-stage startups, it is crucial to understand which metrics to apply to your audiences. A simple wrong move may mean falling down many positions on the race table.

Especially for electric vehicle (EV) startups and legacy automotive manufacturers, it is more important than ever to focus on the right sort of customer metrics beyond trying to alleviate range-anxiety by aiming the company’s engineering expertise at driving range as the objective function.

The EV industry is an example of a long gestation period product. At any given moment, if the latest tech is embedded into the product, it is likely that the product is technologically saturated for some time till the next inflection point occurs. And you can milk that cow for only so long, especially using marketing metrics that deplete in significance over time.

We can safely say that electric vehicle manufacturing has now become mainstream, with almost every large manufacturer having deployed assembly lines or R&D units for electric vehicles. In a way, the true success of EVs as a well-established technical product will be when the manufacturers can go back to advertising to a mainstream audience about entertainment consoles and cup holders, instead of building user trust on the battery pack and power systems.

Similarly, in any industry, try not to use misplaced targets based simply on what your audience perceives about the product. Of course it matters, and of course audience perception is sometimes a make-or-break point. But at the end of the day, if you solve a customer problem by looking at the audience’s real needs instead of their perceptions about your product, you are much more likely to be better off in the market.

Take for obvious example the case of Tesla itself. In the early days, the hype was about performance, range, and even boot space under the bonnet. But after the dawn of the Supercharger network, Tesla knew not to focus on that aspect of its product. Customers may still be anxious about range till the Supercharger network is not truly ubiquitous, but customers are now buying their cars for the other utilities it offers — self-driving, the powerful central console, etc.

Recently, customers or proponents of Tesla have themselves been calling on the company to advertise through mainstream media, suggesting that doing so would dispel a lot of the myths surrounding the product. Whether this aligns with Tesla’s market strategy is a different story, but the real customers, early adopters, and wilful advocates of you product are among the few who really understand the true metrics that need to be communicated in order for the product to succeed.

Perhaps try using this as the theorem underlying your approach to marketing:

Focus on the true metrics of the product, and reduce or eliminate any hype that will never translate into anything of large marginal utility to the customer.

Till the time you don’t trust it, feel free to view it as a conjecture and try to establish the truth of it for yourself.

The next thousand probably won’t be as exciting, but they will be as necessary

Electric vehicles for sustainability” sounds like good business today. And people want to sell(!) — manufacturers to customers, businesspersons to investors, investors to governments.

The reality is that batteries are still too costly for a subcompact crossover to be sold for a reasonable price if it goes 1000 km on a single charge. If and when we do reach this truly remarkable milestone of battery technology, the 2000 km mark won’t be as much of a marketing tool. The want-based paradigm would have stretched out to fit its needs.

If it was theoretically possible (and potentially feasible) to pursue better electro-chemical storage technology beyond such a point, we would perhaps not do that with the gusto with which we market a 1000-km range on an EV today.

From an engineering perspective, of course there would be options — lithium air batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, etc. are all lined up awaiting their go at the marketing world as much as the sustainability world.

For ideal outcomes, they better not go only the former way.

With the rate of progress that we are seeing in vehicle technology, it is perhaps time that manufacturers start thinking much more seriously beyond the 1000 km metric — and thereby the vehicle ownership factor itself — towards vehicle options that engender disproportionately larger utility for customers than the owned vehicle has been doing for the past several decades.

About the author

Sarang Deshpande is an engineer, founder [Flow Mobility; Cambio Motion], and writer. Besides spending time solving challenges in the urban mobility domain, he regularly writes about science, tech, business, and life (sometimes). He is an editor at World In Mind, a new publication which brings cutting-edge research to students and working professionals: important research across industries will set the tone for humanity’s future trajectory, and young humans would do well to keep the world in mind when they choose their area of professional focus.

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Co-founder at Flow Mobility (urban mobility architecture); prev: EV platforms | Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat — it’s only opening the box that does. Sometimes.

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Sarang Deshpande

Sarang Deshpande

Co-founder at Flow Mobility (urban mobility architecture); prev: EV platforms | Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat — it’s only opening the box that does. Sometimes.

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