Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S

With a few exceptions, it's generally accepted that emissions from gas- and diesel-powered vehicles are contributing to global warming and some fear the end of the world's fossil fuel supplies could be close at hand. With only so much oil in the Earth's crust and ever increasing pressure from governments around the globe to improve fuel economy and lower emissions, automakers have been forced to begin developing vehicles powered by alternative propulsion methods. While there is no clear leader to replace the combustion engine yet, there are several contenders.

One technology that is gradually gaining momentum now is electric propulsion. Just about every major automaker is working on electric vehicles, from the impractical (the hastily-converted Scion iQ EV) to the practical (the bespoke Tesla Model S, Motor Trend's 2013 Car of the Year). The future of the electric car hinges on two things: range and infrastructure.

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Range anxiety is a very real issue that skeptics of electric cars often seize upon. Of the 10 full-electric cars currently available to the public, the average range is 94.2 miles, with the low end represented by the iQ EV (EPA-estimated 36-mile range), and the opposite end of the spectrum with the Model S (EPA-estimated 265-mile range for the top-spec, 85 kW-hr battery pack). Compounding the range issue is that it takes on average six hours to fully recharge a battery pack for electric cars. That means a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a 382 mile journey that'd take just five-and-a-half hours in a traditional gas-powered car, could take nearly forty hours in an electric car like the Nissan Leaf, which has a 73-mile range and a 6-hour recharge time. As a single car for a family that likes to travel, most electric cars just aren't practical yet.

View Pictures:  Tesla Model S

So what are automakers doing to fix the problem? Two things: better infrastructure and bigger, better batteries that can store more energy. The challenges facing both solutions are daunting. Not only do automakers need to work to make their electric vehicles charge faster, but they also need to make fast-charging stations as abundant as gas stations are. One automaker currently working on solving the infrastructure issue is Nissan. The Japanese automaker is currently developing a fast charger that could charge a Leaf battery from empty to 80 percent full in about 10 minutes, reportedly without severely impacting battery life.

Click to enlarge pictureFord Focus Electric (© Ford Motor Company)

Ford Focus Electric

In the more immediate future, electric car maker Tesla is tackling the problem with both bigger batteries and by building its own infrastructure. Its flagship Model S for example, is currently available with 60 kWh and 85 kWh battery packs. Even the Model S' smallest battery, the 60-kWh pack, dwarves the 24 kWh and 23 kWh batteries used by the Leaf and Ford Focus Electric, respectively. The 60 kWh battery gives the Model S an EPA-estimated 208-mile range, while the larger still 85-kWh battery sports a 265-mile range. Tesla knows that big batteries can only help so much.

To make the electric car a practical solution for single-vehicle families, the automaker has opened rapid-charging stations — or "Superchargers" in Tesla parlance — up and down both coasts. The Superchargers are capable of adding about 150-miles of range in around 30 minutes. The Supercharger network includes five strategically located stations on the West Coast designed to facilitate travel between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas and two on the East Coast to allow travel between Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.