NOTE: A version of this article was first published on or about Jan. 12, 2019, on my Seeking Alpha Marketplace site.
One of the most important considerations for regular consumers when buying a new family midsize sedan is its fuel economy. Most midsize sedans in the U.S. market fit roughly the same number of people (five), their luggage (a carry-on bag each) and can navigate America’s streets and roads well above the speed limits.
So, it all comes down to cost. The purchase price of the vehicle is relatively easy to see. But what about the fuel economy of comparing an electric car with a regular gasoline-operated car?
One efficiency metric is measured in miles per gallon. The other is measured, on the same FuelEconomy.gov site, in how many kWh it takes to drive 100 miles. You need to convert these to a common metric.
For most people, that’s a confusing set of numbers. How does 52 MPG compare with 26 kWh per 100 miles? That’s what we are going to examine in this article, and the investment conclusion of the bottom line may give investors a clue about the attraction that electric cars may have once we go beyond the EV enthusiasts and early adopters who have been buying electric cars until now.
For purposes of this comparison, we will compare the best-selling electric sedan with one of the best-selling gasoline-fueled sedans. Those would be the Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) Model 3 and the Toyota (TM) Camry LE hybrid.
Let’s start with the Tesla Model 3. Going to the Tesla web site, the cheapest Model 3 I'm able to configure looks like this: $39,990 base price plus $1,200 delivery fee = $41,190.
Next, the Toyota Camry LE hybrid. Going to the Toyota web site, the cheapest Camry hybrid I'm able configure looks like this: $28,430 base price plus $995 delivery fee = $29,385.
That’s a $11,805 price advantage ($41,190 minus $29,385) for the Toyota Camry LE hybrid, over the base Tesla Model 3. As a rational car buyer, I have heard that buying an electric car will enable me to save on fuel, which is how I plan on making up that $11,805 difference over time. So, is it true, that I will make up this $11,805 price premium?
Let’s further assume that I live like most people do in the world today, in an apartment, and I park on the street. Until now, I had been fueling my car the same way that I had been doing all my life, and my parents and grandparents before me: At the fueling station. Once every other week, I stop on almost any street corner in America for little over one minute while the pump adds two weeks of energy to my vehicle.
Likewise, seeing as I park on the street, I also expect to stop at a charging station for the electric car. Given that this is 2020 and not 1980, that’s not a huge deal because I have a smartphone and a laptop, and can be productive, so it’s not the end of the world if it takes an hour instead of a couple of minutes. Therefore, I'm not adding that cost of extra time to the electric car’s ownership experience.
Tesla has its Supercharger network, which was the first of its kind, and probably remains the best today, even though Electrify America is investing $2 billion in the U.S. alone and is narrowing the gap every month, compared to Tesla’s network: Locate a charger. According to Tesla’s Supercharger site, Tesla charges the user $0.28 per kWh: Supercharging.
That brings us back to the initial question: What happens when we put these two best-selling midsize sedans on equal footing, in terms of cost per mile, in terms of fuel? Let’s start the conversions:
The Tesla Model 3 takes 26 kWh to go 100 miles, per FuelEconomy.gov: 2020 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Stated differently, that’s 3.8 miles per kWh. With each kWh costing $0.28 at the Tesla Supercharger, that’s 7 cents per mile ($0.28 divided by 3.8).
How does this 7 cents per mile compare with the Toyota Camry LE hybrid? At its rated 52 MPG - 2020 Toyota Camry Hybrid LE - we first have to check the gasoline price in the US today. Today’s average is $2.59 per gallon: Tension Between the U.S. and Iran Leads Crude Prices to Temporary, Reactive Spikes, National Average Moves Up. So, divide $2.59 by 52 and you get 5 cents per mile.
In other words, the Tesla Model 3 costs 7 cents per mile to charge, whereas the Toyota Camry LE hybrid costs 5 cents per mile to fuel. Not only does the Tesla Model 3 cost $11,805 more to buy up front, but it also costs 40% more to fuel on a per-mile basis (7 cents vs. 5 cents, per mile).
To what does that 2 cent per mile Toyota advantage over Tesla translate, over a year? For the average American, who drives 1,000 miles per month, that would be $20 per month, or $240 per year. So, over a decade, the Toyota Camry LE hybrid driver would save $2,400 buying gasoline over a Tesla Supercharging bill for driving a Model 3.
What are the objections and challenges to this analysis? The major one is the cost of charging the electric car, in this case a Tesla Model 3. Many Tesla buyers will say that they don’t charge their car at Tesla’s Superchargers and that they pay less than the $0.28 per kWh that's the current price at the Tesla Superchargers.
First of all, this article deals with the large group of people who don’t have any ability to charge at home. For them, talking about charging at home is as irrelevant as a vegan cook book serving up a steak recipe. It just isn’t relevant to them. Yes, some people live in houses and can charge at home. Most people in this world can’t. So, Supercharging it is.
The other consideration is that some people say they pay less to charge at home because they have solar panels on their roofs, so that their home electricity is “free.” The problem with that analysis is that they will have paid tens of thousands of dollars for those installations - in need of maintenance, repair and eventual replacement - and that you have to include the cost of that ongoing investment. Obviously your electricity should be cheaper on a variable basis, if you have first invested $70,000 or whatever, up front, in a solar roof system. But what’s the amortized cost of that roof, per year?
There are yet other things I'm not including here that makes the real cost of charging your electric car higher too:
Translation losses from AC wall power to the car’s DC storage. That could be close to 10%. Basically, if you draw 1 kWh from the wall, you may only get 0.9 kWh usable for driving your Tesla Model 3.
The amortized cost of installing a 220/240 volt charger in your house. This cost will vary sharply from house to house. The biggest cost here could be the electrician (re-)wiring your house, especially if it's an old one. This could be thousands of dollars. All electric cars include a portable charger (“EVSE” or electric vehicle supply equipment), but this portable one may not be good enough for you to use on a constant basis at your particular garage.
All those objections aside, let’s give the Tesla case its maximum benefit imaginable: Let’s assume that electricity is 100% free. The case doesn’t get better for the Tesla, does it? Why would it be free? Two possibilities, however faulty those assumptions may be:
You charge your electric car at work where you are “given” the electricity for free. We all know that this comes out of someone’s pocket in the end, but let’s disregard that.
You don’t count the cost of your current and future solar panel installation, its maintenance, repair, eventual replacement, and just assume that all the electricity you consume at home is 100% free.
In that scenario, the cost of charging your Tesla Model 3 is therefore zero. In the Toyota Camry LE hybrid it’s $0.05 per mile. How long would it take you to make up for the Toyota’s $11,805 up-front price advantage?
For the average American who drives 1,000 miles per month, $0.05 per mile is $50 per month, or $600 per year. Divide $11,805 with $600 and you get almost 20 years.
So, it will take you 20 years to make up for the Toyota’s price advantage, assuming you fuel your Tesla Model 3 with 100% free electricity.
The final leg in this analysis is of course to show why even that hopelessly impossible scenario, 100% tilted in Tesla’s favor, is incorrect and unrealistic. Why? Because of the opportunity cost of capital for the $11,805 up-front investment. Surely the opportunity cost of capital, whether you invest it in an S&P 500 index fund or equivalent, should be at least 5% per year.
If so, that $11,805 at 5% per year is almost $600 per year ($590.25 to be exact) - or essentially identical to your annual gasoline bill, which we already have established is $600 per year in the Toyota Camry LE hybrid. Therefore, even if your electricity is free, the Tesla Model 3 owner never catches up. The Toyota Camry LE hybrid’s $11,805 up-front cost advantage remains in perpetuity, even if electricity remains free forever.
A Tesla Model 3 is $11,805 more expensive than a Toyota Camry LE hybrid to purchase in the U.S. today, per their respective web site order pages.
Tesla Superchargers cost $0.28 per kWh per the Tesla Supercharger web site, and a Tesla goes 3.8 miles per kWh per FuelEconomy.gov. That means 7 cents per mile.
Toyota Camry LE hybrid yields 52 MPG and today’s nationwide average gasoline price is $2.59. That means 5 cents per mile.
Toyota’s 2 cent per mile advantage over Tesla means $20 lower cost per month, or $240 per year, for the average American who drives 1,000 miles per year.
Even if the cost of electricity was zero, the maximum that the Tesla driver could save per year is $600 (total cost of the Toyota’s annual fuel bill).
It takes 20 years to make up that $600 annual gasoline cost to get to $11,805.
However, the opportunity cost of that $11,805, at 5%, is almost $600 per year.
Therefore, even if the cost of electricity were zero, you really never make up the Tesla’s $11,805 up-front disadvantage in price.
Tesla has so far been focused on early adopters. According to Insideevs, Tesla sold 192,250 cars in the U.S. in 2019: Quarterly Plug-In EV Sales Scorecard
That compares to 191,687 units in 2018, again per Insideevs in the link above. So, Tesla’s U.S. unit sales were flat in 2019 over 2018. The difference was less than a third of one percent.
In a 17 million unit market, which the U.S. was yet again in 2019, Tesla’s unit market share therefore remained steady at 1.1%. Why wasn’t this market share going up?
The analysis above may tell us the answer: Once you start to go beyond the early tech adopters, the focus by most people tend to turn to the total cost of ownership. In that comparison, a 2020 Toyota Camry LE not only costs $11,805 less to buy up front, but its cost per mile also is less, at 5 cents per mile instead of 7 cents per mile.
Things may be different outside the U.S., where both gasoline prices and electricity prices tend to be more expensive than here in the U.S. -- but for now, Tesla seems to have hit a wall in terms of not catching up to a regular gasoline car such as the Toyota Camry LE hybrid, in terms of operating cost.
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Disclosure: I am/we are short TSLA. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: At the time of submitting this article for publication, the author was short TSLA. However, positions can change at any time. The author regularly attends press conferences, new vehicle launches and equivalent, hosted by most major automakers. Toyota hosted product intros.