I want to tell you a true story with a happy ending, one that’s happening right now. Its heroes are engineers, artists, bankers, farmers — and you.
With our eyes figuratively swollen shut because of the steady beating we take from much of the news media, we sometimes can be numb to the amazing technological advances taking place in our time.
I recently found that one sees these advances more clearly through the windshield of a Tesla Model S electric automobile.
I test-drove the Model S on a country road in the Colorado mountains. The experience blew my mind. I’ll never think of cars in the same way again.
I love cars. I always have, though I do realize they’re a primary source of air pollution, and their thirst for fossil fuels has aggravated other environmental problems, caused political strife and created economic injustice. Automobiles are also astonishing examples of human ingenuity and vision. A good car can be like a beautiful sculpture, a superb piece of furniture, a fine tool, a supercomputer, a thrill ride and a rocket ship, all rolled into one sweet creation.
Then there’s the Tesla. It is all of those things, plus its propulsion does not rely on fossil fuels or involve political strife.
Its existence, on the other hand, does rely on idealism and vision — just the qualities that can make human life sustainable and human achievements heroic.
Elon Musk is the CEO of Tesla Motors and the principal designer of its cars. He’s an entrepreneur and a technology billionaire with several business successes behind him, including Web software company Zip2, which he sold for $307 million in 1999, and PayPal, which he sold for $1.5 billion in 2002.
After those accomplishments, he had some pretty comfortable laurels he could have rested on. But he didn’t. Instead, as soon as he sold PayPal, Musk set about replacing the space shuttle.
That’s right, the space shuttle. Musk’s third company, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), designs and builds spacecraft. He thinks space exploration is, in the long term, critical to preserving humanity. So when our government began scaling back its space program, Musk scaled up his private alternative. In 2009, one of his rockets put a satellite into orbit. In 2012, one of his shuttles delivered supplies to the International Space Station. At the end of 2012, SpaceX had about $4 billion in launch contracts for both private and government payloads.
Musk is not just a rich guy playing with rocket ships. He’s a businessman in the business of building rocket ships for profit — and the business is doing well. Musk recently said he wouldn’t take SpaceX to the stock market until his “Mars Colonial Transporter is flying regularly.” In other words, he’ll continue supporting the company with his money until he’s realized his long-term vision: a colony on Mars.
In his spare time, Musk conceived of and helped create SolarCity in 2006, the nation’s largest full-service solar power provider. He is chairman of the company, which provides a sort of one-stop solar-power shop, including designing, financing and installing solar-energy systems, then also monitoring the systems’ performance.
Somewhere along the line, in about 2002, Elon Musk decided he could build a better automobile. Then he did it.
The Tesla Model S
The fundamental reason the Tesla is that “better car” is simply that it’s 100 percent electric. Electric is better because an electric motor converts stored energy (in the batteries) into kinetic energy (at the wheels) about four times more efficiently than a gasoline engine.
All gasoline is refined from crude oil pumped from the ground and then shipped — often from overseas — to the refineries, pipelines and trucks that distribute it to your gas station. But electricity can be produced in a variety of ways, and many of them are as renewable as sunshine. More people every year are using electricity provided locally through hydropower, geothermal, solar and wind-based generators. Most of the electricity that powers my own electric car — a Chevy Volt — is produced by a rack of photovoltaic solar collectors on top of my barn. You can’t get much more local — or efficient — than that.
In the driver’s seat, it’s easy to forget that the Tesla Model S is significantly more efficient and Earth-friendly than a gasoline-powered economy car. It provides one of the world’s most extraordinary driving experiences. The big sedan goes from zero to 60 mph in a little more than four seconds. And because the electric motor delivers the same torque at any speed, the Tesla Model S can accelerate from 60 to 120 mph almost as fast. It’s quicker than most Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis. There is no transmission, no shifting — just seamless power instantaneously, whenever you need it.
The car weighs nearly 5,000 pounds — about the same as a Ford F-150 pickup — but 1,000 pounds of that is its 7,000-cell lithium-ion battery, located in a flat tray underneath the cabin. This gives the car quite a low center of gravity. Combine that with its computerized traction and stability controls, and you have a fast car that handles superbly — comparable to the six-figure sports cars.
The Tesla Model S isn’t cheap. The basic model starts at about $64,000, which figures in a $7,500 federal tax credit. Various states and municipalities offer other incentives for electric vehicles, such as free parking and state tax credits.
But truly innovative technologies are often expensive at first. When the personal computer first hit the mainstream market in the mid-1980s, the IBM Personal Computer XT cost $4,995. Given the way prices for personal computers have declined over the decades, a safe bet is that the price of the Tesla Model S will diminish, too. In May 2013, Musk told Bloomberg TV news that he will have a “compelling, affordable car,” priced below $40,000, ready for market in three to four years.
What do the car nuts think of it? It is Motor Trend magazine’s 2013 Car of the Year, Automobile Magazine’s 2013 Automobile of the Year, and Consumer Reports calls it “the best car ever tested.” The Model S received the highest score the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has ever given, which makes it the safest car ever manufactured.
Based on the evidence, it’s also most likely the best car ever made.
The U.S. government helped Tesla (and SpaceX and SolarCity) get started, but Tesla paid off its $465 million federal loan nine years early, in May 2013, and made its first profit that month. Now the company is selling its revolutionary powertrain to Mercedes and Toyota. And the future for ultra-efficient, ultra-safe cars is truly beginning.
For more of Bryan Welch’s ideas on technology and a healthy future, check out Environmental Problems Are No Match for Human Ingenuity, Part 2.
Top: Photo Courtesy Tesla Motors: Tesla Motors’ Model S electric car helps reduce air pollution and dependency on fossil fuels while providing one sweet ride. Motor Trend named the Model S 2013 Car of the Year, and Consumer's Reports gave it its highest safety rating ever.
Bottom: Photo Courtesy Solar City: SolarCity, the nation’s largest full-service solar provider, furnishes solar power to more than 68,000 customers, including Walgreens, eBay, Intel and the U.S. military, as well as schools such as this Scottsdale, Ariz., elementary school.