Elon Musk’s imagination was stimulated a few years ago to create the Tesla roadster, a groundbreaking all-electric sports car. It’s available for sale at dealers across the United States today for a little over $100,000 and about 1,000 people owned one at the time of this writing. It goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds. Tesla drivers sit in premium performance seats surrounded by black leather with cream accents. On demonstration rides, dealers like to suggest that their passenger turn on the radio just as they punch the accelerator pedal. Under full acceleration with the g-force bearing down, they can’t lean forward far enough to touch the radio buttons.
And the Tesla is far more fuel-efficient than the Toyota Prius, traveling more then 200 miles on a single, $2.00 charge. It’s about six times as efficient as any comparable sports car, and generates one-tenth of the pollution even if the electricity is generated by an old-fashioned coal-fired power plant. If the electricity is generated by the wind, well, its carbon footprint is virtually nil. The company’s founder said the Tesla enterprise became profitable during the summer of 2009. He had raised $300 million in venture capital and had access to $465 million in low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Energy.
He was preparing to plow his 2010 efforts into the launch of the Tesla Model S sedan scheduled to go on sale in 2012 for under $60,000. After fuel savings, he estimates the true cost of the sedan at about $35,000.
Elon Musk is no starry-eyed dreamer. Quite the opposite. He was 28 when he sold his first company, the publishing-software startup Zip2, for just over $300 million. (Not including a video game he invented at age 12 and sold for $500.) Then he started the company that would become PayPal, which he sold to eBay in 2002 for about $1.5 billion.
Musk thinks fast, luxurious electric vehicles will revolutionize human transportation. “We’re going to see things we’d never dreamed of,” he says, like battery-powered cars with a 1,200-mile range and electric-powered supersonic planes.
Engineers and tinkerers have already revolutionized the efficiency of our technology, at least in comparison with a few years ago. The household refrigerators sold in California today use 75 percent less electricity than the models from the 1970s. The National Academy of Sciences reports that, by 2035, fossil-fueled automobiles could get double their 2010 fuel mileage without sacrificing power or capacity. NASA is designing airliners that burn 70 percent less fuel and are 70 percent quieter than today’s Boeing 737s.
I’ve published magazines dedicated to collectible machines – -antique tractors, classic motorcycles, that sort of thing. From the first antique tractor show I attended, I noticed how much I enjoyed the company of the people who love old farm machinery. Likewise, the classic motorcycle guys. The people at the antique tractor shows and classic-motorcycle races are, on the whole, a lot of fun. They wipe their machines off with clean rags, attending to every detail as if the apparatuses were favored children. They wander the show grounds with big smiles on their faces. They tell long, amusing stories about how they found a priceless old tractor in an abandoned barn or how they tracked down their motorcycle’s rebuilt carburetor in a mechanic’s shop down in Mexico.
On the whole, the machine collectors are as joyful as any group of people I’ve ever been around. They laugh a lot more than environmentalists.
What I’ve concluded is this: People who love interesting machines love the human ingenuity that went into them. They love human ingenuity, which helps them love humanity, which helps them love themselves. Their joy is infectious. They’re great company.
This is why, I think, people become involved in these peculiar hobbies that, from a distance, look a lot like drudgery. They spend their spare time covered in grease, laboring hard to disassemble and reassemble obsolete machines. If someone tried to coerce us into repairing a decrepit 40-year-old motorcycle, we might be difficult to convince. And yet that kind of challenge engages the imaginations of hundreds of thousands of people who literally can’t wait to roll up their sleeves and engage with these rusty, greasy mechanical puzzles.
It’s just this kind of passionate ingenuity we need to create a constructive vision of our future on earth.
Environmentalists are better leaders when we can better love human ingenuity. True sustainability will be crafted by human ingenuity with a keen eye for nature. We will need to form partnerships with the natural world, to ingeniously utilize its resources in ways that preserve its natural productivity.