This morning as I walked through the parking lot next door I saw the car of tomorrow. The real car of tomorrow, and it's here today. At first glance I mistook it for a Maserati Quattroporte. Getting closer, I thought it was a Jaguar. Up close I discovered that this beauty was, in fact, a Tesla Model S, the all-electric luxury sedan.
Of course I've viewed dozens of photos of the Model S and read countless words but this was my first "live" sighting. I can tell you that the car is far more impressive when seen in all its three-dimensional glory. That it could be mistaken for the two cars mentioned above says a lot about the styling, which is conventional compared with, say, a Prius, but is elegant and quite beautiful. My enthusiasm for the design also includes the Tesla's interior, as good or better than any sedan you could name.
Obviously I didn't drive the Tesla Model S (it makes me wish I was back in the test driving business) so I'll have to turn to Edmunds.com for a quoteable review. Rest assured that Edmunds doesn't rush to superlatives that don't ring true. I seldom quote entire paragraphs but this opening is too well-written to ignore:
"Based on the electric cars that have come out so far, you'd assume that conventional automotive design says they have to be podlike devices with meager range, meager power and about as much charm as Des Moines. For its Model S, however, Tesla has taken that conventional thinking, stuffed it in a burlap bag, beat it incessantly with a crowbar and thrown it off a bridge."
The reviewer goes on to say that the Model S has "the potential for stunning performance in terms of both acceleration and handling." Clearly the car is a performer by any standard. With the base 40 kWh battery pack, it produces 235 horsepower with a range of just over 100 miles. The 60 kWh option gives 302 hp and has a 208-mile range, while the 85 kWh provides 362 hp and a 265-mile range. The top-of-the-line 85 kWh Performance model, says Edmunds, has the same range but is capable of 416 hp. Zero to 60 mph goes from an admirable 6.5 seconds to a blistering 4.3 seconds.
4.3 seconds? Now that's supercar territory! Potential buyers will, however, want to know how long it takes to recharge those lithium-ion batteries. Again quoting Edmunds, it appears that, depending on the model chosen, charging time is not unreasonable. "All Tesla Model S versions can use standard 110- and 240-volt household outlets. Using a 240-volt circuit, the base 40 kWh battery would take about 5 hours to fully charge. Bigger battery packs can also use a dual charging system that can half the charge time. Using this system, count on about four hours to charge the 60 kWh or 85 kWh packs. Tesla is also building a network of high-speed superchargers that promise 160 miles worth of charge in only 30 minutes."
Those are the key facts. To learn more about the Tesla Model S' handling, cornering, steering and brakes (all outstanding) I suggest you go to Edmunds Web site. Meanwhile try to stay with me for the following comment about the past, present, and future of electric cars, for that future is coming much faster than the pundits predicted and faster, too, than most executives at the big car companies are willing to admit.
For several decades my fellow automobile journalists looked on the electric car with as much enthusiasm as they would a Wartburg, East Germany's sad excuse for an automobile. Much of the criticism was aimed at the batteries, which were limited in range and would supposedly be expensive to replace. I suspect, also, that they were unwilling to give up the visceral effects of the internal combustion engine, things that give us emotional satisfaction. Electric motors do not roar they "whirr," they provide torque immediately instead of building under acceleration, and they don't require the art of manual gearshifting nor the use of more than one forward gear.
The auto executives, though at least spending a few million dollars on research and careful not to be too negative in their remarks, were insisting that the electric car's future was way, way off in the distance. Similar excuses were made regarding battery range and costs; even now they continue predicting that electric cars will make little dent in market sales until at least 2025, and even then just 5% or less. Meanwhile they insist that plug-in hybrids represent the best solution for fuel savings and environmental safety.
Except, however, for an industry leader who had the foresight to let one his companies develop a pure electric suited to family car buyers and priced where they could afford it. I'm talking about Carlos Ghosen, CEO and chairman of the Renault/Nissan alliance. Nissan's 2013 Leaf sells for US$21,300 after Federal tax savings and delivers mileage of 130 mpg city, 102 mpg highway. It gets up to 75 miles on a single charge, adequate enough considering that a normal trip for most of us is no more than 29 miles, with 40 miles per day for the average commute to work and back.
The first edition Leaf was rather plain in appearance but the newest model has enough flair in its styling to attract admiring glances. The car is utterly practical in its features, offering all the power assists, comfort, safety and performance potential buyers are accustomed to. As improvements to battery technology come along the Leaf's range will increase, making it suitable for longer trips. When Carlos Ghosen gave Nissan the go-ahead to develop this car he was looking far ahead and time will prove him right.
Indeed, changing battery technology is something that many critics and most automakers seemed to have ignored in their conservative predictions. Now I can't pretend for one split second to be knowledgable about technical matters but I've long been a believer in electrically-powered cars and when my peers were making known their conservative views I was saying "no, you're wrong... more powerful batteries will be developed at a faster rate than you're anticipating and a few will be revolutionary in concept." My opinion was based on a simple belief in mankind's inventiveness, especially when profit is to be made. So far I've been proved right and I still believe that affordable long range battery power is just around the corner, not in far off 2025.
As did Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Regardless of his success with mass production and equal fame with the Model T, in effect creating a car for "the people" at a time when the motor car was largely a plaything for the rich, Henry Ford was actually convinced that the future lay in cars driven by electric storage batteries. His colleague in this remarkable vision was none other than long-time friend Thomas Edison, whose efforts in applying electricity to the needs of the world are legendary. Edison understood the limits of the lead-acid battery well enough to pursue other alternatives, eventually settling on a nickel-iron array that weighed considerably less than lead batteries, could deliver twice the range, and could be recharged in half the time. His vision included a recharging infrastructure linked to trolley lines, electrical stations extending from city to countryside, curbside charging stands not unlike our modern parking meters.
In 1910, Edison storage batteries powered streetcars in New York, conquered San Francisco's hills, survived endurance tests. That alone should have been enough to encourage Edison and Ford to continue their efforts had they not been forced to fight off an onslaught of exaggerated claims, negative advertising, and intense competition from the Electric Storage Battery Company, the misnamed monopoly that had allied itself with the internal combustion combine. But whether the genius of Thomas Edison and the wealth of Henry Ford might have succeeded in producing a viable electric car using nickel-iron battery technology is something we'll never know, for "The Great War" caused an immediate demand for thousands of vehicles that had to be reliable, easily-refueled, provide adequate power and range, and were ready for manufacture. Only one engine could meet that need. Internal combustion became the dominant source and the opportunity to develop a lightweight, powerful battery was lost for decades.
Elon Musk is co-founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal. He is an American entrepreneur who was born and raised in South Africa to a Canadian mother and a South African father. He is best known for founding SpaceX and for co-founding Tesla Motors and PayPal. He is also Product Architect at Tesla Motors and CEO and Chief Designer at SpaceX. The latter develops and manufactures space launch vehicles with a focus on advancing the state of rocket technology. NASA selected SpaceX to be part of the first program allowing private companies to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.
Musk's stated mission for Tesla is "to increase the number and variety of electric vehicles available to mainstream consumers in order to speed up humanity's move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which is the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution." He is, in my opinion, a modern day Henry Ford, the man who transformed the way the world moves with his mass-produced, low cost Model T. HF would be proud.