Sunday, February 24, 2013

Editorial: The future of green cars - how the Tesla Model S changed everything for me

The perfect example of the horrid looking EV, the
Mitsubishi i-MIEV (photo courtesy of Mitsubishi)
I was not a fan of green cars. To me, they were always pitifully under-powered, insect-looking, miserable little cars that could never meet the real needs of an enthusiast. When I was growing up, electric cars were little more than glorified golf carts and hybrids had been adopted by such a particular set of buyers that being remotely associated with that group made me sick to my stomach. Deep in my psyche, though, I knew that the era of the fossil fuel swilling internal combustion engine would have to draw to a close someday, quite possibly within my lifetime, but as an enthusiast, I saw no viable alternative.

Tesla Roadster (photo courtesy of Tesla Motors)
Then, a ray of hope breached the gloom, illuminating an underdog manufacturer scrambling to demonstrate that electric vehicles did not have to be horrible, whiny, plasticky pieces of junk that crept along at a snail's pace. The arrival of the Tesla Roadster marked a turning point in my paradigm, opening the door to a whole world of possibilities of alternative energy powered vehicles. Sure the Lotus-derived roadster had some rough edges and the range was still far below that of a fossil fuel powered car, it at least demonstrated that electric cars could not only be fun, they could be stylish as well.

Tesla Model S (photo courtesy of Tesla Motors)
When Tesla finally introduced the Model S, it became clear that electric vehicles had a real future, especially amongst enthusiasts. A true to form 5-seats full size electric sedan with a leather swathed interior to rival the luxury brands, acceleration figures that put supercars within its sights, real world usable range, and driving dynamics that rivaled the top competition in its class. To top it all off, Tesla made it clear that it was out not just to change the car, it was out to install the infrastructure to make its cars viable for every day use. This was the breakthrough that I had been waiting for to justify putting my faith behind green tech in the automotive industry.

Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors
In my mind, I imagine myself in a future where the landscape is dotted with solar-powered charging stations, some elevated to the level of art to blend into the scenery, where one can plug their car in for a quick charge while taking car of even basic errands. The gas station will fade into history, becoming historical landmarks to serve as stark reminders for the world's addiction to liquid gold. Harnessing the energy of the sun, the wind, and the tides would help minimize electrical draw off the grid and allow most people to travel great distances for substantially less than they would have spent on gasoline or diesel back in the day. This dreamscape is ever closer to becoming reality as technological progress marches forward in our research on batteries and alternative power generation.

Tesla Model X (photo courtesy of Tesla Motors)
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, clearly shares such a vision for the future. His introduction of the Supercharger stations is the first step in making his cars the gold standard for this vision. The Model S is the first serious attempt to make electric vehicles appeal to not just the nerds and geeks with money, but to a broader audience, albeit one that is still quite wealthy. But just by the virtue that the Model S, a proper luxury family sedan with serious range, costs substantially less than the completely impractical Roadster clearly demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction. The upcoming Model X crossover will be even cheaper still and promises to further improve versatility. While currently, the early adopters are paying the premium to drive ongoing research, in probably no more than a decade, we will see truly amazing, truly high quality electric cars that are affordable to the every man and perhaps, the infrastructure will be in place to ensure that we can charge up just about anywhere we deign to go.

Mission Motors Mission R all electric super sport
motorcycle (photo courtesy of Mission Motors)
Of course, as with any disruptive technology, there will be detractors. I suspect Henry Ford did not exactly receive the warmest of welcomes when he introduced his first mass-produced Model T, but that vehicle became the icon for change in bringing the automobile to a wider audience. Tesla's Model S, feels like it is in a similar position at this point in time, along with Mission Motors Mission R motorcycle. Many of the knocks against the Model S are legitimate, for example cold weather does have an impact on range because heaters are needed and batteries are less efficient, but there have been many illegitimate ones as well. The recent piece in the New York Times is the perfect example of a situation where a narrative was crafted and the facts manipulated, whether intentionally or not, to fit the story line. This sort of biased journalism does no one any favors. We need to get the facts, good or bad, in front of potential buyers and allow them to come to their own conclusions. Some people may find that they are not ready yet to transition to an electric vehicle, but others might no only be ready, but willing to pay that premium so that more of us might share in the experience in the future.

So I have gone from being a skeptic to a hopeful believer. I have always felt that hybrids were a mediocre stopgap that sacrificed too much performance and fun at the altar of economy. Diesels, while efficient and torque-rich, still burned fossil fuel. Improving fuel economy standards are a necessity, but we risk reaching the point of diminishing returns between drivability and fuel economy as we continue to edge those up over time. Giving people a truly viable option that does not sacrifice drivability, offers practicality, and greatly reduced usage costs seems like the only sane way to go.

To Mr. Elon Musk, I toast your continued efforts and wish Tesla Motors nothing but success. If my personal financial situation should one day find a happy intersection with the products of your little car company that could, expect to find me happily in line, check in hand, ready to put my money where my mouth is. Until then, I will cheer from the sidelines as companies like Tesla Motors and Mission Motors continue the march forward to advance the car and motorcycle, two products that are very near and dear to my heart.

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