Tesla and the Electric Future of Green

This column also ran on UPI’s Religon and Spirituality Forum.

Like a lot of Americans, my interest in presidential politics has bordered on obsession in recent weeks. I’ve been spending an indecent amount of time trolling the web for evidence that Barack Obama’s campaign will be reinvigorated by an infusion of moxie or that Sarah Palin actually thought the Bush Doctrine practiced bush medicine.

I love politics and the soap opera that is unfolding in the battle for electoral votes, but Sunday morning I got a reprieve from my political fixation, a touch of grace that came in the form of what certainly must be the most beautiful green car that anyone has imagined since Ian Fleming wrote Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.

I don’t consider myself much of a car guy. I like to drive, and once upon a time I was the very happy owner of a rusty old Alpha Romeo Spider, but my desire to go fast on four wheels has diminished now that I’ve got kids. Honestly, I’m thrilled by the family minivan: it’s kind of like a great big Swiss Army knife (automatic sliding doors, fifteen cup holders, great sound system, lots of cool compartments, plenty of room for people and stuff). When I do fantasize about cars I visualize myself driving a Morgan at low-rider speed.

But then last Sunday a couple in my church showed up for worship driving a Tesla. This is an electric car with a body by Lotus. It goes from zero to sixty in under four seconds. As I got a ride a round the church parking lot I felt like I was on a roller coaster, and, as the g-forces shoved me back into the passenger seat, I was grateful for the support of the fine leather upholstery. I had never imagined a car could go so fast on such short notice, or that it could slow down and turn ninety degrees so nimbly. It’s days later and my scalp is still tingling.

Occasionally, I hear that efforts to kick America’s oil habit are really just attempts to keep folks from having fun, to confiscate the keys to every SUV, and to control people by making them take the bus.

It’s not true, of course, but just in case you may suffer such delusions, hear me as I testify: in the Tesla, I’ve seen the future of green transportation, and the future will be fun.

Now, at 100K a pop, the Tesla roadster hardly is a proletarian ride, but it’s a start. The next Tesla product is rumored to be a sedan which will sell for half the cost of the roadster, and if a person doesn’t particularly need to drive an electric car that goes faster than a Ferrari, all kinds of possibilities open up. Surely the technology that had me whipping around the campus of Foothill Presbyterian Church in East San Jose could produce a car large enough for a family like mine, but it will take time and determination and strong leadership from the public sector.

This brings me back to the presidential race. The candidate who doesn’t look for a photo-op in a Tesla is missing an opportunity to stand tall for an America free from its dependence on foreign oi, an America dedicated to developing new technologies and creating American jobs—to say nothing of a missing a chance to have a little fun.

Update: This morning The San Jose Mercury News reports that Tesla’s new manufacturing plant will be in San Jose. Score one for the local team!

Here’s a review of the Tesla from Jay Leno:

7 thoughts on “Tesla and the Electric Future of Green

  1. Sounds good! I want one. When I have an extra 110K I just might go for it.

    Stephanie

  2. Ben,

    The Tesla is a rich elitist toy. The follow on version, at ~$50K, is beyond the reach of most Americans, let alone 90% of humanity.

    I wrote a long rant about your commentary, and then deleted it. Presidential politics, all politics, aside, I challenge you, and your readers, to do their “homework,” to do “due diligence” regarding the lifecycle of, the massive pollution, environmental destruction and net energy consumption behind the batteries that drive the Tessla all current electric cars, all the hybrid cars on the road. The nickel smelter near Hudson’s Bay causes such damage, the dead zone can be seen from orbit. Then let’s see if you are honest enough to write a factual, rational commentary.

    The unintended consequences of the “green” movement are killing poor people.

    Regards,

    Randy Shadoe

  3. Stephanie,

    HA! Give yourself ten years, and maybe the price will come down. Like the iPhone.

    Judy,

    That would be quite a bonus, but I might ask them to hold off until the minivan model come out. Then Stephanie and I can drive the same car.

    Randy,

    “Elitist” is a fine word which has be rendered cliche to the point of Orwellian meaningless by Republican overuse (when Michelle Obama is an elitist and Cindy McCain is an ordinary American gal, then war is peace freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength”).

    But I think you’ve missed the point of my piece (which may be my fault and not yours): I’m not saying that the Tesla Roadster is the answer for every American’s transportation needs. It’s not. Even if they were giving them away I couldn’t own one because it only has two seats and my family needs a minimum of six.

    My point is this: Tesla has developed an automotive technology that has the potential to move us beyond our dependence upon oil for personal transportation, and I’m excited about that.

    And I’m not too concerned about the price. Every new technology is prohibitively expensive at first. Twenty years ago only the very rich (or very pretentious) had mobile phones. Thirty years ago computers were far to expensive for personal use. Forty years ago color TV’s were a luxury item.

    In part the Tesla’s price is high because so far they’ve built a grand total of 27 production models. Tesla’s business plan is to start with a high end very high quality electric car and then to move downward, eventually building affordable cars for the masses. We’ll see if it works.

    Meanwhile, you point on the environmental impact of the production of the Tesla is well taken. We should be vigilant about such things, though if what the company says is true–that the battery pack will last 100k miles–then the production process would have to be mighty dirty to make up for the refining of gas to drive a car that far.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  4. I wish I could share your enthusiasm, but indeed I share Randy Shadoe’s concerns about due diligence — which delves into matters unspoken about this automobile — as well as unforeseen, and perhaps unintended, consequences.

    We need to really determine whether these cars in fact save more energy than they require in manufacture, operation and upkeep; whether the price can be brought significantly lower than $50K (I do not buy new cars, and I generally do not plan to spend more than $20K on them, although even that is an outrageous amount); and so on.

    Matters unspoken include necessary but as of now, nonexistent, infrastructure. Example: electric transmission capacity currently is not adequate for California’s population. What will happen if hundreds of thousands, or even millions of these autos are on the road and will need recharging every night? Will the head-in-the-sand-or-other-dark-places crowd of Greens and other so-called conservationists perform a volte-face on their current, anti-new transmission lines position? Will the NIMBY crowd join them?

    Personally, I think the T. Boone Pickens call for natural gas drilling and natural gas conversion of internal combustion engines is the rational way to go in the short term — say, the next few decades; it certainly is worth a serious look. (Pickens’ thoughts on wind energy and such are nonsense, though they may reflect the way he’s invested some of his billions).

    The Tesla is really exciting — in concept. But let’s be candid and open in answering all the questions.

    Bill

  5. Bill,

    No argument from me. Of course we need due diligence. But we shouldn’t dismiss the technology out of hand just because there are unknowns.

    Transmission is certainly an issue (both for PG&E and for the Tesla, it turns out–different transmission, but still), but exciting things are happening in solar electric generation.

    My point is that we now have a technology that, while not perfect, shows a lot of promise. It very well may be part of a larger puzzle that brings a solution.

    Naturally, we have to think through everything, but not just looking for why technologies won’t work. We also have to look for why they might work.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  6. Ben,

    Let me compliment your skill at teasing out a single word and red flagging it. I am sure you can dismiss all negative comments by noting that Dick Cheney or Carl Rove, et al. have used the words is, at, be, etc. or that Rush Limbaugh has used a particular word to describe Barak Obama.

    In my humble circle, owners of $100K automobiles, that can not be serviced by the majority of mechanics, let alone roadsters, regardless of their political affiliation or the auto’s motive power are still “rich elite.”

    You are quite correct the “green future” that is being created by the current torrent of hype will be fun for some.

    It will be fun for demagogues who travel in private jets and limousines while getting paid $1000.00 per minute to give “environmental” speeches chiding us to ride bicycles and take the bus. All the while promoting their investment portfolios.

    It will be fun for opportunists who will profit as the taxpayers amortize the costs of their uncompetitive technologies and government regulations quash their competition.

    It will be fun for carbon credit traders.

    It will not be fun for those who face soaring costs and shortages of necessities. We already experience rolling blackouts in “high tech” California, because needed power infrastructure is blocked by the same environmentalists who claim to support green energy sources. It will not be fun for the masses who are already denied food that is being converted to biofuels.

    I look forward to clean autos and energy sources that aren’t dependent upon polluting technologies and massive imports of fuels. Only a mad man is in favor of environmental destruction. The fear mongering, hype and naive embrace boutique technologies so popular at the moment will never get us to a genuinely green future.

    Regards,

    Randy

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