Nikola Tesla was the inventor of the alternating current (AC) that powers our homes today, as well as many other revolutionary breakthroughs in our command of electromagnetism. Tesla was a bit like Iron Man, a somewhat touched but brilliant inventor and a talented showman, and his magical displays of what electricity could do dazzled the public with a world of new possibilities.
My new Tesla Model S all-electric, smoking fast, batmobile-like car
The new Tesla Model S, like its namesake, presents us with an equally revolutionary breakthrough, a car literally unlike any other in the last 100 years. It is a complete game-changer, a reengineering of the automobile and the personal transportation industry from the ground up. Suddenly, it is possible to drive normally without polluting the air or adding to climate change, and to do it for one-tenth of the cost of using gas, all while getting incredible G-force speed and handling second to none. It's enough to make a boy say my God, where have you been?
The Tesla business concept: what some stock analysts are missing
To understand just how revolutionary the car is, consider the stock. Tesla's stock has had an incredible run this year, and is up by around 500 percent. Stock analysts, however, have spent the last four months saying it is overvalued, then adjusting their forecasts upward. The reason is because people are having a hard time appraising something so out of the box. We carry with us a lifetime of assumptions about cars, and those assumptions can limit our perception of new opportunities. The stock analysts believed the car is too expensive, and its market is limited to coastal one-percenters. I live in Minnesota. I got my Model S a few days ago, and it is by far the most expensive car I have ever owned. I would have never spent this much for an ordinary car of any kind. But after test driving one, I realized that this is more than a car; it is a top quality transportation service, and that is where doubters of both the car and the stock get blinded by their old assumptions. Tesla is a descendant of the portable computing revolution, not of the Detroit automakers, and it is to cars, car dealerships and gas stations what Amazon is to books and bookstores, and what iTunes is the the record industry. People who value Tesla's stock like that of an automobile manufacturer are missing the concept in a similar way to the analysts who at first valued Amazon stock like that of a bookstore. Borders went bankrupt.
Why Tesla is different: a vast new market
I first heard about Elon Musk, the CEO and design architect of Tesla (who has also been compared to Iron Man) from my friend the physicist Lawrence Krauss. I was looking for donors for the non-profit ScienceDebate.org, the producer of the US presidential science debates, and Krauss connected me with Musk, who became a supporter. I started following Tesla and Musk's other company, SpaceX, and the more I learned about Tesla's new Model S electric car, the more excited I became. As Arthur C. Clark pointed out all sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and that is true for the Model S. Its value proposition is that you can drive with incredible performance and without destroying the environment. That's a powerfully hopeful feeling for Americans who, for a generation, have been feeling increasingly hopeless and guilty as climate change, ocean pollution, mountaintop mining, and hordes of other environmental and geopolitical effects of our consumer culture and energy use have come home to roost. A company that can tap into that deep anxiety and relieve it without demanding personal sacrifice will find an immense, untapped market a generation deep and of all political persuasions. That is precisely what Tesla has done, and it has done it while delivering performance, art and style, and that is what is driving the car and the stock skyward.
Art meets engineering: door pulls extend when the driver approaches, then retract to drive or when the car locks itself
The big car companies are missing this market opportunity because they aren't relieving the anxiety without the sacrifice. Their electric cars are more expensive than gas cars and have less power and more limited range; ie, they demand sacrifice. It's a failed value proposition for most people, and the car companies take it as confirmation that there is no market. They could not be more wrong. The market is huge; they have just failed to mine it because they have been unable to abandon an internal combustion mentality, and so seem to have ceased innovating outside of that dusty, crusty 100-year-old box. Such confirmation bias is one of the fundamental fallacies of logic.
Reengineering the personal transportation experience
Mental and institutional blocks of this sort present massive opportunities for disruptive entrepreneurs to rethink the whole game, which is what Tesla has done. Why can't an electric car go 300 miles on a charge? It can if you start with seven thousand stock lithium-ion batteries and figure out how to control them. Why do we need to worry about running out of juice? We don't--Tesla's cars can be 50 percent recharged in 20 minutes and 80 percent recharged in 40. Tesla is erecting a proprietary network of superchargers along the U.S. interstate system, allowing Model S owners to recharge for free in the time it takes for a potty break and a cup of coffee. They expect to cover 80 percent of the U.S. population by next year, and 98 percent by 2015. Musk and his wife and five kids are planning a cross country trip from Los Angeles to New York in the coming months to show how easy it is. These two factors--long range and rapid recharge--are covered by some 140 Tesla patents, with more in process, protecting Tesla's superior battery technology's lead for some time.
The recharging port opens and lights up when you press the button on the recharging cord
Why do we need to have local "gas stations" at all? Most of the time, we won't. Aside from the cross-country holiday trip, most people's daily driving happens well within the single-charge range of the car. In that case, drivers can simply charge at home in their garage, usually at off-peak rates, using electricity that would have often been dumped into a heat sink anyway, and never again have to worry about filling up on the way to work. And why do we need car dealerships? We don't if people can order from home over the internet with greater ease and less unpleasantness. Why does an EV have to be slow, weak and frumpy? It doesn't--with the torque of electromagnetism a Tesla gets more speed, power and efficiency than a gas engine; it simply smokes many of the best gas sports cars. But don't Americans like big cars and SUVs for their seating and storage? The Model S can seat seven because there is no space wasted by a drive train, exhaust system, gas tank and heat shield. And with no engine, you have room for luggage in the front trunk, or "frunk," freeing up the back. Plus, with all the weight in the floor where the batteries are, the car's center of gravity is extremely low, making it extremely safe and letting it corner like a race car. Mental block after block is falling, in some cases threatening to disrupt entire industries, including car dealerships and corner gas stations, and that's why the Tesla Model S is such a game changer, and why Tesla stock is the best performing stock of the year. As the car has blown away nay-sayers, the investment has forced analysts to revise their estimates higher and then revise them higher and higher yet again. Deutsche Bank, for example, raised their price target for Tesla stock from $35 to $50 in May, then to $160 in July then to $200 in September, and some financial bloggers who closely follow the company think that if Tesla continues its excellent execution the stock price, which currently values the company at around $22 billion, could go many multiples higher.
Why I sprang for the most expensive car I've ever bought
For me, buying a Tesla was motivated by a combination of three things: integrity, value, and excitement.
The increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, generated in significant part by using gas and diesel for transportation, is driving climate change
I am a filmmaker, but I am also known as a science writer and science advocate. In that role, I write and speak a lot about climate change, and I see much of the same data that leading climate scientists look at. Like them, I am concerned about my son's future and the future of my nieces and nephews because of climate change's accelerating effects. It truly is our greatest challenge. In addition to working to get the candidates for president to talk about science-related policy issues like this, I'm doing everything I can personally to model change and inform and inspire others. That kind of personal communication effort is necessary if we're going to solve this problem. I live in a wind-powered, super insulated, geothermal, passive solar home I designed and built with my own hands. It's environmentally advanced, but it's also beautiful and without significant sacrifice, which is the same philosophy of Tesla. We give tours of the house, and up until now I have driven a hybrid, but with an 88-97 mpge (miles per gallon equivalent) the Tesla will have that beat by multiples. The car's battery and motor use no rare earth minerals, and the car frame and body, being made out of aluminum, are highly recyclable. Knowing what I know, buying the car became a matter of integrity and morality, even if it will cost more than I've ever before dedicated to transportation. Let's say I'm re-internalizing the true cost of my transport.
Some critics however, including some at Climate Central, argue that electric vehicles are worse than hybrids in several states because they have a larger manufacturing carbon footprint due to the carbon-intensive processes used to make the batteries, and because of the coal mix in electricity generation in various states. In my opinion these criticisms are based on faulty assumptions.
First they assume, without a very strong foundation, that the battery pack will be exhausted in 100,000 miles. But these analyses miss the burgeoning market in battery repurposing post-traction pack use. Tesla guarantees my battery pack for 8 years and unlimited miles (obviously, Tesla believes they have found a way to manage the battery to extend its life). But if you take a non-Tesla "exhausted" battery pack out of an EV after 100,000 miles it will still have, it's estimated, 60-80 percent of its capacity left. It may not be very useful for transportation because its range is reduced at that point, but it's still excellent for home and business use. There is a growing aftermarket for these packs in static energy storage applications, and people who work in the energy space are anticipating that storage will be the key to an advanced 100 percent renewable energy system known as the "smart grid." Already, crashed Leafs (Leaves?) and Volts are being scavenged for batteries that are then repurposed for other uses in the static storage market, such as home storage for solar PV systems. With one or two 18-36 KWh storage batteries and a sufficiently-sized solar array, you can tell the power company to come cut the line. Or you can charge your home battery pack off peak, then sell your stored power (which would otherwise have been wasted by the utility) back out to the grid during peak hours, doubling your money and smoothing the grid's demand curve, reducing the need for additional future generating capacity. In such low demand applications as powering home appliances, some experts estimate used EV traction packs could last an additional 10 to 20 years, after which they can finally be sent off to be recycled. Retriev Technologies in Ohio (formerly known as Toxco), has received ARRA money to develop a program for recycling lithium ion battery packs. Also, as new regulations, technologies and EV car demands improve the grid and motivate a switch from coal to natural gas, and then to renewable sources, the grid will continue to get greener and greener, while gas won't.
Second, they assume that people will charge at any given hour, at full retail prices. In fact, most drivers are home over night, and if one has to make a base assumption absent data, it is most logical to assume that that is when the majority of recharging will occur. Many utilities offer half-price or in some cases free electricity during these off-peak hours, because they can't simply shut down their turbines when demand falls at night, so much of the unsold electricity they generate then is wasted by being dumped into heat sinks. The Model S can be easily set to charge only during off-peak times, taking full advantage of the lowest possible rate, and to assume drivers would not use half-price or free energy if it is available runs counter to all known economic science.
So, all in all, Teslas appear to actually have a much lower (and sinking) carbon impact over the vehicle's life cycle than a hybrid, and to provide a beneficial driving force for a cleaner grid. A good recent critical review of many of these analyses is a diary post by statistician Assaf Oron, posted on Daily Kos. If you are concerned about climate change like I am, and you can stretch to afford it, you should seriously consider getting a Tesla Model S.
Value (and some insane quality ratings)
My gas station is in my garage: the 240 volt Tesla connector cord
The Model S value proposition is both ethical and financial, as describe above. Because of the much higher efficiency of electric drive, my fuel cost has gone from $15 per day to roughly $1.15-$1.35 per day, with the several-thousand-dollar-a-year savings offsetting some of the extra cost of this extraordinary car. My car is charged up and ready to go every morning. Forget stopping for gas.
My wife and I generate much of our own electricity with a 15KW Jacobs wind generator but it's no longer enough to power our geothermal unit and the Tesla in addition to our household use, so we also buy from the utility. My utility uses coal, natural gas, waste to energy, wind and hydro. We buy extra wind to offset the coal and gas and remain effectively carbon neutral. Plus I charge the car off peak so I'm using electricity that is normally wasted anyway, and I'm charging at half the normal retail rate. In this way, my driving has a net carbon sink effect.
The car has only one fluid to regularly service: washer fluid, and it has just six regular maintenance parts: four tires and two wiper blades. The tires should wear faster than normal because the car is 4,600 lbs and because the tires are always under duress, either by acceleration or deceleration as the very strong regenerative braking kicks in when I step off the "gas," putting energy back into the battery pack. On the up side, I may never have to replace my brake pads because I only have to tap my breaks for the last foot before coming to a complete stop.
There are no oil changes to worry about, very little maintenance, but Tesla sells an annual maintenance plan for $600 which covers everything except tires. I will probably buy this but I think it should be cheaper. If I buy a four-year plan in advance, I can get it for 25 percent off, but that's more cash up front. The body and frame are aluminum so there will be no rust. The car has as much storage as some SUVs, and much fewer moving parts to break or maintain.
The battery pack is powerful enough to go 300 miles if I drive like my wife drives her Prius, which is unlikely. EPA rates it at 265 in a combined average, which I suspect will more likely reflect my use. I've never been able to perfect hypermiling. The Model S is the first electric car that meets the range requirements of my lifestyle, and that of most other people.
Consumer Reports gave the Model S a 99/100 rating, their best rating ever. The car is Motor Trend's car of the year, and it rates as the safest car ever tested by the NHTSA (in fact, it broke their testing equipment). See what I mean about the old Tesla magic? All this is from a zero-emission car.
If there is any sacrifice, it's in the cost, which is a budget stretcher for most people. New Telsas bought outright start at $63,570 base price for a car with a 60KW battery pack and a 208 mile EPA-rated range, and $73,570 for an 85KW battery pack and a 265 mile EPA-rated range, and they peak out at $125,570 fully loaded with performance packages and all options.
Financed, it can become more affordable. After my down payment it will cost me a little over $1,000 a month at 1.99 percent interest for 60 months in Tesla's arranged Wells Fargo financing, unless I pay it off sooner. The Tesla financing plan also gives me the option to trade it back or sell it back for roughly half its new car price at 36-39 months, which gives me some protection against depreciation. And the $7,500 federal tax credit helps stretch my budget.
The options are incredible. If you're an audiophile, Tesla's premium sound system is the best OEM sound I've ever heard. The all-glass panoramic sunroof is fantastic, as is the Tech Package, which turns the car into something out of the movies. Numerous other option are available to juice your performance and enrich your experience.
I gotta say, I have never been this excited about buying a car before, which I have usually regarded as a necessary evil. The whole experience of owning and driving the Tesla Model S is different from any other car I've ever been in.
The Model S chassis, motor, and battery pack (Tesla Motors)
Because the weight is in the batteries, which are below the floor, the center of gravity is very low, making the car extremely unlikely to roll over, and making it handle like a dream. Plus, 0-60 in between 4.2 and 5.6 seconds depending on purchased options makes it faster than almost every unmodified, street legal car out there. With electric motors you have 100 percent torque available from 0 mph. Keep it away from your teens, because the car can do a burnout at 30 mph. My father in law was a fighter jet pilot and he's coming to visit soon. I can't wait to show him the G-force of this car, which plasters the "Tesla grin" on your face.
The Tesla Model S cockpit and touch screen controls
The technology and controls all run through a 17-inch touchscreen in the front dash, which is connected to 3G at all times, and it doesn't have one of those irritating legal screens you have to click "I agree" to every time you drive the car. This is a car for adults. Responsibility is assumed. The 3G connection allows all sorts of cool things, like Slacker radio and updates pushed from Tesla that upgrade your experience and give you new options. The car is almost completely customizable through preference settings on the screen, from the feel of the steering and suspension (comfort, standard, and sport settings) to whether or not the car creeps forward when in drive like a gas car (EVs don't need to creep). To open the panoramic sunroof, which stretches over both the front and back seats, you swipe the sunroof image on the touch screen and it opens as far as you have swiped. Everything is intuitive and easy like that.
The key fob is shaped like a small Model S. Pushing the front opens the frunk, the back opens the hatch, and the roof locks and unlocks. But there is a cooler feature: with the key fob in your pocket, you don't have to push anything. When you're done driving you simply get out and walk away and the car shuts down and locks up for you. When you return, the car senses you approaching and extends its lighted door handles and powers up, then the handles retract once you are seated inside.
You can also control the car from upstairs or from hundreds of miles away with an app for iPhone and Android that lets you control the charging, warm the car up or cool it down before you get there, honk the horn or flash the lights, open and close the sunroof, find the car on a map, and other functions. And the car cannot be operated without the key fob, so it is very hard to steal.
The future versus the past
For those who can't justify the Model S on size, Tesla is next coming out with the Model X, an SUV crossover expected to roll out in early 2015, and for those who can't justify it on price, Tesla plans to release the Model E, a 200-300 mile range EV expected to be priced at a more economical $35,000 with many of the great features of the Model S, planned for as early as 2016. After the $7,500 federal EV tax credit, that brings the Model E within range of many more people, especially when you consider the estimated $13,000 in fuel cost savings over a 100,000 miles of driving.
For me, because of what I do and what I know, it was important to adopt this technology now, even knowing that my pricey payment is funding some of Tesla's Model E research and development. Because the biggest payoff for me is the way the car is challenging the thinking of everyone, and I mean everyone, from the stock analysts to the executives at the big old automakers who are suddenly scrambling to catch up to Tesla, to policymakers and drivers who can now see a brighter future where transportation is not a major cause of climate change and getting from point A to point B does not have to harm the environment.
That's priceless, and I will support it any way I can. And so far, I'm having a hell of a fun time doing it.
Shawn Lawrence Otto is an award-winning science writer, filmmaker, novelist, and the co-founder of ScienceDebate.org, the home of the US presidential science debates. His new book is Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. He lives in a wind-powered, passive solar, superinsulated geothermal home he designed and built with his own hands. Visit him at www.shawnotto.com and like him on Facebook. Join ScienceDebate.org to get candidates to debate science.
Also on HuffPost:
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more