updated version on my new blog:
Nowadays, almost everybody is talking somehow about energy issues. Be it the majority of drivers squeezed at the gas pump or environmentalists worrying about the consequences of our exuberant energy consumption: greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Others worry about the threat our dependence on oil imports poses to our security. With the United States and all other major economies being addicted to oil, what President Bush publicly admitted in his 2006 State of the Union address: “Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.” There’s not only reason to be concerned of the security of our oil supplies but also about the hefty fluctuations we’ve seen recently.
Fortunately , there are some creative minds that want to break our addiction, or at least reduce it. Unfortunately, these creative minds cannot be found anywhere in Washington D.C., nor in the automotive capital Detroit. But that’s not surprising. We will experience some kind of revolution in the not too distant future. Energy technology will become a crucial industry. And when looking back, we see that the giants of the last revolution, big companies like Google and eBay and many others started out as small Silicon Valley start-ups. What can we expect now with Silicon valley having started to build cars? Will we see cars becoming twice as fast and twice as cheap every year just as computers?
Wait and see! The now 48-year old Martin Eberhard founded Silicon Valley’s first carmaker – Tesla Motors – in 2003. Eberhard named his company after the famous physicist and inventor of the electric motor. Eberhard, showing great concern for the environment and becoming aware of the advantage and potential of the electric motor, decided to build the car of the future. He was thinking of a car that was friendly to the environment, this means with zero tailpipe emissions AND fun to drive. Totally convinced of his idea and highly motivated, he started looking for investors. Next to venture capitalists, former eBay President Jeff Skoll and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the entrepreneur, multimillionaire and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk invested millions of dollars. Today, Tesla Motors has its headquarters in San Carlos, California. Besides, Tesla Motors has an assembly plant in England, motor production in Taiwan and a research and development facility in Michigan which is close to Motor Town Detroit where they can get experienced automotive experts from struggling competitors.
Tesla Motors’ most outstanding model is the Tesla Roadster, an all-electric sportscar with a top speed of 125 mph (201 km/h) accelerating from 0 mph to 60 mph (97 km/h) in just 3.9 seconds. The driving range of the car is 244 miles (393 kilometers) on a single charge including the energy need for air conditioning, seat heating and other accessories. The battery pack is composed of about 6800 laptop lithium-ion batteries which have a high energy density and weigh 450 kilograms. Recharging the batteries takes about three and a half hours and costs about $3. What a bargain! Though its maintenance costs are extremely low and running it is almost for free with the Roadster’s incredible efficiency of 105 mpg (2.4 liters/100km), this very desirable car might not be affordable for everyone. The purchase price is about $100,000.
Nevertheless, demand is huge for these stylish breakthrough cars. Google co-founder Sergey Brin also ordered one Roadster. So did George Clooney who already received his electric powered sportscar in 2007. The sales numbers must be a bit below 1,000, but I didn’t find exact numbers.
Tesla Motors also has several other models in the pipeline:
The production of the high performance electric sedan Tesla Model S, whose price will be about $50,000, will start by the end of 2010 at an assembly plant which will be built in San Jose, California.
Until now, Tesla’s cars are high performance, high quality cars and they’re essential for branding. After having established Tesla as an innovative and quality car brand, a much cheaper plug-in electric car, currently being codenamed “BlueStar”, should be produced and hit the market in 2012 according to Wikipedia. The price could be in the $20,000 to $30,000 range. Tesla Motor’s sales expectations are beyond 10,000 units. With Tesla’s chairman Elon Musk owning a company providing solar power systems, some models could be topped with photovoltaic panels and generate the power to run the car for 50 miles on solar power.
Silicon Valley is known for its ideas that can quickly change the world. Eberhard is convinced that clean-tech will be the next big business. Generally, we are very likely to see energy technology rise to a 21st century key industry. Eberhard was not thinking of a car that was the most technologically advanced, but he was thinking of an intelligent way to realize an alternative to gasoline-driven cars as soon as possible at an affordable price.
Electric cars are in fact nothing new. In 1895, an electric car participated the Paris-Bordeaux car race.
Nevertheless, gasoline seemed to be the better way to power cars for more than a century.
In 1990, California’s Zero Emission Mandate, aimed at reducing air pollution, forced car makers to bring zero emissions vehicles to the market. But unfortunately, this promising mandate was first weakened and finally eliminated by the big car makers. Lobbyists succeeded in changing the bill so that sufficient demand was necessary to force car makers to provide these cars. Allegedly, big car makers like GM had advertisements aimed at keeping demand down. (according to the documentary Who killed the electric car
?) A few thousand of General Motor’s EV1s were disposed of by the automotive giant afterwards. Next to bad advertising, the reasons why demand for these early electric vehicles was low were probably the small driving range and cheap gasoline. In addition, the car industry, backed by the Bush administration, filed a lawsuit against the State of California. They succeeded and California had to drop this wise mandate. Just imagine how technologically advanced and how much more affordable electric cars could be today given all the experience and development that could have been going on in the last ten years. Detroit’s automakers would probably not be in such a deep and threatening crisis and they would not lack behind Toyota and other rivals in technology leadership. The United States were less dependent on foreign oil, mobility were more affordable and greenhouse gas emissions would be lower. GM ceased its production of the EV1 in 2000, shortly after acquiring the Hummer brand. Today, the once largest car maker in the world is struggling to survive and its survival is based on the success of an electric car, the Chevrolet Volt
. How ironic!
The German maker of luxury cars, Mercedes-Benz was also developing an electric car model which is now known as the A Class, a rather unsuccessful compact car running on gasoline. Daimler Chrysler stopped its electric experiment when the California zero emission mandate was weakened. Daimler Chrysler was betting on hydrogen fuel cells, which is still decades away and extremely expensive, as the fuel of the future.
This time, however, conditions appear to be much better for electric vehicles as they’re a solution to several of our problems. With their price coming down gradually and gasoline prices rising in the medium and long-term, they’re becoming more and more competitive with conventional cars. With the increased awareness for the environment and the threats of climate change, electric cars with zero tailpipe emissions are a mighty tool to combat global warming. Besides, electric cars can be fast and save energy at the same time – gasoline-powered cars can’t. Furthermore, the electric motor doesn’t need energy when standing in a traffic jam, there is no gearbox, no clutch, no plugs, no tailpipe, no oil, not many parts that require maintenance.
Finally, Tesla Motors even plans to take on Toyota whose hybrids are enormously popular nowadays.
Ian Wright, a former partner of Eberhard, now a competitor also wants to produce electric and hybrid cars on a large scale, but his company, Wrightspeed has a different philosophy. They plan to produce high performance electric supercars outperforming anything else in their class where they see the greatest saving potential. Mr. Wright is right that halving the gasoline consumption of a S.U.V. truck has a bigger effect than replacing a subcompact car with an electric one. It’s probably also easier to introduce this still expensive technology to vehicles in the upper segment.
It will still take a couple of years until convenient, stylish and powerful all-electric cars are available in large numbers. But we already know that electric cars can be as cool, as fast and as convenient as any other car. When thinking of electric cars, people will no longer imagine the small so-called neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) in which you probably feel quite uncomfortable when standing next to a pickup truck in heavy traffic. The new electric car models will be snazzy, safe and competitive with gasoline-powered cars. Advancing battery technology is making them more and more viable, they’ve finally reached technical maturity. The next step is building up a recharging infrastructure which would not be too expensive. Charging points could be found in a couple of years at all shopping mall parking lots, at fast-food restaurants as well as in front of office buildings. To solve the infrastructure mess, the California-based startup Project Better Place will build an infrastructure of battery swapping stations in Israel, Denmark and Portugal.
Read also these posts for more information on the global energy crisis and electric cars:
Our prosperity hangs by a thread as it is based on a limited resource – oil
The Air Car could revolutionize transportation – an electric car without an electric motor