21st Century Vroom

At the reading Mary Robinette Kowal and I did in San Francisco, one member of the audience was wearing a Tesla Motors T-Shirt, and in conversation he mentioned he wasn’t just wearing it as an affectation, he really did work at Tesla Motors. At which point I used my Jedi mind tricks to get him to give me a Tesla Roadster. And lo, it worked, because this was waiting for me when I came back from (ironically) Detroit this weekend:

Excellent. Mind you, the intended scale of the car is a little off, but I blame that on my sloppy Jedi mind skills more than anything else. Athena asked what it was, and I said “It’s an electric motor sports car,” to which she said “Cool, can I have it?” To which I said, “Get in line.” We weren’t talking about exactly the same car in that short conversation, you understand.

While I’m unlikely in the immediate future to get a real Tesla Roadster, I have to say I’m delighted to finally be in a place and time where a car like the Roadster exists — i.e., an actual electric car that isn’t the automotive equivalent of eating bran in the morning. It’s doing more for the argument of weaning ourselves off our pathetic addiction to burning petroleum products than an entire army of Ed Begley, Jrs. could ever do. An entirely electric car may not be my next automobile purchase, but I’d bet a lot of money it’ll be the car purchase after that. And maybe then I’ll be able to afford the Roadster. A boy can dream.

In any event: Thanks, Greg, for a shiny new car.

40 thoughts on “21st Century Vroom

  1. Soooo, just as a question…

    I’m all for getting rid of gas-dependency and I’m all for electric cars, but, uh…

    Where’s all this electricity going to come from?

    At the moment, I don’t actually see the likelihood of decreasing our carbon footprint if we have to dramatically increase the amount of coal we mine and burn in electric power plants.

  2. Eh, electric cars like the Tesla are a scam. The electricity used to run that Tesla is every bit as dirty as the gasoline you’d use to run the Lotus Elise that it was cribbed from – the emissions are just generated and discharged at a coal-fired power plant instead of at the tailpipe. Call me when they’ve got a mass produced hydrogen car AND the infrastructure to make it work.

  3. I think it’s more likely that your next-plus-one purchase will be a plug-in hybrid. Even with the high-power connector, a Tesla takes 3.5 hours to recharge, which makes it only suitable for recharging overnight or parked at a workplace. Which means it’s impractical for any long-distance driving. A PIH gives you the benefits of a pure electric for around-town driving (50 miles or so on battery) with the ability to use it for long-distance driving.

  4. And it’s easier to retrofit good emissions controls onto a fixed generation source than it is to make all those gas-fired cars behave.

  5. If you live in a state like TX of CA, less than half of the energy is generated from coal. The lion’s share is generated from natural gas. In fact, in CA, hydro and nuclear are about level w/ coal as an energy source. (Unfortunately for John, something like 80% of the energy in Ohio is from coal.)

    And even if the coal-burned-in-plant vs. gas-burned-in-car numbers were one-to-one (which I don’t think they are, but couldn’t prove it on a whiteboard), you can’t disregard the cost (financial, environmental, and political) of importing that petrol from abroad and then delivering it to points-of-sale across the country.

    Sorry to ramble on in a comment on a post ostensibly about a Matchbox car.

  6. Considering the relative toxicity of both manufacture and disposal of the rechargable lithium batteries that the Tesla uses (basically, several hundred laptop batteries), it’s probably a wash in terms of environmental friendliness too.

    I’d stick with an old-fashioned big-iron V8 from Detroit! :)

    Pretty cool they have a Hot Wheels tho!

  7. What impresses me is the presence of eco-friendly toy cars on American shelves, because toys traditionally instill dreams of adult consumption in youth. They’re the best form of marketing there is. When we returned from Japan last summer, we gave our nephew a group of eco-themed toy cars sponsored by Honda, including a biodiesel garbage truck. He loved them, and we loved the message.

    Come to think of it, why don’t garbage trucks run on garbage?

    Speaking of interesting ideas, you should have a look at Better Place, which intends to lease electric car batteries and the green power to charge them on a subscription based plan, much like mobile minutes. You buy your car, but not the $10K battery. Instead, you buy a cheap vehicle shell, and change or re-charge batteries at licensed stations or power kiosks available in area parking lots. I know I sound like a shill, but I saw the CEO on the Hour the other night and I was genuinely impressed.

  8. If they don’t get you with the sexy sports car vibe, the sirens will lure you in with solar panels at home and the dream of self-sufficiency. Check out Home Power Magazine’s web site if you want to go there.

  9. An entirely electric car may not be my next automobile purchase, but I’d bet a lot of money it’ll be the car purchase after that. And maybe then I’ll be able to afford the Roadster. A boy can dream.

    And you’ll be SPENDING quite a lot of money too. Book sales going that well are they? On the other hand the projected performance on the Volt and Toyota’s electric cars aren’t bad. There’s a lot of torque in those motors.

    Also, to the tools quoting chapter and verse of the conservative AND liberal whackjobs. Why do you hate our freedom to have the type of car we want? Get a little more informed before you ape the fools on the far left and right. Yes, it’s not as ideal a solution as one would hope, but I doubt we’re going to abandon it all to return to horses, foot power, and bicycles.

    The cars would be charged at night, off peak where there’s abundant capacity. Overcapacity in fact, so the power companies want this. Additionally, as mentioned it’s a lot easier to control emissions on and upgrade to different sources with one power plant than it is tens of thousands of automobiles.

    I recall once hearing a statistic about 90% of automotive pollution coming from 5% of the cars. You know, the idiots who are too irresponsible to maintain their vehicles properly.

  10. Given the problems Tesla has been facing in just trying to fill the orders they’ve gotten for the Roadster (see the “Tesla Death Watch” category on The Truth About Cars for details), I’m not entirely sure the company will be around by the time you can afford one, John.

    In any event, battery technology isn’t up to storing anything like the energy density of gasoline just yet, reducing the range of electric cars and making them less useful as general-purpose replacements for gas-powered ones. (Special-purpose replacements, like cars strictly for the commute? Perhaps. Depends on how long your commute is.) Hybrid cars, including plug-in hybrids, are a compromise, and one that’s been largely successful thusfar. (It’s worth noting that the original design impetus behind hybrids wasn’t an increase in gas mileage, but a reduction in tailpipe emissions, mainly driven by the strict requirements California’s Air Resources Board, among others, tried to impose.)

    The problems of the battery manufacture, with its toxic materials, have also been well-documented, as has the whole “there are no electricity wells, and it doesn’t grow on trees” argument. About the only way we could supply enough electricity to run a fleet of cars without just shifting the emissions problem around would be more widespread construction of nuclear power plants–and good luck getting that past all the NIMBYs and BANANAs out there. Not to mention there is the problem of the existing “physical plant”; we’d have to replace a hell of a lot of existing cars, many of them owned by poor people who can’t afford fancy electric cars, before we made a real dent in the aggregate petroleum consumption of the U.S.

    So: Is the Tesla Roadster cool? Undeniably. Is it practical? No. Is it going to change the world? Not anytime soon. The best assessment I can make of it is that it’s ahead of its time.

  11. @ Carole Elaine:

    They have. It never got off their track, but this season that just ended in the UK, Jeremy took it for a run. Liked it a lot, but (of course) pushed it hard enough that he completely blew out of the water Tesla’s claims of time/miles between charges.

  12. To Mark @ 3, et al:

    It’s an interesting efficiency question. The automobile engine is not terribly efficient (around 20%). US Electric power-plants are running 35-40% efficiency. Per wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission#Losses), transmission losses are estimated to run about 7% – I would interpret this to be that I get 93% of the energy at my outlet that the powerplant puts in, so I’d get about 34.4% efficiency on a 37% efficient electric plant. How efficient are your battery charger and electric engine? If the two net out at anything over 60%, you’re getting a better chemical energy to kinetic energy conversion.

    What’s the difference in the energy costs to deliver a huge load of coal/ oil/ whatever to one location vs. the costs of oil-well -> car gas tank? I’d expect the one huge load is cheaper.

    As Hank at 7 said, it’s easier to clean up the emissions of the one big plant, as compared to however many cars. How does this compare to the lithium disposal problem? Good question.

    From what I know or have seen pointers to, no one has a good unbiased cradle-to-grave comparison of all the energy and environmental costs of gas vs. electric cars. As my grandfather used to quote, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

  13. Hey
    I hear Tesla is looking for a place to build their new assembly plant. Try using your Jedi Mind tricks to get Tesla to buy the now empty Moraine Assembly plant in Dayton. Work force is already there and only need a little retraining…would be a good deal for everyone.
    Just a thought

  14. Well, yeah, having a small nuclear power plant in your backyard might solve ONE problem, John, but we already know your daughter has plans to take over the entire planet as Overlord, so are you SURE you want her to have access to all that fissionable material? I mean, REALLY!?

  15. @ Eli:

    I cannot wait until that’s shown on BBC America. We’re still on Series 11 here. And that video won’t play for me because I’m in the U.S., but this will. Looks promising, but yeah, it seems to need a bit more work. Still looks like one sweet ride, once Tesla gets the bugs worked out.

  16. The questions about where the electricity is coming from are addressed on the Tesla web site that John linked, if anyone is actually interested…

  17. trailmagick @4:

    Eh, you realize hydrogen cars like you suggest are a “scam” too? The hydrogen used to run those cars is every bit as dirty as the electricity you’d use to run the Tesla – the only difference is that the energy is transferred to the car from the coal-fired power plant in the form of hydrogen rather than electrons.

    (Actually, current hydrogen production is mostly done by reforming natural gas, by a process that’s approximately “pull the carbon off and release it as atmospheric CO2″, which is likely even worse of a carbon footprint than hydrolyzing water with a coal-fired power plant.)

    Meanwhile, CO2 sequestration from coal-fired plants is not nearly as implausible a technology as it looks at face value.

  18. So you where in Detroit on some sort of Amway related scheme, then? I mean, the state is home to the Devos family so you never know.

  19. Of course now you’ll need to “collect ‘em all”! In addition to “Radiant Red” there’s “Electric Blue”, “Sterling Silver” and, coming soon, “Very Orange”.

    Now I must go don my tinfoil hat to ward off further Jedi mind tricks…

  20. it’ll be the car purchase after that

    Since your last-mentioned new car was in 2003, I feel certain that the bugs will be worked out of electric cars by the time that you get to the car after next. Heck, by then, the Tesla Roadster may be old hat, and we’ll be arguing about the mileage on our flying cars.

  21. Word to the wise: when your enviro friends are showing off their new electrics, don’t refer to them as “coal-powered conveyances harnessing the state of the art in 19th century technology.” They don’t like that. (Unless they’re steampunks, in which case you’ll probably spend the rest of the night talking about how you’ll deck the thing out in brass…)

  22. @30 – you can try that with me but I’ll laugh at you. My electricity is hydro… you can argue about the impact of the dams, but nothing will be burned to power my electric flying car…

  23. 10. Madeline Ashby said: You buy your car, but not the $10K battery. Instead, you buy a cheap vehicle shell, and change or re-charge batteries at licensed stations or power kiosks available in area parking lots.

    This would be the basic concept needed to make electric cars work for long-dist driving. Have stations where you can change out a spent battery with a fully charged one, in the same approximate amount of time as buying gas.

  24. I’m not a global warming fanatic. I think it’s bogus, but I’m also happy to see that efforts are being made to clean up the air. Electric cars may well be part of the answer. The industry is in its infancy and already great strides have been made. When the auto industry was beginning, it took many years to build a car that was reasonably efficient. At the rate electric cars are progressing, it may not be that long for them. This car is a good example. It looks terrific!

  25. Actually, I think the interesting thing for me about this whole electric/hybrid/hydrogen/whatever conversation is how it reminds me of the early days of automobiles. It took a while for the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine to become the standard, after all (based on my understanding of that era–anyone who knows more about the history of the automobile than I do, please comment?); similarly, I suspect we’re going to have several “road not taken” alternative vehicle types over the next few decades, until we settle on the right one (or right combination). But waiting until we locate the “one, true answer”–or insisting that we immediately decide on the best alternative to the current system–just doesn’t seem very sensible to me. The thing to do, it seems to me, is to start trying several forms of alternative fuel/propulsion and then (probably slowly) figure out what works as we go.

    But I also suspect that in order to succeed, the alternative we eventually settle on really ought to plan on including a flashy-but-environmentally-sensiitve sports car . . .

  26. This post has made me realize: What we need are cars that, when you press on the accelerator pedal, a Giant Hand comes out of the sky and PUSHES the car!

    There may be some drawbacks to this idea. Based on my own experience with Matchbox cars when I was young, the Giant Hands may 1) be likely to push the cars hard enough to achieve flight, 2) push them at high speed into the nearest other vehicle or other Large Hard Object, 3) send the cars flying off the nearest cliff or Giant Tabletop, or 4) send them at high speed into the face of the nearest Giant Sleeping Cat.

  27. John, when you get this, get it in orange and black so you can drive Athena around in all the parades in Bradford.

    Scratch that, you’d rack up miles too fast with all the parades around here.

  28. The Tesla is cool but $100K? Ouchy. I work at Aptera in composites. I make the bodies. I like how this subject always comes down to the same things. Power plants vs gas stations, hydro vs nuke vs solar vs coal. Oh lets not forget range and charge time.
    What about weight and aerodynamics? Nobody ever brings that up. I know I’m biased and I am ok with it. The fact is there are lot’s of people who are seriously looking for alternatives to gas stations.

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