Friday, May 01, 2009

What’s In Your Garage? Part I

These days it’s almost impossible to evade the ubiquitous and constant replays of the TV commercials sponsored by that would be pillar of the community, Capital One Banking Corp. Forget for the moment that those commercials are in a true sense paid for with some of the $3.5 billion of TARP money supplied to that company by your tax dollars. Despite that however, I must admit that the commercials are at least mildly entertaining if nothing else. In fact, the tag line used in every one of them, “What’s in your wallet?” is the inspiration for the above headline, although it does need some elaboration such as, “What type of car will be in your garage in the future?”

That question has been raised in this column (admittedly indirectly) on several occasions, first three years ago when the Tesla Roadster (see below) was first described. However, with the constant threat of high gasoline prices in the future, the Obama administration’s continuing emphasis on decreasing our consumption of foreign oil, combined with the inherent perils of global warming, the issue of the future of our primary means of transportation becomes critical. The greatest irony of all is the fact that the American automobile industry could easily have (unknowingly) anticipated one of the most desirable paths more than a century ago, but fate intervened. This was described in another article printed herein in March 2007 when I wrote: “Ironically… we were possibly closer to an electricity based automotive industry 100 years ago than we are today.” While that statement may still be true, the situation is changing quite rapidly. To appreciate what is happening, a bit of history is required, with the story below repeated from that 2007 article.

“The Dawn of the Automobile Age

Believe it or not, the first (crude) electric carriage was invented by Robert Anderson of Scotland sometimes between 1832 and 1839. Thomas Davenport created the first in America in 1842. However, it was not until the late 1890’s that Americans began to exhibit a real interest in the concept. Most of the early vehicles were no more than electrified versions of carriages and surreys. In fact, the word “car” evolved as a shortened version of “carriage.” In 1897, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Co. of Philadelphia introduced a commercial fleet of New York City taxis. At the time, three types of engines competed for dominance — steam, electric, and gasoline. By 1900, out of a total of 2,370 automobiles in New York City, Boston, and Chicago, 1,170 were powered by steam, 800 by electric, and only 400 by gasoline.

In looking back, each of these technologies probably had more deficiencies than advantages, but the invention of the electric starter system, that replaced the hand cranking requirement for the gasoline internal combustion engine, helped push gasoline to the top –– this despite efforts on the parts of Thomas Edison and his close friend Henry Ford to secure a place for the electric car. Edison was unsuccessful in his attempt to develop a satisfactory battery; a failure we have to hope will not be repeated in our time. If the emphasis on ethanol subsidies was instead directed to battery research, the day of mass production of plug-in electric vehicles would be much closer at hand.”

We Aren’t There Yet

Here we are, two years since that was written, and while the total conversion of the industry to plug-in electric vehicles is still in the future, the transformation is accelerating rapidly. That is particularly true with increasingly innovative emerging technologies and the numerous experimental electric vehicles being produced. For example, at the time the subject of the Tesla Roadster was covered in the very first JICYMI article in January 2006, the technology was considered untested. Remarkably, there are now some 300 of them on the road, with backlog orders of one thousand more at $109,000 each –– not that it’s likely for this car to end up in your (or my) garage any time soon. However, this Tesla sports car has formed the foundation for another Tesla model that at about half the price of the Roadster might be more economically palatable. The price has been announced as $49,900 after a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Remember that Tesla is no run-of-the-mill, Detroit type of car manufacturing company. Located in Silicon Valley, it’s really a high tech company applying technology to create and build an environmentally clean, fuel efficient, and gasoline free all-electric vehicle. It has chosen the plug-in, battery-operated format as its model. Recognizing that the very high end Tesla Roadster sports car will not appeal to the major portion of the population, from the very beginning, Tesla announced its intention to ultimately provide a mass market four-door sedan alongside the more limited appealing Roadster. That new car is already off the drawing board in the form of a working prototype. Pictured below is the new Tesla Model S Sedan displayed for the first time just two months ago.

Is the excitement and buzz surrounding the Model S debut deserved? Here are some comments from car experts at, a website specializing in car reviews:

“The Model S is a four-door sedan that the California electric carmaker Tesla plans to build beginning in 2011, presumably as a 2012 model, and says that it will be the "first mass-produced electric vehicle." Chief designer Franz Holzhausen terms his design ‘classic modernity’ and we agree: this sedan gives up nothing in style to the most elegant luxury sedans with which it competes. Combining the elegance of a Maserati Quattroporte’s front end with wheels pushed to the corners and the muscular fastback of the Jag XF, this is finally an electric vehicle that doesn’t shout with a droll, utilitarian voice. The roof is comprised of two large sunroofs back to back, made almost entirely of smoke-tinted glass.

The interior looks to be an elegant, airy affair with high-quality leather and soft-touch surfaces, again matching the best luxury competition. Alas, the company went high-tech for the instrumentation that’s entirely digital. The analog facsimile gauges are bright and clear, everything is well laid out and visible, but without the tactile response of real switches and knobs the center stack will require the driver to look away from the road for all control inputs. A comprehensive voice recognition system will hopefully allay these concerns. A fascinating touch is electronics that communicate in real time with remote mechanics who will be able to diagnose and even repair some problems from afar.

Tesla bills the Model S as a seven-passenger vehicle. We contest the seven-passenger claim—the [2] rearmost occupants would be toddlers at best. Suggesting the Model S will replace SUVs and crossovers is also a stretch. But the hatchback convenience and large size mean lots of comfort and significant cargo capacity for small to medium families, with massively lower operating costs than equivalent-sized gasoline vehicles [my underline].

The Model S reaches 60 mph in approximately 5.6 seconds, and the low-end response from the electric motors should feel big-block V-8 strong. The rear-mounted powertrain is eerily silent, and should add to the vehicle’s stealth and luxury. A one-speed drivetrain seems odd, but adds lightness, reduces complexity and still manages a 130-mph top speed. Also keeping weight under control is a mostly aluminum construction for both chassis and body panels. The sedan boasts a 45/55-percent front/rear weight distribution and tips the scales at just over 4,000 pounds, respectable given its size, technology, and performance [1200 pounds of that is the battery]. A drivetrain and battery pack mounted low in the vehicle yield a low center of gravity for tenacious handling.

With the top-option battery pack, Tesla Motors promises a 300-mile range. The standard battery pack gives just 160 miles of driving, the second-tier pack 230 miles. The company plans to rent the 300-mile pack to those who only occasionally use their vehicles for longer journeys; alternately, owners can later purchase upgraded battery packs if their driving needs change.

To fast-charge a Tesla Model S, buyers can purchase extra equipment from the dealer and enjoy just 45 minutes from empty to fully charged. Standard charge time from a household 220V (i.e., clothes dryer) outlet is a little under four hours. The company claims that the cost and environmental impact of charging is hugely below that of one tank of gasoline.

Promised is a three- or four-year total-vehicle warranty, bumper-to-bumper. Battery pack life is stated as seven to ten years, but no cost has been cited.

Estimated price: $49,900 after a $7,500 Federal tax credit. But CEO Elon Musk stresses that operating costs—especially for those who lease a Model S—make the actual cost of this vehicle no more than that of a $35,000 2010 Ford Taurus. That comparison is based on $4 a gallon gasoline”.

Money Problems Abound

It’s one thing to produce a working model of an automobile; it’s a whole other thing to bring it to mass production fruition. To provide a plant capable of producing 20,000 vehicles a year, Tesla is awaiting a decision as to whether two government loan applications, one for $350 million, the other for $250 million will be granted by the Federal Energy Department. The future of this remarkable vehicle is possibly totally dependent on that decision. The answer should be coming shortly and will be hopefully available by the time next month’s Part II article appears. So, hold off on placing your $40,000 deposit to insure delivery of one of the first 2000 cars to roll of the yet to be built delivery line. Your garage will just have to wait.


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