Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Most Important Car in the World

Picking up from where I left off earlier in the week, I said that it may be possible an EV is the best car in the world.  If the Tesla Model S is not the best car in the world, which it may or may not be, then I am convinced that it is the most important car in the world.

Those who have driven the Model S have been effusive in its praise.  For example, what can you make of this quote:

Having driven the Tesla Model S on the neighborhood roads back-to-back not only against most of the other electric cars in the market today, but also comparing it against other premium cars such as Rolls Royce Corniche, I came to this startling conclusion: The Tesla Model S is so superior that it seems that it's just a matter of time until all the other car companies will have to file bankruptcy.
Others have been similarly over the top in their praise for this car, but since I have not even seen it, much less driven it, I am afraid that my own opinion on the question is yet to be formed. Suffice it to say that I cannot wait until I have a chance to form that opinion.

I believe that I can say that it is the most important car in the world because it is the first car ever to have been designed on the premise that an electric car might actually be the best car in the world.  Whether it has achieved that status is somewhat beside the point; it is enough to acknowledge the unique motive behind the car's conception.

Electric cars have, let us face it, not been devoted to the idea of excellence. They have been curiosities. Burdened by idiosyncratic styling, most electric cars have been cute but weird urban toys.

The late -- and ugly -- GM EV1
The General Motors EV1 was a perfect example.  Its styling shouted out that it was something other than a regular car.

Early hybrids were styled with the same approach.  The original Honda Insight looked like an ugly cousin of the EV1.  There was nothing attractive in these designs.  They were designed to appeal to ...  well, who exactly?  Presumably people who were above such trivial concerns as appearances.

The hideous Honda Insight
Cars have always been at least partly about sex appeal.  Good-looking bad cars will sell.  Ugly good cars won't.   When you go out of your way to make a car ugly and appliance-like you are either inept or appealing to a different market than the average car buyer.

Electric cars and early hybrids were deliberately made into anti-cars.  Every lustful reaction we may expect to have in relation to cars was erased.

The Tesla Model S is, by contrast, designed to be as sleek and lustworthy as any other car in its rather elevated class, a class that includes the Jaguar XJ, the Audi A8, the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes-Benz S Class.  These are formidable competition.  These are well-engineered, luxuriously appointed, fast and desirable.  And the Tesla Model S, an EV is, by design, every bit their equal.  And its very "EV-ness" may well make it their superior.

This is something entirely new.  An EV that makes no excuses, that does not hide behind weird looks and that is willing to go toe-to-toe with the very best cars in the world.

The Tesla Model S is sleek, handsome, well-appointed, fast, smooth and sexy.

The beautiful Model S
As are its competitors.  The Model S, though, has the advantages of being an EV.  This means that all the torque from its electric motor is available from 0 RPM.  This means that there is no noise from the powertrain.   There are no emissions at all.   Its enormous battery pack forms a floor to the car, lowering the centre of gravity and aiding in handling.  Regenerative braking means that kinetic energy is converted back into an electric charge to be reused again for propulsion rather than wasted as heat in an ICE car.

The lack of an ICE, a cooling system, a transmission, a driveshaft, a differential and many many more parts means that the Model S is simple and relatively free of parts that can wear out or break.  This also frees up huge amounts of space in the car for storage.  The motor needs almost no maintenance.  Regenerative braking greatly reduces wear on the brakes, which are only needed a fraction of the time compared with a conventional car.

All of this results in a driving experience, as every review of the car but I have read indicates, that is superior to any conventional car. But even with all of this, it is not why I believe that this is the most important car in the world.

Tesla, led by its CEO Elon Musk, has set aside the constraining conventional wisdom of the past 125 years, and has reimagined the car for our century. Not only that, Tesla has reimagined the car company itself, car manufacturing, and car sales and service. And all of this is due to the unique advantages of the EV over the conventional ICE car.

Elon Musk himself has gone on record as saying that he founded Tesla to prove that an EV could be the best car in the world.  I would say he has already proven that with the Model S.  At the same time, it is by no means assured that Tesla will survive.  As I write this, only 100 Model S cars have been made.  While Tesla can sell as many of them as they can make at the moment, its survival will depend upon the continuing credibility of the company to deliver on its promises.  Now that it has designed and started to make what is possibly the best car in the world, it must prove that it is capable of making a lot of them at a cost that will enable the company to make money.  This may prove to be a very significant challenge, given the decision of the company to be vertically integrated, making nearly every component of the car in house.

The all wheel drive chassis of the amazing Model X
Having going on at some length about the Model S, I should close by saying that it is not this car that I am interested in buying. I have my eye on the Model X.  Assuming that Tesla can stay alive, this car will be going to market in 2014.

It is a kind of SUV that can hold seven adults and all their luggage but will have the performance of a Porsche Carrera.  It will be a taller version of the Model S, and should have equivalent performance.

However, it will come in an all-wheel-drive version with a second electric motor at the front of the car.
Elon Musk showing off the "Falcon Wing" rear doors of the Model X

After that, Tesla has plans for a smaller and less expensive car that will compete with the BMW 3 series and others in its class.

Tesla has delivered. It has forever altered our idea of what an electric car can be, and in doing so has given us an idea of how in we will be able to continue to travel in comfort and with awesome performance while living sustainably.  No longer do we have to look ahead to a future in which we have to abandon our beautiful sexy vehicles for hideous objects like the EV1.

It all makes the future of driving exciting again.   For now, I am going to take great pleasure from driving my last hydrocarbon burners.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The End of Internal Combustion?

I love cars.  I love driving them, and I especially love buying them.  I don't like selling them so I end up with more cars than I need.

As I have written about in this Blog, I bought a 1993 Bentley Continental R last Fall.  When I really analyse my motives for this irrational purchase, it is becoming clear to me that nostalgia is the main one.  Nostalgia for beautiful big hydrocarbon burners.  Cars like my Bentley will never be seen again.  The engine is too big, at 6.75 litres, and the car, at 5300 pounds, is hopelessly excessive.  It is built like a tank, and it is built for a world with endless supplies of oil.
The Magnificent VW Phaeton

My next car may well be a Volkswagen Phaeton.  I can pick up a 12 cylinder example from 2004-2006 with low mileage for under $20,000.  The VW W-12 engine is the same one that Bentley used for the Continental.  Again, this is a car that time has passed by.  VW discovered that North American buyers would not pay $100,000 for a car with the same badge as Hitler's "people's car." The value of 12 cylinder Phaetons have melted like an ice cream cone on a summer day.

But I want to own one, to drive one, while I can.  Before it is too socially unacceptable to drive a gasoline car of any kind, much less one with way too much displacement and way too much mass.

My car after that will almost certainly be a Tesla.

First, though, I want to say something about the internal combustion engine (ICE, as electric vehicle (or EV) fans call it).  After about 125 years of development and the application of many of the best minds, the ICE has been engineered to something close to perfection.  When I think of the cars of my youth and compare them to the cars of today, there is no question that ICE engines today are more powerful, more efficient, cleaner and far more reliable than the engines of the past.  Cars in general also stop and handle far, far better than the cars of the past.

But the ICE is inherently inefficient.  The reciprocating engine involves hundreds of explosions of fuel and air that make pistons go up and down in such a way as to make a crankshaft turn.  But where ICE reciprocating engines operate at about 20% energy conversion efficiency, electric motors can operate at 90%.

The ICE runs, of course, on fossil fuels that are both finite and full of carbon.  Emissions include carbon dioxide, the very gas that is causing climate change.

We have invested enormous time, energy and creativity to improve the ICE and the infrastructure that gets its fuel from underground or underwater and to refineries and to pumps where we consumers access it.  And of course if we take into account the wars that have been fought over the stuff (two wars in Iraq, for example), and the environmental risks of getting at it (the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico for example), the costs of the ICE have been very great indeed, as -- of course -- have been the benefits.

Now, let's look at the EV.  Not only is it mechanically far more efficient, but a well-designed electric motor can run virtually forever with minimal maintenance.  An electric motor is far smaller and lighter than an ICE of equivalent power.

There is the important issue of generating the electricity that will run your EV.  There are dirty ways to generate electricity, such as burning coal or oil, and also ways that involve other risks like operating nuclear power stations in earthquake zones.  Hydroelectric generation is clean but can seriously disrupt land uses that are affected by the manipulation of water levels.  The best bet for the future is solar, and breakthroughs can be expected that will eventually make it the dominant mode of generating electricity.  See for example this article about recent progress by IBM that may erase the cost discrepancy between solar and fossil fuel energy within a decade.

There are also issues of disposing of EV batteries at the end of their useful lives, full of lithium and other exotic materials.  But on balance there is no comparison between the environmental impact of an ICE vehicle and an EV.  And when we really start to use our energy income (solar power) instead of our capital (fossil fuel) the EV becomes an obvious -- and inevitable -- choice.  And once we begin to invest the brainpower in making the EV real and successful, as we have made the inherently flawed ICE so dominant, things can only get better.

There are of course issues with range and with the time to recharge.  We are used to having cars that will run for hundreds of kilometers on a tank, and to finding a place to fill that tank in minutes nearly anywhere.  The EV doesn't offer these advantages, although in time these discrepancies will vanish.

The Tesla Model S can already operate for 480 kilometers on a single charge, not much less than an equivalent ICE car on a full tank of gas.  However, once you have depleted that charge it is a matter of plugging it in overnight.  "Superchargers" are coming that will cut that time dramatically, but they are still some months and maybe years away.   So, yes, range is still an issue.

But let's look at developments in battery technology.  Important breakthroughs are being made.  See for example the website of California Lithium Battery.  The Chief Technology Officer of Tesla Motors estimates that the capacity of lithium-ion batteries is being improved at a rate of 7-8% a year.  This means that in ten years the range of the Model S might well be 1,000 kilometers or more per charge, not 480.  99 per cent of people will, after driving 1,000 kilometers, want to stop for the night.  And 10 years from now we can be confident that there will be a place to charge your car when you do stop.  And then, every morning, you will start the day with the equivalent of a full tank that can keep you going all day with no anxiety whatever.

When you do charge your car it will cost a fraction of the cost of an equivalent tank of gas, even at today's artificially low gas prices.  Yes, today's prices in North America are far too low to reflect the true costs of using fossil fuels, and we can pretty much count on a continuing escalation of gas prices over the foreseeable future, as the cost of extraction in increasingly challenging environments climbs and cartels keep working to exact their profits.  Outside North America, consumers are of course already accustomed to gas prices far higher than ours.

The cost of making electricity, on the other hand, should over time remain relatively stable, or even come down in price as renewable and clean sources of power benefit from technical and manufacturing breakthroughs and then achieve economies of scale.

So, you might wonder, why not wait the ten years and see if this wondrous world of EVs actually does come to pass?

Because, in my opinion, it is just possible that the best car in the world today is actually an EV!

Presenting the Tesla Model S
To be continued.