First, a little history: Back in the early 1900s, the gas auto, the electric, and the steam car all competed pretty evenly. Then - as we all know - the gas auto won out. There had to be a reason for that - and while much of it was cost, I think it also came down to daily practicality. The gas auto’s fuel was easily transported, easily stocked, easily sold, easily and quickly replenished; its range depended only on the size of its gas tank; and it didn’t take hours to recharge, or minutes to get up steam. Once Henry Ford built a cheap and practical gas auto, the writing was on the wall, and steam and electric cars became museum pieces. And so matters remained, for about a hundred years.
Since then, we’ve seen sporadic attempts to revive the electric, most notably from the Seventies onward. Some of them, like the three-wheeled, futuristic-looking Aptera, have been interesting, but none have entirely succeeded. Even the Nissan Leaf hasn’t – at least not when it comes to taking on gas autos head-to-head. And, frankly, most of them haven't been all that much of a car.
Why not? There’s many reasons. But three of them, I think, predominate:
- First, designing and building an electric car involves unavoidable trade-offs of range versus performance, versus bulk, weight, expense, and charging time. Specifically, you can’t raise performance without cutting into range, and you can’t raise either of those two factors without also raising at least some of the others. It’s a complicated, relatively narrow, and constraining curve, and to create a usable product, you have to figure out some way to balance those attributes. All of which means that it’s a bit harder to make a convenient, flexible, and satisfactory electric than it is to make a gas auto.
- Second, for most of those hundred-odd years, the only real choice for power was the simple, reliable, but very heavy lead-acid battery. Only in the last twenty-to-thirty years have alternatives with a superior energy density come along. And you will notice that most attempts to revive the electric date from those same last twenty-to-thirty years.
- And third, most of those previous recent attempts at electric cars seem to have been designed by Greens - at least from what I've seen. And I suspect that even when they set themselves to designing a car, many Greens can't help thinking of how selfish and wasteful it is to have everyone out driving their own cars - even non-polluting electric cars running on renewable energy. And how we all really ought to be taking the train or bus like civilized people. So pretty much every one of their designs has occupied the bottom end of that curve - small, relatively light, not very fast, with limited capacity and limited range, and not good for much more than short commutes and shopping trips.
The people behind Tesla, however, took a different approach. An ingenious, out-of-the-box, and quintessentially American approach: They realized that while everybody else was looking at the bottom, there was also a possible slot at the top of that curve. Rather than thinking small, they thought BIG. Really BIG. Almost Texas BIG. Yes, their approach amounted to a brute-force solution - but it was a very smart and considered version of a brute-force solution. And while the original Tesla Roadster may have not been a large car at all, it was the product of thinking BIG in almost every other way.....
- You need lots of batteries to get a halfway-decent range? Use lots of batteries.
- Lots of batteries are heavy? Put in a big motor.
- A big motor takes lots of power? You’ve got lots of power with all those batteries. And the fuel is cheap. Really cheap, compared to gas.
- Lots of batteries are expensive? Build an expensive car.
- The car's too expensive for most Greens? Sell it to rich people - the ones in Hollywood should do nicely. Your neighbors in Silicon Valley as well.
- How do you make something that rich people will want to buy? Make it fun to drive.
- And then, when you build a model to sell to more than just a few hundred hip Hollywood millionaires, don't build a squirrelly little runabout -
- Build a 21st-Century version of the classic rear-wheel-drive Big American Sedan, with lots of room and lots of power, the kind of car that GM and Ford don't even make any more - a big-block Impala, or 428 FE Galaxie 500, or Six-Pack Plymouth Fury for the new century.
- But make it a bit less bulky on the outside, because bulky is out of fashion.
- Ensure it can handle in more than a straight line, because you’ll be competing with the top-drawer Europeans, and all of them can handle.
- Build it as a giant hatchback so the sedan is the wagon, too, and you don't have to bother with two versions.
- Since you’re selling it on high-tech, give it an interior like being inside an Apple Mac.
- Make it seat seven, because you've got the room for that.
- Oh, and put an extra trunk in the front because you've got the room for that, too.
- And finally: Batteries take a long time to charge? Offset that, as much as practicable, by building a nationwide network of your own proprietary high-voltage, high current chargers. Charging will still take a while, but a lot less of a while, and the trade-off of very inexpensive fuel will make that acceptable to many.
Incidentally, all of the preceding might explain one slightly surprising fact: why Greens - or at least some of the more extreme ones - aren’t particularly enamored of the Tesla Corporation. Or of anything that it makes.
- First, Tesla is a Big Corporation. A number of Greens don’t like or trust Big Corporations. Even ones that are just medium big.
- Second, they don’t like or trust Big Businessmen. Especially not successful Big Businessmen. Even more especially not ones with king-sized personalities.
- Third, the Tesla Co, can be arrogant, as some of you have pointed out. Or, at least, have a tin ear with regard to how people will take some of their statements.
- Fourth, the very rational strategy of first building a toy for the rich, then bootstrapping up to build a usable car for doctors and lawyers and management, then finally bootstrapping up from that to build a practical car for almost anybody with a reasonably well-paying job rubs them the wrong way. It smacks of elitism.
- And finally, the considerable size and weight of a Model S really rubs them the wrong way. Because it’s the product of thinking BIG. Not small.
Apropos of all this, Tesla’s somewhat surprising statement that they “don’t make electric vehicles” might make a little more sense. Because in a way, they don’t. They don’t make something like the Nissan Leaf, or little Chinese tin-can runabouts, or oddball three-wheelers, or indoor forklifts, or golf carts, and don’t compete directly with any of those. They make Big American Sedans. And when it comes to first-rate cars, they compete head-to-head with the best that Detroit, or the Germans, or the British, or the Japanese have to offer.