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Tesla Triumphs: Electric Car Bests the Rest

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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red-model-s-from-tesla-motorsSince America’s love affair with cars really got rolling after World War II, nothing but a gasoline-burning internal combustion engine would do. Until now.

The gearheads at Motor Trend have named the Tesla Model S the car of the year for 2013—the first time an all-electric vehicle has ever won the honor. “The turning point will be when electric cars become the best product, and that’s the key for mass adoption,” argued Tesla founder Elon Musk at an event to announce the award November 12. The Model S “is just the best car.”

That’s quite an achievement given that Tesla had to learn how to make a car from scratch, starting as a company in 2003 and then, in 2008, offering its first all-electric sports car known as the Roadster. The Model S is the current bid for more affordability, with a price of at least $49,900 (after a federal tax credit, which Musk, for one, would like to see extended). “It’s difficult to create a car company of any kind,” Musk mused. “An electric car adds additional difficulty and the economy didn’t make it any easier.” In fact, in 2008, Tesla nearly ran out of money until Musk stepped in with his personal fortune.

The key to all electric cars, and the Model S is no exception, is the battery. For Tesla, the battery consists of a 40, 60 or 85 kilowatt-hour pack of lithium ion cells, from an unspecified supplier. Layering those heavy cells into Tesla’s patented pack along the bottom of the Model S helped give the car a low-center of gravity and, thus, exceptional stability, as well as the ability to go 265 miles between charges, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And, thanks to the Tesla’s high purchase price, Tesla recharging stations that can recharge 3-hours worth of driving in 30 minutes will “always” be free, Musk noted.

But the Model S won the award because of its aerodynamic yet appealing “aluminum-intensive” body, drag-race ready pickup and speed of 0 to 60 in as little as 4.4 seconds, its spacious interior that can seat seven (including a kid-pleasing set of fold-out rear-facing seats), and the 17-inch touchscreen that controls the internal systems, among other features.

A bumpy road, riddled with glitches in the cars themselves, led to this modest success. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes with the cars” Musk admitted. But, as Tesla’s vice president for sales George Blankenship put it: “Here’s the reason why everything we do is so hard: because everything we do is impossible.” After all, Tesla’s goal is apparently not to sell cars per se, but to diminish the air pollution impact of transportation by automobile and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, saving the world (and driving excitement) for future generations. Already, Tesla advertises its cars as emitting zero carbon dioxide, at least from the tailpipe, though that’s a bit of a stretch when you consider all the CO2 that went into making the car and its components as well as the likely sources of the electricity used to charge it.

Tesla, of course, came in for criticism during the recent Presidential campaign, with losing candidate Mitt Romney calling the car company another clean energy “loser” like Solyndra. “He was right about the object of that statement,” Musk said, “but not the subject.” It remains to be seen whether the company can ramp up production of its cars and remain in business, though sales will likely be helped by the award.

The next “impossible” challenge, as Musk admits, will be making such an electric car more affordable, a challenge that the company executive hopes will also be tackled by other  automakers. “I hope other car companies will copy us and pursue electric car programs with greater vigor,” said Musk, who last weekend drove his whole family from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a Model S. “I’m a big believer that you’ve got to use it yourself first and make sure it’s good.”

In the end, Tesla’s best bet may not be the Roadster, Model S or any successors, like the Model X for the SUV market, but rather selling power trains and battery packs to other auto manufacturers. The electric car as more than an expensive toy may fail, but it has already triumphed by seeing its core technologies—better batteries or regenerative braking, among others—incorporated into the next generation of cars.

Image: © David Biello


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. priddseren 7:11 pm 11/13/2012

    Finally a useful article out of SA. I dont even think the price tag of this Tesla is too high, my SUV costs more and I would seriously consider a purchase.

    I have to agree this time with the author here, the cost of charging that thing in california would be far higher than the cost of the gasoline for the same energy and coal or whatever has to be polluting more.

    Still in the end, it looks like a good car, not out of my price range but with the state of california charging a 400% tax on tier 5 electricity use, I am better off with $5 dollar a gallon gasoline than the insane taxes on electricity.

    Electrics will never be mainstream vehicles if the idiot politicians not only continue to tax electricity like they do, their plans to tax electric and hybrids per mile driven will ensure electrics never get anywhere. It is already insane these parasites tax to the point of 75% of the cost of a gallon of gasoline is tax and people scream about this, imagine trying to sell a car to someone and telling them by the way you may save $8000 a year in gasoline but the idiot politicians will be sending a bill of 6000 for each mile you drive.

    It is this government nonsense that will kill any chance for electric cars or any alternative energy source from being developed.

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  2. 2. Robert.Boston 10:12 pm 11/13/2012

    The battery cells are from Panasonic.

    @priddseren: Sensible use of off-peak charging rates in California will keep the cost-per-mile of the Model S well below the cost of gasoline, particularly if you compare this vehicle with comparable German premium sedans, which use premium gas and are lucky to get 20 mpg. The Model S costs about 6 cents/mile, compared to over 25 cents/mile for competitive sedans.

    Regarding pollution: there is no place in America where the Model S is more polluting than a comparable sedan. Even in the Midwest, where nearly all the incremental power is from coal-fired power plants, the relatively high efficiency of those plants coupled with mandatory pollution control equipment are far better than the low efficiency of internal combustion engines–moreover, that pollution is not being dumped into urban centers, where it most directly harms individuals (particularly with small particulate matter). On the coasts, where EV penetration is highest, natural gas is the dominant fuel for electric generation, so the environmental impact is far below the burning of gasoline.

    You note the taxes on electricity, but to my mind the real issue are the tax breaks for oil companies. These set up an uneven playing field for EVs and internal combustion vehicles. Fortunately, current tax policy goes some way towards leveling the field by offering a tax credit for EV purchases.

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  3. 3. electric38 12:07 am 11/14/2012

    Hopefully the push to get solar power on American rooftops will not be totally squashed by the energy powers that be.

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  4. 4. geojellyroll 12:09 am 11/14/2012

    I suppose…if American taxpayers’ don’t mind paying $7,500 subsidy so someone can buy a $50,000 car.

    I understand the subsidy for a Volt, etc. to stimulate the industry, but for a luxury car?

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  5. 5. ejhickey 2:08 am 11/14/2012

    Tesla Motors, Inc. (TSLA)
    reported a wider adjusted loss of $109.6 million or $1.04 per share in
    the third quarter of 2012 compared with the prior-year loss of $105.4
    million or 63 cents. Adjusted loss in the quarter excludes a warrant
    liability of $1.2 million or a penny. The quarterly EPS missed
    the Zacks Consensus Estimate by 6 cents. Meanwhile, on a reported
    basis, loss was $110.8 million or $1.05 per share in the quarter versus a
    loss of $105.6 million or $1.00 per share in the year-ago quarter.

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  6. 6. jerryd 4:11 pm 11/14/2012

    I love this EV and I drive my EV’s every day. But having more tha 100 mile battery range isn’t the best way cost wise.

    Instead a 70-100lb unlimited range generator would be far better and get 80-100mpg in this EV at far lower cost the few times you’d need it. It can stay onboard or rented when needed.

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  7. 7. syzygyygyzys 12:25 am 11/15/2012

    These are really “coal fired” cars. At least to the extent that the electrical power used to charge the batteries is generated by coal fired power plants. Research for yourself what fossil fuel is primarily used to generate power in your locality. If you still want one of the things after realizing that, knock yourself out.

    Electric car manufacturers have a large potential market demographic defined by the majority of voters who just took the pass/fail IQ test of the presidential election. The problem is most in that demographic can never afford an EV. They failed the IQ test.

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  8. 8. Dr. Strangelove 3:47 am 11/15/2012

    The 300 hp Tesla Sports model can beat the legendary Lamborghini Countach in a drag race. But for city driving, 30 hp subcompact electric and compressed-air cars will do.

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  9. 9. phalaris 3:55 am 11/15/2012

    What R. Boston #2 says about pollution and efficiency leaves no other conclusion than that EV technology= battery technology.

    I would guess that for EV’s to be a serious contender, what is needed is with batteries which better the state-of-the-art by at least a factor of 2 or 3, or if you want a car with heating and aircon probably higher.

    Is this going to come? The crock of gold waiting for the firm that gets there is so enticing, I don’t believe it’s because of lack of trying that we’re not there.
    Battery technology is very much a field for the cargo-cultists. Scarcely a week passes, and has passed for the last 50 years, without an announcement of a dramatic new development, which is only missing a few million research dollars to make it to the market.

    If such batteries ever come into existence, every car maker in the globe will be on the bandwagon, and since the rest of the technology is pretty state-of-the-art, the first developers won’t have much of an advantage.

    My conclusion: first catch your hare.

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  10. 10. BBHY 7:16 am 11/15/2012

    Electric cars, solar power and time-of-day metering work together in a synergistic way.

    The pv solar array feeds power into the grid during the day when both demand and the price of electricity is high. You charge the electric car at night when demand and the cost is low.

    When I charge my car using grid power, $3 worth of electricity takes me 100 miles.

    Those who claim that the cars are powered by coal are missing one very important point. Gasoline does not just flow magically out of the ground, fully refined, right at your local filling station. It takes a lot of energy to produce gasoline. Refining is a big part of that.

    In fact, oil refineries are the biggest user of electricity in the US. Producing a gallon of gasoline requires about 3 kWh of electric power. You can drive an electric car 10 miles on that much power.

    So, if electricity comes from coal, then your gasoline also come from coal, and when you are driving a gasoline powered car you are also driving on coal. Then you are burning gasoline on top of that!

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  11. 11. Dr. Strangelove 8:40 pm 11/15/2012

    @phalaris, can’t the 300 hp Tesla electric motor run the aircon? you can run the aircon with 1 hp. Tesla has cheaper energy cost per mile than gasoline cars. the challenge is to make the lithium ion battery cheaper. make smaller motor & smaller battery

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  12. 12. phalaris 3:17 am 11/16/2012

    Dr. Strangelove – obviously power for aircon/heating is going to vary a lot accn. to car size/outside conditions. It could be significant in some everyday scenarios.

    “the challenge is to make…cheaper, smaller..” : exactly my point. But is going to happen? Projections and planning can’t be based on wishful thinking.

    The Tesla is very much fun car, compact and low-weight, which saves on some critical safety things (modern air bags). Yet the battery set costs 38k$. A typical family car will be twice the size…..

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  13. 13. Ross Nicholson 3:27 am 11/16/2012

    My little electric car gets 1000 mpg equivalent. It’s an aerodynamic Quest velomobile with a 500 watt electric motor. Range is just 80 miles, but hey, it cost less than $10,000.

    Link to this

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