Since 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