I didn’t really think Tesla would be successful … but I thought that we’d at least address the false perception that electric cars had to be ugly and slow and boring like a golf cart.
— Elon Musk, 60 Minutes interview
It wasn’t long ago that Tesla was annoying Hollywood celebrities with buggy versions of its Roadster, and conservatives were ridiculing the government’s worthless investment in Fisker. Electric vehicles are either slow and wimpy or can hardly run at all, critics said, and the U.S. Treasury is being taken for a ride. EV apologists had a hard time coming up with a retort back then.
Once the Model S P85 came zooming down the road, auto journalists and drivers began to bite their tongues. By 2015, Tesla has become the standard for automobiles running on electricity or gasoline, a company that managed to transform the auto industry and the way we think about transportation in the 21st century. All it took was the sexiest car that ever made a claim to zero emissions driving.
Oil or bust
Tesla Motors was founded in 2003, the year the U.S. invaded Iraq and one year after General Motors began production of its tank-like Hummer H2. By most estimations, oil seemed like it had a safe future in American transportation. The last electric vehicle in memory, GM’s EV1, had already made its way to the scrapyard.
More than a decade later, the visionaries behind Tesla have a $25 billion company on their hands and a plan to reach the mass market with cars that drastically reduce emissions when compared to gasoline-powered vehicles. Design excellence earned the Model S its rave reviews and die-hard consumer base, but the genesis of Tesla is inextricably linked to the environmental conservation movement.
You just might not realize it driving a car with 691 horsepower.
Plugging in American muscle
If you want to get a car guy’s attention, show him a rear-wheel-drive ride that can blast to 60 miles per hour in four seconds. The original Model S P85 managed this feat using 420 horsepower and close to 450 pounds-feet of torque. But this car was far more than a muscle-bound lug.
When Consumer Reports awarded Tesla its highest quality score ever (99), the publication raved about its handling, acceleration, comfort, and technology. It was a powerful sedan without equivalent that just happened to be electric. Once Motor Trend named it Car of the Year in 2013 and the NHTSA gave it a 5-star safety rating, the reputation of the Model S was established for good. The new all-wheel-drive model with 691 horsepower is just an exclamation point.
While it might seem obvious that an electric vehicle would have to be equal to or better than gasoline cars on the market, EVs before the Model S always compromised on various counts (generally on performance, range, and styling). Tesla was the first to make an EV that was better than a range-topping Mercedes while doing it without the tailpipe.
Was it zero emissions? Since the electricity must come from a power plant, claims of zero emissions are disingenuous on some levels. That is, until the next phase of Tesla’s plans comes to fruition.
The path to zero emissions
The only way for an automobile to be “zero emissions” is to power a drivetrain without fossil fuels. In February, Tesla opened its first solar-powered Supercharger station in California, eliminating the last hurdle in what is the company’s very green crusade. With photovoltaic cells collecting energy from the sun and restoring power to the Model S, the road to zero emissions driving is fully paved.
To read the Wall Street Journal or watch 60 Minutes, it is easy to think of Tesla as a sexy automobile company that makes millions for investors and has no relation to the environment. With solar Superchargers in place and a mass-market sedan on the drawing board, Tesla is poised to radically change ground transportation into a sustainable model.
You only need to see GM’s electric concept to understand just how profound an impact Tesla has had on the auto industry. When was the last time you saw a Hummer? GM might not be scrapping them like they did their EV1, but we have entered a new era of automobiles that will make the H2 obsolete.
Sure, the rides taking their place are pure electric. They’re just not slow and boring like a golf cart. Or ugly and polluting like a Hummer. Any car enthusiast or thinking person concerned about emissions has Tesla to thank for that.