I’m riding in a red Tesla Model S, the stunning all-electric vehicle from PayPal founder Elon Musk, and realize that this is less a car than a piece of philosophy. In a world beset by environmental pessimism, where many believe we must lower our expectations, downsize our lives, and adjust to the notion that tomorrow will be worse off than today, Tesla offers a rip-roaring, 120-mph riposte. It turns out we can have it all.
Automobiles have been praised and cursed as everything from a manifestation of freedom and individual choice to the source of community destruction and the shredding of social bonds. But one thing is certain: The internal combustion engines that power them consume gasoline or diesel, and for every gallon they consume, about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates transportation is responsible for 29 percent of all manmade CO2 emissions. Magically eliminate that, and you’d go an awful long way to solving the problem of global climate change.
The electric car is potentially that magic. Some naysayers argue electric propulsion just pushes the problem upstream: If the power plants used to make electricity burn oil, then there’s no real environmental benefit at all. But most states have a mix of energy sources, many far less polluting. In Massachusetts, for instance, where about 54 percent of electricity comes from natural gas, an electric car driven 40 miles would in effect emit 14.8 pounds of CO2. A conventional car emits 35.3 pounds. And if we were someday to move entirely to renewable sources, of course, the electric car would account for no CO2 whatsoever.
Hence the interest in electric vehicles and their enthusiastic support from many, including the Obama administration. Nevertheless, the first models to be rolled out, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt, were disappointing. With a small range (about 75 miles on a charge) and cramped interiors, they couldn’t be counted on as the principal family car. They felt uninspired and a little bleak.
The Tesla, however, is thrilling. It looks like a sports car, screams luxury, and is outfitted with a myriad of gee-whiz features, including an enormous touch screen that eliminates almost all buttons and knobs. The interior is spacious, holding five adults easily and, with an optional rear-facing seat, another two children — seven passengers in all. Pop the hood and instead of an engine — there is none, since it uses no gasoline — there’s just space for luggage. The performance blows away other cars: from zero to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. It also has a range of up to 300 miles and can be recharged in about an hour.
How good is it really? Consumer Reports gave the Model S a score of 99 out of 100 — saying it was “not only the best electric car we’ve tested, it’s now our top-rated model overall.” It was also named by Motor Trend as Car of the Year for 2013. Ignore the environmental benefits and it’s still the best car in the world.
On the other hand, it costs anywhere from $62,400 to $87,400 — and that’s after a federal tax credit of $7,500. So I’m not buying it. My guess is, neither are you.
So why the enthusiasm for something priced so far out of the reach of almost every American? Maybe for the same reason that the first computers were so exciting. The original IBM PC, using an operating system developed by a little-known company called Microsoft, sold for $1,565 in 1982 — over $4,400 in today’s dollars. That price was also ridiculously high. But the potential of that technology launched a revolution, one that eventually made computers affordable to almost everyone. Today, for instance, a vastly superior machine — the Chromebook — can be had for under $200.
Last quarter Tesla only sold 4,750 cars — a trivial amount compared to the entire automobile industry. Yet as I sit in the Tesla S, the ride whisper-quiet, the car effortlessly gliding around sharp turns, I’m reminded of that first PC. Tesla may well be about to spark a revolution of its own.