This past April, I did it. I plunked down $1,000 to reserve a Tesla Model 3. I’m no millionaire; I run a library. Still, if my calculations are correct, by the time the car is actually available in late 2017 (or more likely 2018), my house will be paid off, and I will be able to afford payments on this $35,000 vehicle.
After all, I paid nearly that much for my beloved Toyota Prius in 2004. Then, it was the height of car technology, with regenerative braking fueling its hybrid battery, dashboard navigation, voice recognition and Bluetooth capability. In my child-rearing years, this was our SUV, one that still gets 40 mpg.
Still, my workhorse has only a few years of carefree life left in it. It has started to creak and leak oil. So the upcoming in troduction of a modestly priced Tesla electric car is perfectly timed. Last year, I had solar panels installed on my 100-year-old California bungalow. What if I could power my new electric car with our home’s solar-generated electricity? (My gosh, if I could make water here in drought-stricken California like I generate power, we could be completely off the grid.)
The Electric Car Is Here … Again
I am old enough to remember the 1996 commercial for the EV1, General Motor’s electric car. (youtube.com/watch?v=wodTinlvlB8). Then, it was amazing to see gadgets come to life and shuffle to the curb to greet the new electric vehicle. Still, by 2003, GM pulled the plug, recalling and destroying all the EV1s.
To be fair, the two-seater EV1 could only go 70 to 90 miles before needing 15 hours of recharging from a standard out let. Also, few mechanics were trained to repair them. So although the car offered breakthrough technology, it lacked the infrastructure support that could have made it practical. Its market spot was taken by hybrids like my Prius, which, up to 20 mph, runs on electricity but then switches to gas at higher speeds.
In 2010, highway-capable EVs (electric vehicles) made a return. Nissan introduced its Leaf (which, ironically, has a similar range to the EV1). The Leaf, which can carry five people, quickly became the bestselling electric car. Other automakers followed, including Ford, with its Focus Electric; Honda, with its Fit EV; BMW; Volkswagen; Toyota; and Kia. Even GM got into the act, creating the Chevy Spark EV, the first electric car it had produced since it destroyed its EV1. Soon, it will produce a new EV called Bolt, which will have a range of about 200 miles per charge.
These electric cars got blown away with the introduction of the Tesla Model S in 2008. The company had released its first car, the Roadster, in 2006. Yet, it was the release of the more “affordable” Model S ($70,000 as opposed to more than $100,000) that earned Tesla its reputation for astonishing performance in an electric vehicle. The car can zoom from 0 to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds. It also has increased range over other EVs with the claim of 200-plus miles on a single charge.
In addition, Tesla is installing charging stations across the nation, making possible the electric car road trip (teslamotors.com/supercharger). Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that he wants to end “range anxiety,” that is, the fear that the car will run out of electricity before it reaches its destination. Tesla’s built-in software knows where the car is and where the chargers are and offers definitive instructions on how to find these stations.
Teslas have other features that make them unique. They have partial autopilot which uses ultrasonic sensors, ra dar, and cameras to keep them from collisions. They can autonomously change lanes and respond to changes in traffic. They can also autonomously parallel park. (I have been driving for 40 years and I still can’t do that very well, so that feature will be welcome.)
Teslas are designed to get smarter as they age because they receive over-the-air (OTA) software updates. For exam ple, in January 2015, Tesla pushed out a software upgrade that shaved one tenth of a second off the starting acceler ation of the Model S (“Tesla Boosts 0-60 Acceleration With Over-the-Air Software Upgrade,” Lucas Mearian, Computerworld, Jan. 30, 2015; computerworld.com/article/2877911/brief-tesla-boosts-0-60-acceleration-with-over-the-air-software-upgrade.html).
The tech upgrades and the infrastructure support that have helped electric cars to become commercially viable, easing carbon emissions, freeing us from our dependence on fossil fuels for transportation, and perhaps even slowing climate change, are truly revolutionary. Even the Los Angeles Police Department recently leased a fleet of 100 electric cars, although they chose BMW’s i3 over the Tesla. And in Norway, the leading political parties have agreed to phase out fuel-powered cars by 2025 (“Norway Has Reportedly Reached a Deal to Ban Gas-powered Car Sales by 2025,” Fri da Garza, Quartz, June 4, 2016; qz.com/699504/norways-political-parties-have-reportedly-reach-a-deal-to-ban-gas-powered-car-sales-by-2025). A future in which vehicles powered by the sun slip silently down our highways may not be far off.
If electric cars are revolutionary, autonomous vehicles are even more so. “If the move to self-driving vehicles is inevitable, then it will be the single biggest change in the relationship between cars and their passengers since the invention of the motor vehicle itself,” writes Consumer Reports columnist Mike Monticello (“The State of the Self-Driving Car,” Mar. 31, 2016; consumerreports.org/self-driving-cars/state-of-the-self-driving-car).
As we have seen, semi-autonomous features on automo biles are available today. Since the early 2000s, some high- end vehicles have been equipped with forward-collision warning (FCW) systems and automatic emergency braking (AEB), which activate when the car detects an impending collision. Although the public is generally unaware of them, these innovations have reduced bodily injury insurance claims by up to 30% and reduced rear-end crashes by about 40% (“Effectiveness of Forward Collision Warning Systems With and Without Autonomous Emergency Braking in Reducing Police-Reported Crash Rates,” Jessica B. Cicchino, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Jan. 2016; iihs.org/frontend/iihs/documents/masterfiledocs.ashx?id=2111). The safety implications are so profound that Consumer Reports has called for this technology to be standard on all vehicles and has declared that it will give higher ratings to cars that have the system (“Car Safety at Any Price,” Michelle Naranjo, Feb. 23, 2016; consumerreports.org/car-safety/car-safety-at-any-price).
It is thought that completely autonomous vehicles will make the roads safer still. It has been noted that human error causes 90% of traffic collisions (“Human Error Accounts for 90% of Road Accidents,” Olivia Olarte, Fleet Alert Magazine, April 2011; alertdriving.com/home/fleet-alert-magazine/internation al/human-error-accounts-90-road-accidents). As driverless cars are introduced and become more numerous, the rate of collisions should fall. To educate lawmakers about the safety benefits of self-driving cars, Volvo, Google, Lyft, Uber, and Ford Motor Co. are forming a coalition called The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets (“Google, Ford, Uber Launch Coalition to Further Self-Driving Cars,” David Shepardson, Thomson Reuters, April 26, 2016; reuters.com/article/us-au tos-selfdriving-idUSKCN0XN1F1). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ruled in February 2015 that the artificial intelligence system piloting a self-driving car could be considered the driver under federal law, which should help autonomous vehicles win government approval.
As self-driving cars proliferate, we may have less need to have a car of our own. What if we could just summon a self-driving Uber or Lyft when we need transportation? In fact, General Motors and Lyft plan to test this scenario within the year with the new EV Bolt (“Lyft and GM to Test Autonomous Chevy Bolts on Public Roads Within 12 Months,” Bob Sorokanich, Car and Driver, May 6, 2016; blog.caranddriver.com/lyft-and-gm-to-test-autonomous-chevy-bolts-on-public-roads-within-12-months). This may well put ride-sharing drivers out of work. Still, a self-driving taxi relieves riders from having to make small talk on the road back from the airport.