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  May/June 2007
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Sierra Magazine
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Innovators: Powered by Pragmatism
Can a car that's easy on the planet be fast and stylish?
by Reed McManus
May/June 2007

YOU PROBABLY WON'T BE ABLE TO AFFORD a Tesla electric car anytime soon, and Tesla Motors cofounder and CEO Martin Eberhard is fine with that. At $92,000 per vehicle, the sleek sports car, which rockets from 0 to 60 in four seconds and goes 250 miles between charges, seems like yet another toy for the rich. Though the first copies won't roll off the assembly line at the famous U.K. Lotus factory until later this year, 325 Tesla Roadsters have already been ordered by the likes of actor George Clooney and Jeff Skoll, former president of online auction site eBay.

From Eberhard's perspective, he's merely taking the long route to your garage. "If you want to be successful, you don't make cars that have no appeal," he says. "You won't change the world that way." To prove his point, he pulls out a thick binder full of print advertisements for ugly-duckling--and largely unknown--electric cars that have been sold over the years. "These cars are for people who don't want to drive!" he exclaims, pointing to what looks like a yellow milk crate on wheels. "It smells of Marxism!" The low-slung, two-seat Tesla Roadster exudes capitalism. It will turn heads as quickly as any top-of-the-line Porsche or BMW and match those road demons when the stoplight turns green. And it does so while getting the equivalent of 135 miles per gallon, costing about one cent a mile to run.

So why not make a Tesla affordable to those of us without personal assistants to pay our utility bills? Starting with a high-end model is the most practical way to go, says Eberhard. "We decided to make the best electric car we could and see where the price fell." Not only does he want to erase the dowdy image of electric cars once and for all, but also "the car has to sell itself." A small automaker relying on sophisticated electronics and batteries--and contracting the actual car-building to another firm--can't match the economies of scale of General Motors (GM), which pumps out more than 4 million vehicles for sale in the United States each year. Pointing out that now-common technologies like DVD recorders and flat-screen TVs began as top-end products, Eberhard has his eyes on the future. His current buyers may be "gearheads with dollars," but he's already planning a four-door sedan that will be ready as early as 2009 and will cost half the price of the Roadster (partly because it will be built in Tesla's own factory in Albuquerque, New Mexico). A Tesla in the $30,000 range is five to ten years off, he says.

Electric cars make perfect sense to Eberhard, an electrical engineer who has spent his career in the innovative stew of Silicon Valley. (In 2000, he sold his electronic-book company, NuvoMedia, for $187 million; a noncompetition clause forced him to look into other sectors for his next project, and he chose transportation.) Eberhard balks at the inherent inefficiencies of gasoline-powered vehicles and even gas-electric hybrids. "When you look at the energy it takes to get crude oil from the oil well to your tank to drive ten miles," he says, "electric cars are dramatically the best choice." In addition, he says, "electric cars are the ultimate multi-fuel vehicles. You can use natural gas to generate the electricity. You can burn coal. If you don't want any part of that, you can use wind power or put solar panels on your roof."

With no ties to Detroit, Eberhard plucked ideas from the tech sector. The lithium ion batteries that power the Roadster are the same ones used in laptop computers. They have high "energy density," meaning that they can store more energy for their size or weight than other rechargeable batteries, such as the nickel metal hydride batteries that restricted the driving range of the GM EV1 electric vehicle to 100 to 130 miles. (Fans of the defunct EV1 point out that most drivers don't travel that many miles per day, but U.S. buyers expect their vehicles--especially if they're as pricey as electric cars are today--to be available for long trips without risk of stranding their owners. Eberhard's pragmatic response: "Why try to change human nature?")

A network of computers in the Roadster manages nearly 7,000 "Li-ion" batteries to propel the car. Attentive to news reports of Sony's worldwide recall of potentially flammable lithium laptop batteries, Tesla wraps each battery so that if one were to ignite, the others would remain safe. "All you will see is a check-engine light," says Eberhard. (And, he adds, Tesla doesn't use Sony batteries.) Lithium ion batteries provide an added bonus: Unlike older batteries, they lack heavy metals and are classified by the U.S. government as "landfill safe"--but since they're valuable to recyclers, Tesla will recycle them for buyers. Eventually, Eberhard says, banks of lithium ion batteries will be cheap enough that any car buyer could afford an electric vehicle, and advanced enough that they'll go 500 miles before needing to be recharged.

Prompted by concerns about global warming, the rising cost of oil, and the national-security implications of our dependence on foreign energy supplies, consumers are clamoring to learn more about fossil-fuel-free energy. "And that," Eberhard says, in a way that sounds nothing like a starry-eyed tree hugger and everything like an engineer who has devoted his career to making things run more efficiently, "is good for the world."


Photo by Robert Houser; used with permission.

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