Palo Alto, to some it paints a picture of sunny beaches and Californian life. Others though, associate it as home to the who’s who of the technology industry. Its illustrious occupants already included Stanford University and Xerox’s iconic Palo Alto Research Center, and soon attracted other giants such as HP, while today it serves as an incubator to many more from Facebook to Google, who all are based in or around Palo Alto. Some go so far as to say, you haven’t made it big in the tech industry till you don’t have a facility here.
So it’s with some cynicism that people looked at a car manufacturer setting shop in these environs. One, many geeks look at the automobile industry as an archaic behemoth of a bygone era, and two, “Whatever was wrong with Detroit, the mecca of American automobile manufacturing?” But then the product CEO Elon Musk is manufacturing is nothing like the stuff rolling out of Detroit. For starters it does not work on gasoline/diesel, heck it does not even have an engine! And to make Palo Alto proud, software is at the heart of making this baby turn its wheels. Presenting everyone – drum roll – Tesla.
I know, most of you reading this might be saying, “Was all this buildup for this strangely named, yet mundane looking sports car?” Yes the car does have an unglamorous and super nerdy name (Tesla is the unit of magnetic flux density), and does not fit into any grand sci-fi vision with hidden wings or bayonets, but it’s about as far from today’s vehicles as the internal combustion was to steam engines. To use the Palo Alto analogy again, its driven by exactly the same sources that drives the millions of servers – electricity.
“Well another electric car, hmph! I’ve had enough of the Toyota Prius, and that’s hardly worked wonders.” Ok so first the Prius is a hybrid, meaning it still needs to burn fuel to drive and to charge its batteries, which only ‘aid’ the engine to enhance its fuel efficiency. Tesla however, make cars with no engines, and which can be charged from your home power socket. Their first product the Tesla Roadster smashed many records for (practical) electric cars, having a top speed of 201 km/h (0-100 in 3.7 seconds) and boasting a range of 400 km on a single charge (at lower speeds of course). Those are figures to do any vehicle proud, but better still, these are not some crazy test figures, the car is a finished product you can go and buy, if you have around $120,00 to spare.
At that price though it remains a rich man’s toy, and that’s not enough to cause any radical change in the industry. Musk understands this and hence is working on his epochal product, the Tesla Model S. This will be the company’s offering to average Joe, seating between 5 to 7, and which, after subsidies ($7500 by the federal govt in US and a further $2500 by the state of California) should be priced around $50,000. That fits it perfectly in the range of mass luxury sedans (5 series or E class) and should appeal to a larger populace.
The company is parallelly also working on a SUV option, though Musk agrees that the Model S is his make or break product. This has to succeed for Tesla to survive and prepare for the future. The hurdles are many. Setting up a car manufacturing unit is infinitely more complex than an internet startup and the costs involved are astronomical. Then there is the lack of a supplier base and high dependence on third-party products to complete the design. Biggest challenge though, is the lack of a worthy power source – batteries.
Right from laptop to mobile phones, manufacturers of various products bemoan the constraints of current battery technology and single it out as a major limiter to their product’s performance. Now for a product that has batteries at its heart and its single defining feature, that’s a big problem. Current batteries are heavy, store insufficient charge (which means more are required and hence more weight) and need to be replaced periodically (less charge means more charging cycles and earlier replacements).
Thankfully some smart innovation at Tesla has squeezed enough out of the lithium-ion stacks to make them car viable. Jeffery Straubel, Tesla’s CTO, believes battery manufacturers are upgrading fast will eventually catch up, especially if the sales number justify the product. “Between the time we did Roadster and Model S, the batteries have improved by about 40%,” he says. “That’s a pretty big number. That’s about four years.Engines don’t drop in size by half in a few years. It doesn’t happen. It’s almost like the properties of steel are changing year by year.”
Even if the car is a success and does set the niche rolling, personally I don’t think its THE (permanent) solution. Those words you read of Electric Vehicles (EVs) being the ‘holy grail’ are more propaganda than fact. Firstly, the claim that these are ‘zero emission’ vehicles is marketing lingo at best and a blatant lie at worst. EVs do cause emissions, just that it’s shifted from the tailpipes to the chimneys of the power producing plants elsewhere. So while it might look ‘clean’ with the conspicuous lack of a tailpipe, it’s not a self-sustaining vehicle.
Supporters of the technology claim that its easier to implement and control fuel saving technologies at huge power plants than each vehicle, and that those plants work at far higher efficiencies than the most economical of the internal combustion engines in our cars. Further the energy supplied to your homes (and being fed into Teslas) can be hedged into renewable sources like wind, solar, tidal etc., and thus add to the green credentials of the car.
All the above is true and an electric car will always be greener compared to its fuel driven brethren (including the hybrids), but all I want to bring out is that these cars are not the final solution to the automobile industry’s (and in fact the world’s) fuel crisis. Nor will they protect the consumer long from rising fuel bills, as eventually electricity meters will start charging more and more, with the ever-increasing number of electric devices introduced in the world at an astonishing pace.
But electric cars can do a lot of good. If these vehicles gain a modicum of popularity they immediately loosen the burdens on the oil wells (maybe even bring oil prices down to justifiable rates) and the benefit of hedging electricity production methods are mentioned above. More importantly though, the car can provide a huge impetus to investments in battery technology and research on renewables. Once people start driving on electricity, companies will be forced to invest in the associated technologies and that can only help the planet.
However the most significant benefit of the Tesla would be the time it buys for scientists to come out with the ‘car of the future’. Currently all fingers point to ‘fuel cells’ which use hydrogen as fuel (the most abundantly available element on earth) and mix it with oxygen (sucked in from the air), producing electricity and (clean drinkable) water. Note that here too the driving force is (battery-powered) electricity, only the production now is confined within the vehicle and is truly 100% emission free (well clean water is an emission which am sure we all can live with).
So as consumers buy electric vehicles (not only cars mind you), fuel dependence reduces, associated technologies boost, and therefore researchers working on fuel cells and administrators working on hydrogen production and distribution all get a breather to work under less pressure. All of this while the ecological footprint of the automobile industry reduces with every passing day. So Tesla (or the EV) while not being the life saviour many hail it as, can certainly be a life changer – for the good.
And for this very reason I do hope and pray the courageous venture does fructify. Tesla will need support from many quarters, politicians being the first. No electric vehicle currently can match the mass-produced fuel versions on price. Internal combustion industry has had a 100 year head start to refine their processes and a billion strong market for economy of scale. Therefore government subsidies will have to support the product in its infancy.
Also there has to be some commitment from the traditional manufacturers. They have to see these cars not as the enemy, but as the next evolution in their history. Few manufacturers (Daimler and Toyota in particular) have joined hands with Tesla and provided support in various forms, but large-scale involvement remains a dream. Then is the contribution required of Palo Alto’s finest – software. Thankfully here, good progress seems to be made and with the globe’s current fascination of all things IT, software should be one of the strong points of the Model S.
“Here’s to creating the greatest car company of the 21st century, and to moving us off fucking oil as fast as possible,” said an enthusiastic Musk to his employees as he celebrated moving to the glorious environs of California in 2010. Probably 102 years ago Henry Ford would have launched the Model T with equal alacrity; and the car did go on to immortalise him in the automobile pantheon. Elon Musk will be hoping that if his similarly named model can be fractionally as successful, he could be revered far more. Not only as the man who gave the world a path breaking product, but as the one who gave the planet a new lease of life.