Electricity is like sex: companies making electric cars have no compunction about lying about it. I’ve got a number of electric motorcycles and bicycles. They all have the same lithium ion battery and they all promise 60 to 70 miles on
a charge. They actually get about 27.5 miles because if you drive the way you normally would – wide open throttle, zipping from one light to another – you use electricity.
It’s even a problem when you’re not driving hard. On the entry ramp to the freeway, you’re accelerating and your gauge goes 60-40-30 and all of a sudden you’ve got 12 miles left. Then it comes back up. But it creates that greatest fear in electric car drivers: range anxiety. It’s why I have always prefered hybrids such as my Chevy Volt, with which I am now at 22,000 miles and I’ve used maybe 18 gallons of gas.
I’ve recently driven a few electric cars that show the future looks more positive. The Fiat 500 is impressive. It’s priced competitively with the gas car and it has a lot of technology. And it’s very fast. For a city car it’s pretty brilliant. I don’t like these electric cars that are essentially glorified golf carts.
But the car that really impressed me was the Tesla S. I drove it for two days and I couldn’t use all the electricity that was in it. I didn’t need to. It’s got a range of 300 miles, and that’s with air conditioning and stereo and lights. At the dawn of the electric car, if you ran the air conditioner or had the headlights on there was a compromise because you were using power.
The Tesla is about the same size as the Jag XJ. As much as I love my supercharged XJ, if I use it on a daily basis I’m looking at about 60 to 80 bucks a week in gas. Whereas with the Tesla S, you charge it up two, maybe three times a week, and the charge is about the same price as roasting a turkey.
I found it incredibly fast: 0-60 in about four seconds, top speed about 130mph. We did a tongue-in-cheek burn-out on the video for my website and that seems to have got the most attention because people are stunned that it’s possible in an electric car. How does it do that? Is it that powerful? Is it that fast?
The real key to the Tesla and Fiat is that the batteries are heated and cooled. Batteries like to run at 74ºF. Electric cars that don’t heat or cool the battery are at a disadvantage because, in winter cold or summer heat, your range is cut in half. Some electric cars have another advantage: let’s say your car is in the parking lot, you press the button on your app and it turns on the heater or air conditioning so when you come down your car is at whatever temperature you want. It’s like driving a giant iPhone.
The interesting thing about the Tesla is that it’s all bespoke. It’s not using someone else’s frame (unlike the Tesla Roadster). It’s as practical as a big Audi or an S-Class and yet it uses no gas at all. It deliberately looks like a mature four-door sedan. That’s clever marketing – I don’t think anybody wants to be singled out as driving some space-age machine. It carries five people, seven if you put two kids in the back. Because of its flat floor the center of gravity is lower and the coefficient of drag is 0.24. That’s amazing.
There is no engine noise of any kind, so you’d be more aware of dashboard squeaks and all that, but there aren’t any. Since it’s meant to compete with the Audi and the Jag, it has the electric trunk lid, the electric, heated seats, and all the things you would expect of a car in that price range. Plus, it’s a brand new company, made in America, by Americans. I find that to be somewhat patriotic, and fascinating.
The Tesla’s 300-mile range is good but, to further reassure drivers, the company is putting charging stations around the country. Say with a 300-mile range you could just about make it to Las Vegas. But when you get to Barstow they will give you a fast charge, which takes about half an hour and gives you about 150 miles – and it’s free. They’re using solar panels in the desert to charge your battery.
I liken that to when Mercedes-Benz first introduced the diesel here in America in the 1960s and no American cars ever had diesel. They would give you something that looked like a little phone book with a list of every diesel station in the United States. So no matter where you were, you would look up your area and find the nearest place to fill up.
I think they’ve delivered a few hundred of these Teslas already, so the likelihood of success is pretty good. There’s a lot of technology packed in there and it just looks like the next generation. They’ve solved the problem with electric cars.