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Tesla: The Supergeek’s Supercar

NikolaTeslaBack in the 1880s, electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla tinkered around with using an AC motor to power vehicles. For some reason, the idea didn’t catch on the way his fellow inventor Thomas Edison’s lightbulb did, and cars kept mostly running on fossil fuels for another century while gaslights faded into the past. Tesla’s electrical car was sidelined into the realms of fiction, along with his ideas for wireless electricity transmission and death rays (yep, he’s the original “mad scientist who’s developed a death ray” beloved of sci-fi, superhero cartoons and steampunk, AND he predicted mobile phones). However, concerns about peak oil led to the ideas being dusted off again and considered seriously.  Was it possible for electric cars to be feasible for everyday use? Could people invent a battery that would hold enough charge to power a car over more than just a few kilometres? Oh yes – and can electric cars be cool rather than geeky and boring?

Enter Tesla Motors, a company founded in 2003 with the long-term goal of making mass-market electric vehicles that could provide the fossil fuel market with some serious competition. The Tesla Roadster proved that an electric car could indeed deliver the goods, combining style and performance with purely electric motors. The Roadster was the first purely electric car to have a battery range of 320 km per charge. This award-winning design made the cover of Time magazine in 2006 and proved hugely popular in the USA. The Roadster had a 0–60 mph time of 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 165 km/h, which is more than the legal road limit (and what else would you want anyway)? Its styling was very classy indeed and used carbon fibre throughout for the bodywork.

TEsla RoadsterThe Roadster is no longer listed on the Tesla Motors website. Three sedans have taken the Roadster’s place: the Model S, the Model X and the Model 3, which are very boring and ordinary names for cars that are anything but boring and ordinary: the Model S, for example, has a 0–100 time of 3.0 seconds (performance variant) and will do so without the engine roar typical of its petrol-powered peers doing the same thing.  They are an idea whose time has come – unfortunately too late for Nikola Tesla, who died in poverty in 1943 in spite of his brilliance and many inventions (he sold his patents).

Tesla Motors is the brainchild of a Canadian entrepreneur with the delightful name of Elon Musk. Tesla is not his only breakthrough invention: he’s also one of the team who created PayPal, the man behind the SpaceX non-governmental space exploration organisation (the one that’s thinking about the Mars colony) and tons of other high-tech ideas, including SolarCity, which produces low-cost solar panels to reduce dependence on fossil fuels even further. He is the owner of the famous aquatic Lotus Esprit that appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me and has strong opinions on keeping a lid on artificial intelligence, in spite of owning an AI company.

Of course, with any vehicle, you’re going to have to think about how you’ll make sure it’s got what it takes to move, whether you have to top it up with electricity, petrol or diesel. One of the big barriers to the widespread use of purely electric vehicles is the problem of recharging the battery. You thought recharging your mobile phone was bad! This infrastructure problem is a hurdle that has to be overcome with any new fuel or power source type. With electrical vehicles, there’s also the problem that many generators run on fossil fuel, which means that this technology isn’t quite as green as you thought it might have been. However, the boffins are working on improving ways to get electricity without burning fossil fuel and coal (like Elon Musk’s SolarCity power project mentioned above), so let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Tesla models can be charged with enough juice in the battery (OK, I’ll spare you the science lesson about electrical potential energy) to last them 270 km. At Tesla’s specific supercharger stations, this charging process takes about 30 minutes, which is quicker than charging my mobile phone when it’s run flat. You plug it in, head off to the shops, then come back when you get a notification via the Tesla charging app. Tesla vehicles can also be topped up with charge at “destination charging stations”, which are businesses (e.g. shops, cinemas, etc.) that have a compatible charger

Three Tesla models are available for sale in Australia today. Most of these are likely to be sold in Victoria and New South Wales, as these are the states which have Tesla-specific “supercharger” charging stations available. Most of these charging stations are located strategically along the M31 highway between Melbourne and Sydney, and another is located up in Port Macquarie. Destination charging is also available in all states except Northern Territory (most of the Top End misses out – sorry, Darwin and Cairns!). For those interested in a test drive, the showrooms are located in Sydney and Melbourne.

It’s true that purely electric cars have a long way to go until they are as popular as petrol/diesel cars, mostly for infrastructure reasons. However, given the way that hybrid vehicles have caught on, we are likely to see more pure electric cars such as the ground-breaking Tesla, gliding around Australian roads. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the Toyota Prius was a real novelty by being a production hybrid; now just about every car manufacturer is putting out hybrids. Now if we can just solve the problem of making sure that we’ve got enough sustainably produced electricity (i.e. if we don’t end up having to use fossil-fuel fired power generators to meet the electricity needs of heaps of hybrid and electric vehicles), all will be very well indeed.