Even though I studied mechanical engineering, it’d be fair to say I’m not much of a car nut. I was pretty happy driving a Toyota Yaris for a year and a half in Sydney (possibly the most uncool company car you could imagine) and I’m now the proud owner of a Pontiac Vibe (which probably lowered most of my construction working friends opinion of me by about five points) because it’s a) not 4WD, b) weighs less than 1500kg, and c) does better than 10MPG in fuel efficiency.
However – getting the chance to test drive a top of the line electric vehicle – the Tesla Model S P85D – was something I was pretty excited about. This is a seriously cool car – it retails at around $105,000 new, has dual electric motors, an 85kWh battery pack (corresponding to a 250mile range) and is basically an updated model of the Model S – which was recently voted 2013 Car of the Year by Motor Trend Magazine – high praise indeed.
It’s unbelievably easy to get a test drive set up – I jumped online, entered some contact details, and got a phone call from a rep the next day. He asked me a few quick questions about my interest in the vehicle, what I’m currently driving, whether I was looking to purchase in the next six months – all pretty standard stuff. He then let me choose my best time and location over the weekend, and I was good to go. Since I was in Santa Cruz for the weekend, I opted for a Sunday morning drive in Monterey, just 30 minutes down the coast.
The test drive itself was, in a word, unreal. From top to bottom, the car is awesome – there’s a bunch of cool features – like retractable door handles, which open as you approach with the key (the ‘dongle’ as the Tesla rep Josiah called it), or the 17” touch screen which acts as the control centre for the car. Because there’s no internal combustion motor, there’s ample storage room in the front of the car under the hood, and as the battery pack runs underneath the chassis, the boot space is also huge. Everything is electric – from the seat adjustments to the mirror placement, and you can set a ‘profile’ via the touch screen ,which stores all your settings and at the touch of a button will reset to them.
Once I was inside and seated, the car is switched ‘on’ by simply tapping on the brake – there’s no ignition per se – the dashboard just lights up and you’re ready to go. And this is where the real fun starts.
We headed out of the store and down Highway 1 to the south. This is a beautifully scenic route in its own right, but I was way too caught up in the car to pay attention to the scenery. The handling on the Tesla is exceptional – a big part of that being the fact that the centre of gravity is so low due to the placement of the battery – and the speed of the car is phenomenal. An electric motor has a huge advantage over an internal combustion engine (ICE) – it can create instantaneous torque, which means some seriously rapid acceleration. On the P85D, this translates to a maximum acceleration from 0-60mph in approximately 3.2 seconds. The tech geeks at Tesla have actually specified the setting that lets you achieve this as ‘Insane Mode’ – pumping out 691HP – compared to ‘Sport Mode’ which is ‘only’ 416HP.
Now, once again, I’m no car nut, and even though I had the lofty boyhood dream of growing up to be a drag racer on the streets of Hamilton, I’m a pretty tame driver – no speeding tickets on my record… But when we reached our first clear straight, and Josiah told me to slow to a stop and then floor it, I was only too happy to oblige.
This is one of those things you have to experience to believe – it’s like trying to describe to someone how dropping down a rollercoaster feels like, or taking off on a passenger jet – quite simply, a feeling I never thought I’d have on the open road. It was way too much fun to only try once, so we spent the next five minutes practicing anything but smooth driving – slowing down to a crawl, flooring it up to 80-100mph, getting scared and letting the regenerative braking systems do their thing and pull me back to a more manageable speed… and then doing it all again!
Once I’d wiped the grin off my face, Josiah then showed me a few other cool features – the autopilot mode, where you can set a following distance to the car in front of you, and sensors on the car will maintain the specified separation (via automatic cruise control) without you lifting a finger. We spoke about how since everything is electronically controlled and tied in via the internet, there are software improvements released on a regular basis – some improve the efficiency of the vehicle through new control systems, others will enhance features such as the autopilot, others will add apps to the control centre. He explained the supercharger network, which is a network of high voltage DC charging stations dotted throughout the US on major highways – and can provide a charge of approximately 160miles within 20-30 minutes.
Although the drive was only around 30 minutes long, it was a seriously impressive experience – zero salesmanship or purchasing pressure, just a showcase of what could (and should) be a big part of the future of transportation.
“I would argue that Tesla has already changed the world. If we had to close our doors tomorrow, we will still have had a major impact, because people have seen that it is possible to build a very impressive electric vehicle now, and that wasn’t clear a few years ago. I’d argue that we’ve been very influential even if the roads aren’t full of Tesla vehicles.” – Craig Carlson, Tesla Motors
In many ways, this is what I find most interesting – although the Tesla Model S is well outside most average consumers price range, the incredible success and publicity that the company has generated has put a real shock (excuse the pun) through the car industry. As more and more manufacturers design and release electric vehicles (EVs), charging networks become more common, and policy begins to take effect to enhance circulation, the clear benefits of the technology will become apparent.
The wide ranging benefits of a large scale shift to EVs are huge – beyond the obvious reduction in fossil fuel usage, they also have the capacity to provide a significant energy storage source. One of the challenges of a electricity grid with high renewable infiltration is obviously the variability of these resources – the sun isn’t always shining, nor is the wind always blowing. If EV’s become widespread, and are hooked into the grid whenever they’re not in use (ie when you’re at work or idle at home) then you effectively have a large storage system in place, which with the right technology could be used as a distributed storage resource to help minimize the peaks and troughs throughout the day – thereby stabilizing the grid.
The beauty of this isn’t lost on guys like Elon Musk, who along with running Tesla, is on the board at SolarCity, the most successful residential solar installation company in the US with approximately 200,000 customers to date. He’s a remarkable guy, with some visionary plans – and the TedTalk below is well worth a watch to see his perspectives on some of the challenges that we all face going forward.
In the meantime, if you’re in the US and are at all interested, I highly recommend you jump across to the Tesla site and see if you can get a drive arranged in your location – even if you’re not interested in the wider reaching side of things, it’s a pretty great experience… and maybe a little glimpse of the future.