"The recession nearly killed the old Detroit, but it had been in decline for decades. Now a bunch of new Californian carmakers, technology companies and investors that think they can do things better: that they can build cars in America "
Reason One: It’s all going to be okay…
The magnificently-named former OPEC leader Sheikh Yamani pointed out to his colleagues decades ago that the stone age didn’t end for lack of stone: his point was that mankind wouldn’t wait until we ran out of oil to find something better. And at the risk of sounding like an unreconstructed Thatcherite there’s a good chance the free market will sort this one out. Finding viable alternatives to fossil fuels isn’t just good for the environment: because we need to replace conventional cars and their infrastructure, the companies that crack this could end up as big as Toyota and BP combined. That’s quite some motivation.
Reason two: There are some big brains on the case…
The major car companies have tasked their smartest engineers with saving their bacon. More promisingly, a lot of the guys who made billions during the technology and dot-com booms are investing in ‘clean-tech’ firms, including electric car companies. People like 38 year-old Elon Musk, who made two dot-com fortunes by his early thirties and now, in addition to designing the rockets built by his own space-exploration firm, designs and builds electric cars at Tesla, where he is CEO and the largest shareholder.
Reason three: The Tesla Roadster
Speaking of Musk, his Tesla Roadster alone is a reason to be cheerful about the future, and proof that we won’t be condemned to driving glorified electric golf-carts. The Roadster is absurdly, shockingly fast; so much so that it’s hard not to drive it like a complete arse, booting it every time a gap opens in the traffic just to feel that bizarre silent-slingshot sensation again.
The sensation of acceleration is increased by a factor of three; firstly by the fact that an electric motor makes all of its torque available instantly. Second, there’s that single-speed transmission, which makes the acceleration seamless and relentless. And lastly there’s the lack of noise. The worry most frequently expressed by car nuts over electric propulsion is the lack of an engine note, but you soon realize that silence is one of this car’s greatest assets, making the supernatural speed seem even weirder.
Reason four: smugness
Yes, the Tesla Roadster is eye-wateringly expensive at around £100,000 depending on spec. But you can’t put a value on the intense sense of smugness that comes from knowing that you’re driving the first electric supercar, that unlike every other car around it, its performance comes with no environmental penalty, and that the investment you’ve made will accelerate electric cars that everyone can afford. Frankly, the smugness alone justifies the price tag.
Reason five: they will get cheaper
The big mistake the big carmakers made with electric cars the last time around was to try to make them mass-market from day one. Doh. Tech doesn’t work that way, as guys like Elon Musk know all too well. Think back to the early days of television or mobile phones; they were expensive and frankly a bit crap, but bought by eager early-adopters desperate for the latest thing and unconcerned by price. Their money funded the development and economies of scale that gave us TVs and mobiles we could all afford. Electric cars are going the same way, so don’t be resentful at how much the Tesla costs.
Reason six: the Opel Ampera
Also known as the Chevy Volt or the Vauxhall Ampera, depending on where you buy it, this plug-in hybrid gives a range of at least 25 miles on electric power alone. Sounds pathetic, but it’s enough for the daily needs of around 80 per cent of drivers. By keeping the battery size down you keep the cost down too, and if you need to drive further there’s a petrol engine, so you can drive it like a ‘normal’ car. Smart? The big carmakers all seem to think so; expect plug-ins from Toyota, BMW and just about everyone else before long.
Reason seven: it works
I just got back from a few days driving a Tesla Roadster around LA. At first I was mildly terrified at the idea of running out of charge in the middle of gangland in a £100,000 bright orange sports car. It’s called ‘range anxiety’, and electric car makers know it’s one of the most important hurdles they have to overcome. But by opportunistically topping up wherever I stopped, I don’t think the batteries ever got below half-charge. It was easy, and as more electric cars appear on the roads, charge points will be even easier to find; electricity isn’t exactly in short supply.
Reason eight: never having to stop for gas again
So petrol prices are at an all-time high again. Drive an electric car and you just won’t care; you’ll cruise silently past the BP and Shell signs, oblivious to the ever-larger numbers they display, the whole garish edifice looking as outdated and redundant as the stone horse-watering troughs you still occasionally see by the side of the road. And why are we so attached to filling up with petrol anyway? It’s a staggeringly miserable experience: cold, greasy forecourts, stinky bogs, terrible food and attendants so bored they just can’t be bothered to make eye contact with their customers any more. That, or waking up to a fully-charged electric car every morning? Umm…
Reason nine: some things won’t change
Think green cars will liberate us from our dangerous dependence on natural resources buried deep underground in politically unstable or unfriendly states? Think again. As we become increasingly dependent on lithium-ion batteries – not just for mobiles and laptops but for car power too – demand for lithium will spike. Half of the world’s lithium is buried under the Salar de Ayuni salt-flats in Bolivia. Bolivia’s President is the hard-line socialist Evo Morales, and he’s not in any rush to start mining it; not until the West is good and desperate…
Reason ten: there’s always an alternative
Of course, if we’re wrong and the oil runs out before we have any viable new car-propulsion tech in place, there’s another option that’s free to run, never needs refuelling, is carbon-neutral, gets you fit, and correctly configured can carry you, your kids and your shopping. It’s called the bicycle. Buy now, while stocks last.
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