The Future of
Electric Cars
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 6/2/14

It all began with Nikola Tesla, a prolific and eccentric Eastern European inventor who once transmitted electricity wirelessly for miles to power pastures planted with hundreds of lightbulbs. One of the many by-products of Tesla’s late-19th-century experiments shows up on today’s roads, where the electric vehicle (EV) is a small but growing presence and may well help save the planet.

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Nikola Tesla  (1856–1943 | Serbian American inventor)
to  Sustainability

Nikola Tesla electrified the world. The first major hydroelectric plant, using Tesla-designed technology, went into operation at Niagara Falls, New York, in 1895. The plant generated electricity that was fed through power lines to Buffalo, 20 miles away, making it the first long-distance transmission of alternating-current electricity.

Hydropower is created as flowing water turns blades in a turbine, which operates a generator rotor using electromagnets to convert mechanical energy into electricity. How to transmit this electricity embroiled Tesla in the so-called War of the Currents with Thomas Edison: Tesla invented the means to distribute electricity as alternating current (AC), while Edison promoted direct current (DC).

Edison became wealthier and more famous than Tesla, but AC became the world standard, and the hydroelectricity Tesla made feasible has become the most widely used form of sustainable energy. Hydroelectric plants around the world produce a combined capacity of 675,000 megawatts—the energy equivalent of burning 3.6 billion barrels of oil—and supply more than 1 billion people with power. In the United States, hydropower generation annually avoids 225 million metric tons of carbon emissions that would be produced by coal- and gas-fired electric plants—equal to the output of approximately 42 million cars.

to  EVs

At first glance, electric vehicles are an environmentalist’s dream. They do not depend on fossil fuels, they create almost no air or noise pollution, and they are much more energy efficient than vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines. In some cases they even convert the vehicle’s movement back into power.

But despite the positive buzz surrounding EVs, do they really promote sustainability? Not if the necessary electricity is generated by burning coal and natural gas—and 70 percent of all electricity generated in the U.S. is produced this way.

An EV powered by nonsustainable means still consumes less energy than a vehicle with a gas-combustion engine does. But the low cost of driving an electric vehicle—the equivalent of about two cents a mile compared to 12 cents a mile for a gasoline-powered vehicle—could actually put more drivers on the road, increasing the demand for electricity generated by nonsustainable means. The answer would ideally be to ensure that the electricity powering EVs comes from hydroelectricity, solar energy, wind power and other sustainable sources. But until those energy sources are more widely available, walking and biking are the only surefire means of sustainable transport.

Nikola Tesla  (1856–1943 | Serbian American inventor)
to  Tesla Motors  (American manufacturer of EVs | 2003–present)

Tesla Motors takes its name from Nikola Tesla, the Serbian American engineer who designed the alternating-current (AC) motor—the forerunner of the technologically sophisticated AC motors that power the company’s expensive roadsters and sedans. Aside from paying tribute, Tesla Motors is aligning itself with one of the signal names in electricity—bigger in some circles than Thomas Edison, who allegedly, in 1885, shortly after Tesla arrived in America, cheated him out of $50,000 for his visionary work on motors and generators.

Homage to Tesla, who died penniless and in debt in a New York City hotel in 1943, is long overdue. Just about every electrical household appliance uses an AC motor based on his designs. He harnessed the power of Niagara Falls, electrified the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and developed spark plugs and remote control. He illuminated handheld lamps with power zapped through his body and created artificial lightning bolts 135 feet long. Tesla was portrayed by David Bowie in the 2006 film The Prestige and has posthumously lent his name to a computer chip and a video game character. But a car that’s years ahead of its time is the most fitting tribute of all.

Toyota  (Japanese auto manufacturer | 1937–present)
to  EVs

Toyota helped ease electric cars into the fast lane in 1997 when the Tokyo-based company introduced the Prius, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle. The Prius and other hybrids have two power sources: an electric motor powered by batteries and a gas-combustion engine. Hybrids produce fewer emissions and use much less fuel than gas-engine vehicles do. Their driving range far exceeds that of all-electric vehicles, and they can be refueled quickly and easily at a gas pump, like any standard car—unlike electric vehicles, which must be plugged in to a power source and recharged every 100 miles or so.

Toyota is also one of several companies that make plug-in hybrids. Once charged, these cars operate in all-electric mode for 10 to 50 miles, then return to a hybrid mode and run on a combination of gasoline and battery power. But automakers, Toyota among them, are increasingly setting their sights on all-electric vehicles. Industry experts predict that as many as 10 million EVs could be on U.S. roadways by 2020. The Prius, meanwhile, is not only the world’s best-selling hybrid but also the third-best-selling car on the planet, after the Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus.

to  Tesla Motors  (American manufacturer of EVs | 2003–present)

Range is a dirty word in electric vehicle circles. Most EVs can operate for only 100 miles or so before the battery needs to be recharged, and a battery recharging station is not always handy. Once drivers make it back to the garage, recharging can take up to 20 hours with a standard 120-volt outlet and seven hours with a 220-volt outlet, like those used for household washers and dryers. These limitations cause potential EV buyers, along with EV salespeople, to suffer from what is known in the car industry as “range anxiety.”

Tesla Motors, the California car company that sets the gold standard for EVs with its well-engineered vehicles, incorporates sophisticated battery technology that pushes the range up to 300 miles in some models. The company is also developing superchargers that speed up charging rates considerably, with a goal of recharging a battery in 20 minutes. Grocery stores and other businesses are beginning to provide battery recharging stations for their customers; McDonald’s already offers the service in some European cities. Supporting EV technology may be good for the burger chain’s image. “Super Size Me” no longer holds social currency, but “Super Charge Me” certainly does.

Toyota  (Japanese auto manufacturer | 1937–present)
to  Tesla Motors  (American manufacturer of EVs | 2003–present)

Green car buffs got a jolt recently when Toyota and Tesla announced a partnership. Toyota is the largest and most venerable maker of hybrids, but even devotees of the sensible but clunky Prius would welcome some of Tesla’s sporty features and iconic design. After all, Lamborghini-like zero-to-60-mph acceleration in 3.7 seconds in the Tesla Roadster is the stuff of dreams, compared to the relatively tortoise-like Prius. Drivers who can’t afford a $109,000 Roadster or a $50,000 Model S sedan can only hope that Toyota will bring its mid-market pricing to the partnership—a Prius begins at about $24,000. For the time being, environmentally conscious soccer moms should be heartened by the first collaboration between the two companies: Toyota is revamping the RAV4 as the world’s first electric SUV, to be built in a California plant jointly operated by Tesla and Toyota. Drivers of the RAV4 EV won’t be able to stray too far, though. Unlike the long ranges of Tesla cars—up to 300 miles on a charge—the RAV4 will run out of juice after 100 miles.

Tesla Motors  (American manufacturer of EVs | 2003–present)
to  Silicon Valley

Tesla Motors is headquartered not in Detroit but in Palo Alto, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Tesla’s design innovation, groundbreaking technology and entrepreneurial spirit are more in keeping with the heartland of high tech than with the tradition-bound capital of American car manufacturing.

Tesla’s neighbors include Apple, Google and Yahoo, along with many smaller enterprises including Think, another plug-in car manufacturer. A strong environmental awareness prevails, as evidenced by the presence of many firms that focus on solar energy and other green technologies. So it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that the birthplace of the Internet and the personal computer could also be a beachhead for energy sustainability. At the very least, Silicon Valley provides a supportive surrounding for a company like Tesla, whose EVs reduce dependency on petroleum (which currently fuels 95 percent of transportation in the United States) and will help meet the U.S. government’s goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 28 percent by 2020. Tesla and other manufacturers of EVs reach out to drivers who see fuel economy and reduced emissions as premiums—the same tech-savvy consumers Silicon Valley has supplied with innovation for decades.