Monday, December 23, 2013

Driving the Future

Have you ever had that sensation of, “wow, this will change everything”?  Perhaps it was when you saw your first personal computer, or during the keynote where the iPhone was introduced.  Maybe it was when Apollo 11 made their triumphant landing on the moon.  As you know, it’s not a common feeling.  How often, really, is “everything changed”?

I was privileged to experience that emotion recently, and, if it’s ok with you, I’d like to bring you along on my journey.

Once upon a time…

...there was this device designed to move people and goods without the burden of horses or rail tracks.  When it was still called the horseless carriage, there was no “Big Three”, no dealerships, and surely no interstate highway system.  There were dozens of manufacturers striving for their stake in a field that saw potential to change the world.  Many names were lost to history, while a special few endure still today.  Does the name Karl Benz ring any bells?  1883.  What about David Buick?  1899.  Then there are the more commonly recognized, including Henry Ford in 1903 and Henry Royce alongside Charles Rolls in 1904.

And change the world they did.

Countless incremental improvements as well as radical new approaches make today’s automobiles as different from their ancestor horseless carriages as your newest smartphone to a wind-up Bell Telephone.

Engines to move the world.

In the twilight years of the 19th century, manufacturers were experimenting with a wide variety of energy sources.  Remember, there were no gas stations yet, because there had yet to be a demand.  Some of the original vehicles ran on peanut oil, while others were electric.  Of course, diesel found its unique applications and dominated the industrial power needs, both where steam was previously used, and in other areas sensitive to combustion (diesel will not combust unless under significant pressure).  Eventually, gasoline became the dominant energy source due to its low cost and growing infrastructure.

While alternative fuels remained a focus of study for the subsequent hundred years, from hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels, and full electric, it was the hybrid-electric design, where an electric motor was coupled with a smaller internal combustion engine to boost efficiency, that took hold in the market.  Think of the Prius.  It was an incredible incremental improvement over similar vehicles for fuel usage.

It took a rocket scientist...

Then a start-up company named Tesla Motors broke through the mold.  Founded by Elon Musk, a co-founder of Paypal (a service that “changed everything” for online payments), the company aimed to bring an all-electric car to the world.  Through a partnership with Lotus Motors, they created the Roadster, a test-bed sports car designed to introduce people to the thrill of electric driving.  The real work was being done, however, in the background.  At a former Toyota facility in Freemont, California, they designed and constructed the Model S, their first “from the ground up” vehicle.  Offering up to 300 miles range on a single charge, it redefined the landscape overnight.  Already, the vehicle has earned Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 2013, making it the only manufacturer to win the award on their first year of release.  The Federal safety ratings are the highest of any vehicle, ever submitted, making it the safest car ever built.

This marvel of passion, design, and engineering is what I had the privilege to drive this past weekend.  The test drive was requested online, with a follow-up call from Tesla’s team in California received within 30 minutes to schedule for the following day.  Upon arriving, a team member offered to answer any questions I had and introduced me to the model in their small showroom (they only have one car).  From the suede headliner to the 17” touchscreen that controls all vehicle systems, it was an exercise in functional simplicity.  No switches, buttons, or knobs were to be found anywhere.  Place a Palm Treo alongside the original iPhone to visualize the beauty in what’s not there.

Once satisfied with the showroom model, she suggested we take a ride.  Conveniently, the vehicle she chose was the same color as my own, a sparkling gray.  As we walked up to the car, the door handles extended out of the doors.  Ok, that’s cool.  A gentle pull engages an electric latch which pops the door open towards you, but without resistance like a minivan’s sliding door.  Once you’re inside, it feels like home.  But I’m getting carried away.  There are lots of comfortable and high-tech cars.  But none that were conceived, designed, and built (in America) with the “engine” this has.

Start your,, high-performance inverters?

Time to start the car.  Press the brake, and…oh yeah, it’s electric.  So it’s already on.  Backing out of the parking space made me wonder if I forgot to turn it on, since it rolled noiselessly.  But then I switched it to drive and pressed the accelerator.  If it could engage the flux capacitor, I think it would have.  For anyone who has ever been in a centrifuge (most commonly Mission: Space in Epcot), that’s how accelerating feels.  No lag, no noise, and no vibration.  You’re simply pushed back in the seat and now rapidly approaching previously distant objects.  Let off the throttle and it works to recover as much of that sweet energy you just expended through regenerative braking.  This makes driving a balance on the throttle, with barely any use of the brake during normal activity.  On the road, it’s a surreal sensation.  You’re moving, but you don’t feel or hear it.  If you ever get worried the vehicle is no longer responding, a light tap on the throttle will teach you otherwise.  Just because your cars always made noise doesn’t mean this one will.  Yeah, the Model S dissed your car.  Sorry.  Otherwise, it has everything you’d expect of a luxury sports sedan.  Bluetooth, 3G, back-up camera, GPS…the works.

Apples and oranges.

My takeaway from this experience?  This company has, and will continue to, change the landscape of automobiles.  They came from essentially no where, and in the course of a few years, built what is now considered amongst the best cars ever constructed, and that’s in its initial release year!  But they have also revolutionized the selling of vehicles too.  Teslas are only sold at company stores, with no dealership system whatsoever.  Nor will they ever “do what it takes to get you in this car today.”  If you want (and can afford) this vehicle, you’ll let them know.

Many Tesla owners describe what has come to be known as the “Tesla Smile.”  It’s the look of sheer joy they get every time they’re in the car.  I know the feeling.  That smile hasn’t left my face yet.  This will change everything, and I’m thrilled about the prospect.