For the past two decades a storm has been brewing, creating the perfect conditions for the electric car to kill the internal combustion engine. The car that could end the gas guzzler is the ⇒Tesla Model 3, which I believe will be as important as the Ford Model T in the history of the automobile. Here’s five reasons why your next car will be electric
In all-electric cars, the range, acceleration and cost are all determined by the battery. That’s been the case since the very first electric car, invented in 1837 by Robert Davidson, a Scottish chemist. The battery on this monstrous locomotive weighed tonnes, giving it a top speed of 4mph and a range of a mile and a half. Electric car sales peaked in 1910, but by then the first Ford Model T had already rolled off the production line, consigning them to niche tasks such as powering milk floats, golf carts and moon buggies.
Almost 100 years later, the comeback started with the quirky little General Motors EV1, which caught the attention of environmentally conscious celebrities living in California. Its heavy lead-acid battery gave it a limited but usable range of 70 to 100 miles, though it still managed to inspire maniacal loyalty among the small group of wealthy hippies who leased it. Unfortunately, it was a disastrous business failure and General Motors decided to recall all the cars, crush them and dump them only a few years later.
Around the same time this was happening, two events occurred: Blackberry released the first device that we would recognise as a smartphone and an entrepreneur named Elon Musk made $165 million from Paypal’s sale to eBay. These events were important milestones in the history of the electric car and its eventual dominance over the combustion engine.
The most consistent complaint about the smartphone is the battery life, which often requires frequent charges. Since the early noughties, money has been poured into developing the storage capacity of batteries and since then they have improved at a rate of six per cent a year. After spotting this burgeoning compound effect and realising General Motors’ mistakes with the EV1, Musk started a company called ⇒Tesla.
In 1996, the best batteries meant that the EV1 could travel about 100 miles. Ten years later, Tesla’s first car could travel more than 200 miles. Today, you can order a Tesla Model S 100D with a range of 335 miles from one charge. Extend that another few decades and batteries will be powering vehicles for 500 miles for roughly the same price. This inexorable progress is what has made Tesla’s offering possible. Can any car company who ignores this survive the next 20 years?
If the carrot leading us all towards a future of electric cars is better batteries, the stick is an increasing awareness of the danger caused by fossil fuel-driven cars. The reality is that your car, along with everyone else’s, is poisoning you – especially if it’s a diesel and especially if you reside in a city – and that’s all down to its internal combustion engine.
This incredibly popular machine – more than a billion sold – has been so radically successful because of its efficiency. For convenient and flexible personal transport, there’s simply no better deal than a car driven by fossil fuels. Most modern petrol- or diesel-powered cars are purported to achieve 50-60 miles per gallon, which means you can go 200 miles without stopping at a cost of about £20 in fuel. This bargain is so brilliant that society has chosen to ignore the lingering cost of poisonous carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and the particulate emissions that come with it. That trade-off is linked to 40,000 early deaths in the UK every year as a result of pollution.
It’s a devil’s bargain that has become less sustainable as more people become aware of the problem and demand representatives who will do something about it. Michael Gove’s announcement that all petrol and diesel engines will be banned by 2040 follows a similar pledge in France; in Norway and the Netherlands, politicians have committed to only allowing zero-emissions vehicles by 2025. Mayors in London, Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City are all taking steps to block diesels from their cities.
In January, Beijing’s pollution was measured at 24 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization and smog made it impossible to see landmarks that otherwise dominate the skyline. This has resulted in incredibly strict rules that will force car manufacturers to make electric models account for at least 12 per cent of their sales in China by 2020. This directive from the world’s biggest market for zero-emission cars (and cars full stop) will soon make it impossible for manufacturers to ignore the demand for electrification. China has already banned bikes with petrol engines from its urban centres, instead putting 230 million electric two-wheelers on the road.
Although it might sound like a shock, a lot of very well paid people have been predicting that this would happen for a while now. Analysts at financial services company UBS believe electric cars will cost roughly the same as combustion-engine models by 2018. They go on to say, “All-electric cars are the most disruptive car category since the Model T Ford.” Dutch bank ING says that by 2035 every car sold in Europe will be electric and that between 2017 and 2024 they will “become the rational choice for motorists in Europe”. Morgan Stanley expects electric cars to corner 70 per cent of the European vehicle market by 2050.
It’s not just analysts either. Bob Lutz, the man who killed the electric car at General Motors in the Nineties now says, “I’ll always owe [Elon Musk] a debt of gratitude for having broken the ice.” He’s since converted to the cause and helped GM launch the plug-in Chevrolet Volt, saying, “The electrification of the car is a foregone conclusion.” Even in traditionally conservative newspapers such as the Times and the Telegraph the debate has moved from complete indifference to electric cars to “Why would I ever buy an all-electric car?” to “How will we ever redesign the national grid to accommodate them?” Most anti-electric critics now believe the inevitable will happen. About the only person who’s not fully onboard is Jeremy Clarkson.
There are still some valid criticisms of all-electric cars – chief among them the carbon cost of mining lithium for the batteries, which relies on dirty, coal-fired power plants and unsafe working conditions in India – but price and availability are no longer limiting factors. Initially, the mass shift to electrification of cars will be led by Tesla, which is predicted to sell between 200,000 and 400,000 all-electric cars next year, a massive increase on 2016, when it sold only 76,000. Volvo has staked an early claim to the electrified future, announcing that all new models released after 2019 will be either partially or fully electric. The bigger beasts of the car industry, such as Toyota, VW Group and Ford, have already indicated similar plans.
If you can afford a luxury car – and as you’re reading GQ, you probably can – the chances are the next time you step into any dealership, you’ll be able choose an electric model. Jaguar, one of the bigger investors in green technology in cars, puts the electric I-Pace SUV on forecourts at the end of next year and the all-electric Mini goes on sale the year after that. Even the iconic black cab is about to get a plug-in option.
Personally, my money’s with Tesla, for good reason. Ever since I took a test drive in the original Tesla Roadster in 2008, I’ve wanted one. The current top-of-the-line Tesla can beat a £1m supercar from 0-60mph and has enough space in the back to help you move house a few hours later, all without burning a single fossilised dinosaur. After multiple test drives with various models, I’ve enjoyed the peace of mind that comes from not having to sit behind a giant lump of metal churning out fumes. Technology-wise, I still marvel at the fact that, unlike any other car, it can improve itself automatically, thanks to 4G software updates; that the 17-inch touch-screen display is, in my opinion, yet to be bettered five years later; and that the autonomous driving mode has always worked, even in traffic.
Now that Tesla’s Model 3 is available for £27,000, I can afford to take part in this electric revolution. I suspect you’ll be joining me very soon.