As electric car maker Tesla prepares for the Model S launch in Europe, the firm’s CEO Elon Musk gave his first public lecture in the UK at Oxford University’s Martin School. We headed down to find out what the man behind the rockets and the electric sports cars, envisages the future of energy and transport looks like…
Best known for its Roadster electric sports car, Tesla is in the process of rolling out to international markets its new mid-size sedan called the Model S, having already begun deliveries to the US. In Europe, prices are to be announced next month, with the first deliveries expected to start in the second quarter in 2013. Here in the UK, we’ll have to wait a little longer, until Q4 next year.
Introducing Elon onto the stage at the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, Director of the Martin School, Ian Goldin describes Musk as being to the 21st century what “Brunel was to the 19th and Henry Ford was to the 20th century”.
This, like much of the praise heaped onto him, Musk hastily deflects, starting hesitantly, with a brief explanation of his career so far. There is no denying, his contribution to energy and transport has been extraordinary, however he downplays it.
The important things in life
Starting his career exploring ultra capacitors for electric cars as a postgrad, he moved on to co-found PayPal in 2000 before selling the business to Ebay for $1.5 billion in 2002. That gave him the capital to explore his two things he thought would most affect humanity in the future; sustainable energy and extension of life beyond Earth. That returned him to electric cars in founding Tesla and space exploration in founding SpaceX.
Focusing on electric cars, through Tesla, Elon explains how he thinks there is potential for a significant breakthrough with ultra capacitors in the near future, which eluded him in the past. The technology available today with modern lithium ion batteries, however, is enough to achieve Tesla’s goal of mass-market EVs, he asserts, with the company focusing on building production to drive down cost rather than worrying about improving battery density.
Even without clean electricity production, electric cars make sense because it is more efficient to produce power at a plant level, he says, “at least twice as efficient and usually more like three times the efficiency,” although his ultimate goal is to ensure we can produce and consume energy in a sustainable way.
Solar –powered future
Answering a question from the audience he explains why he doesn’t really think biofuels work as an alternative to going electric. As the Chairman of solar panel firm, SolarCity, which he hints will expand to the UK, he criticises biofuels as an indirect method of energy collection, using plants to do the job of solar panels and using swathes of land which is otherwise dedicated to food production. This energy inefficiency of biofuels he labels as about 0.2 per cent efficient in the best case scenario compared to around 20 per cent efficiency of solar panels today.
Predicting that “solar will be the single largest source of energy in the future”, Musk is already helping to ensure that electric cars are coupled with clean energy production, recently launching solar-powered superchargers in the US (see story) for the use of Model S drivers.
Tesla’s growing family
Tesla’s Model S is a family sedan, with room for up to seven, people, and has a driving range of 160 miles, 230 miles or 300 miles depending on the choice of battery pack. Deliveries began in US in June this year, with customer able to choose between a 40 kWh Model S, costing $49,900 after federal tax credits (equivalent to around £31,781), a 60 kWh car, with the middle-length driving range, costing around $59,900 (around £38,187) or a 80 kWH battery version priced from $69,900 (around £44,640).
It follows on from the launch of the Roadster in 2008- a 273 lb-ft torque, 245 mile range electric sports, with a 0-62 time of 3.9 seconds, priced at around $100,000. It undoubtedly blew the myth that electric cars can only ever be small, noddy vehicles.
The carmaker’s business model was always to start with a highly desireable, low production, pricey model and moving to more mass market appeal models once production levels were able to support an affordable price tag. So far, so good, as the Model S about halves the price of the Roadster.
So what’s next for Tesla? Well we could be seeing a prototype of the new Model X crossover SUV vehicle at next year’s Geneva Motor Show, although that has yet to confirmed. Prices have also yet to be confirmed, but are expected to be closer to Model S costs than Roadster price. In the long term, the electric car firm plans to produce smaller, more affordable electric cars with a vision to make electric cars more compelling to consumers than combustion models and affordable to almost anyone.
As Musk himself says: “If you find a way, you’ll find there is plenty of will.”
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