Tesla Roadster Electric Car: Is the Time Right?

Opinion: Tesla Motors hopes to revolutionize the automotive industry with its electric Roadster, but history is not on the company's side.

On paper, the Tesla Roadster is the electric car thats finally going to revolutionize transportation. I want to see it happen. I hope it happens. If Tesla wants to change the course of history, it has to change the mixed history of electric vehicle (EV) cars. It certainly attracted a wide range of celebrities and tech fans to the launch at its Signature One-Hundred event.

Tesla says it will ship its first Roadsters in mid-2007. The numbers are Corvette-like: 0 to 60 mph in 4 seconds, 250 miles between charges, and recharging in 3.5 hours. So says Tesla. The price however, is more Porsche than Corvette, with the Roadster estimated to sell for $80,000 to $120,000. People buying a Roadster are not clipping PriceChopper coupons.

The Roadster will employ a lithium-ion battery (same as in most laptops and cellphones) rather than lead acid, as used in most cars for starter motors, or nickel-metal hydride, used in most hybrids such as the Toyota Prius. To get the claimed 250 miles, rather than 60 to 100 miles from the previous iteration EVs, it will likely do what all other EVs do: charge the battery all the way up, to 100 percent, then run it all the way down to no charge (ideally you coast into the garage with the last burst of energy as the headlights go dim).

And that, claims Toyota, is the recipe for short-life batteries. At a hybrid technology seminar this spring, Toyota and Lexus said it can get essentially life-of-the-car performance from hybrid batteries, meaning 10-plus years, if they only live in the middle 60 percent of their charge range. Thats easy to do when youve got a small gasoline or diesel engine that can go it alone should the batteries get down to 20 per cent charge. Treat rechargeable car batteries like laptop batteries and youll get a couple good years out of them -- then you need to start thinking about a replacement, but for $2,500 a pop and more, not less than $250.

Electric vehicles get the best mileage when the passengers are uncomfortable. If you run the air conditioning in summer or the heater in winter (to say nothing of flicking on the heated seats) youre cutting into your driving range. Ditto for running 400-watt audio systems. Hills are tough on electric vehicles, too, unless you regenerate power the way hybrids do. Headlights after dark arent good for driving range.

Electric vehicles such as the General Motors EV1 of the 1990s failed because they were just too limited in usefulness for real people to buy. It might serve you fine driving 10 miles to the office, but not for weekend trips to the beach, let alone on vacations or college-search trips.

Drive it kids-to-carpool-to-mall-to-home and youd probably have enough juice, but it might struggle the last couple miles and the lights would be dimming. A lot of them were either bought by the government or with government subsidies. An EV is not, despite what proponents say, a zero-emissions car, because youre burning coal, oil, or natural gas somewhere to make the electrons that power your car. That said, its probably cleaner overall that a fossil-fuel vehicle.

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