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Larry Edsall
Electrifying news

LOS ANGELES

 

So here we are at the LA Auto Show, where General Motors CEO and chairman Rick Wagoner is talking in his keynote address about the need to diversify the sources of energy that power our cars.

 

Wagoner notes that the first LA show was held in 1907 and that at the time three technologies were competing to power the new motorcar. Those technologies were gasoline, electricity and steam – and, he noted, that just a year earlier the Stanley Steamer had set an all-time world land speed record on the hard-packed sand at Daytona Beach, Florida.

 

Steam may have been fine for locomotives and a speed-setting car, but it didn’t prove practical on public roads. Electric cars were quite popular, especially among women drivers – until a GM engineer invented the electric starter and now you didn’t need muscle power to crank an engine into action and now everyone could enjoy the speed and range that gasoline provided and we all went racing down the road and it’s gasoline, not electricity, that surges through the car guy’s veins.

 

But, Wagoner reminds us, a petroleum-dependent world faces an “uncertain” energy future and we need to diversity our energy sources.

 

Fortunately, GM already is at work -- though he stopped short of telling us that what’s good for GM still is good for the country.

 

For example, GM has all of these ethanol-burning vehicles on the road – even though, Wagoner admits, that among the some 170,000 gasoline stations in the United States, there are only 1000 pumps – that’s pumps, not stations – that offer such E85 ethanol fuel.

 

He also promises that GM will have a plug-in gas/electric hybrid vehicles sometime after 2008 and he assures us that GM will launch a fully electric vehicle as soon as battery technology makes that possible, but surely before 2020.

 

Just a few hours after Wagoner’s presentation, I’m standing in the lobby of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where tire maker Yokohama has set up a display to showcase its wares. Featured in that display is a Tesla Roadster, an electric-powered sports car that doesn’t have to wait for some future battery technology because Tesla Motors’ 125 employees have developed their own battery technology and their own electric motor, a 70-pound cylinder that's slightly larger than a coffee can and can generate 600 amps, 409 volts, 185 kilowatts or 250 horsepower, propelling the Tesla Roadster from 0-60 miles per hour in just four seconds (faster than any of GM’s gasoline-powered vehicles, and that includes the Corvette), and with a range of 250 miles between recharging – providing, of course, that you drive at normal rather than drag-racing speeds.

 

Tesla is going through final safety and durability testing, but already has taken 230 orders for its $92,000 car – the 2007½ models sold out in four months, but orders are being taken on the 2008s -- with deliveries scheduled to begin late next summer. By the way, Tesla Motors already is at work on a second and less-expensive electric-powered vehicle.

 

So, let’s see, here’s the world’s largest car company making promises and here’s a company that in just 3 ½ years of existence has developed new battery technology, a new electric motor – based on the one invented 100 years ago by NikolaTesla himself – that has test cars on the road and others almost ready to roll.

 

“You have to understand that his problems and my problems are different,” Tesla co-founder and CEO Martin Eberhard says when I ask him about Wagoner’s keynote address. “He’s trying to keep a big company afloat. I’m trying to grow a small company into a big company, and I’m trying to build brand awareness.”

 

But that doesn’t mean Eberhard is working free of pressure. “Any failure will be deemed a disaster,” he says of his young company and its effort to “change Americans’ concept of what an electric car can be,” which, he adds, means that an electric car doesn’t only have to be good for the environment, but can be “a good car, too.”

 

Originally, Eberhard just wanted was one electric car, not an electric car company. This was back in 2003, when, as he put it, the zero-emission regulations were “defanged” and “that pushed my buttons.”

 

When he couldn’t find an electric car, he and a partner found funding – much of it from the co-founder of PayPal – and hired a group of engineers to develop the batteries and electric motor and designers to design the car and British sports car specialist Lotus to help with vehicle development and assembly.

 

Eberhard says he likes much of what Wagoner had to say about electric-powered vehicles. Personally, I thought what Wagoner had to say was just a lot more of the over-promising – to be followed by under-delivering -- we get from Detroit automakers regarding technological advances. Meanwhile, Toyota gives us hybrids and Europe gives us clean diesels and some guy from Silicon Valley gives us an electric car you’d actually like to drive.

 

Actually, an electric vehicle from Silicon Valley makes perfect sense. Silicon Valley is all about computers and batteries and electric power and venture capital and such. Detroit may be the Motor City, or Motown as it’s known, but maybe San Jose or Palo Alto or even San Carlos (where Tesla Motors is located) should become Electric Motown.

 

Wagoner says that what’s happening is a reinvention of the automobile, every bit as significant as the move from horses to horsepower.

 

He may be right.

 

“Tesla Motors. A new American car company.” it says on the start-up company’s brochure. Maybe to reinvent the American car, what we need isn’t just new automotive technology, but new car companies as well.

 

-- Larry Edsall

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