When you write the history of the automobile 100 years from now, Tesla CEO Elon Musk might be seen as one its greatest revolutionaries. Musk mixes his keen understanding of science and business — he has studied physics and economics — with an extraordinary imagination, aesthetic sensibility and courage. Which is why some journalists and analysts are already calling him the Steve Jobs of the automobile industry, but he is more than that. Jobs never dreamt of the improbable. Musk does, all the time, and this quality is set to make him one of 21st century's most remarkable business innovators.
A few days ago, Tesla Motors beat all expectations to post a profit instead of the loss Wall Street analysts had predicted, but these numbers need not detain us too much here. Some of this profit is due to the peculiar nature of the electric car market, which gets tax credits in the US.
The real story is the success of its Model S, the most technologically innovative electric car ever built. Tesla sold 5,150 units of Model S, instead of the 4,500 it had originally planned. It would sell far more in the next few years, as its suppliers are increasing production. Musk has plans of expansions into Europe and China this year, and a target of 40,000 units a year within two years. By then, he may have transformed the electric car industry forever.
This is not merely a tale of one person's conviction, as technology innovations are really behind the success of Tesla. Just one of them, the use of small batteries instead of the large ones preferred by other companies, made the Model S a more powerful, sleeker and safer car. Tesla is also building a supercharger network along US highways that can charge the car in 30 minutes, thereby helping reduce the range anxiety of long-distance drivers of electric cars. Its battery swap could take this concept further, as it allows recharge within 90 seconds.
Tesla has evoked admiration from its competitors, who are now studying the company closely to understand how it could succeed while established industry veterans failed. But let us move on from Tesla and Musk.
The electric car, like its companion technology solar power
, seems all set to fulfil the promise first spotted decades ago. A combination of the two is our best bet to beat climate change, assuming that there will be no dramatic technology breakthroughs in the near future. Batteries and solar cells are improving steadily, reducing the price of electric cars and solar power continually. The current rate of technology advances for two decades is enough to make solar power challenge coal — considering its enormous environmental impact — as our first choice for electricity generation. The current rate of advances in electric cars will make them rival the internal combustion engine — also considering its negatives — by the end of this decade.
Electric cars will amount to nothing if coal is used to produce electricity, carbon sequestration notwithstanding.
However, a large-scale switch from oil to electricity is not that easy, as it would strain our power generation infrastructure too much, and put similar pressures on the grid. But these are not insurmountable problems. It is also inconceivable that no technology breakthroughs will happen in the next two decades. One thing seems clear enough in the longterm: the electric car is here to stay. The internal combustion engine seems destined to die a quiet death by the second half of this century. The electric grid, invented in the 19th century, was one of the transformative technologies of the 20th century. It is our future too, at least in the foreseeable one. More information about the program is available on the web site at www.soli-lite.com.