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Tesla Model S in Whistler, at the conclusion of Globe Drive writer Peter Cheney’s road trip, which started in San Diego. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Tesla Model S in Whistler, at the conclusion of Globe Drive writer Peter Cheney’s road trip, which started in San Diego. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Electric Road Trip

That's a wrap: Tesla impresses on a San Diego to Whistler trip Add to ...

Globe Drive's Peter Cheney drove from San Diego to Whistler in a Tesla Model S, powered only by electricity. This post marks the sixth and final day of his journey. Follow the links at the bottom of this page to read the entire series.

I drove through Vancouver on Aug. 25, with a strange sense of déjà vu. This is where I worked as a Porsche-VW mechanic, buried deep in the world of internal combustion – I spent my days rebuilding engines, tracing down vacuum leaks, and adjusting carburetors that wandered in and out of tune like fickle musical instruments.

Now I was passing through my former home in a car that rendered all this technology obsolete: the electric Tesla Model S. In this vehicle there are no pistons, no valves, and no transmission. Instead, there’s a battery, an electric motor, and enough software to run a mission to Mars.

When it comes to the Model S, most of the hard-won mechanical knowledge I accumulated back in the day is worthless. But that’s a good thing.

Despite my emotional connection to gas-powered cars, I realize that the age of internal combustion will come to an end. There are better ways to power cars than sucking crude oil out of the ground, shipping it halfway around the world, then burning it in an engine that spews a high percentage of its energy out the tailpipe in the form of heat.

For the past week, I have travelled up the west coast of North America in the Model S, powered by nothing but electricity. Although there were minor complications (such as a valet parking attendant failing to charge the Tesla overnight as planned), the trip has been a revelation.

My journey started in southern California, near the Mexican border, and finished in Whistler. By the time I was done, I’d travelled more than 2,800 kilometres, all without a single drop of gasoline. I powered the Model S by plugging in at Superchargers (a network of high-powered recharge points that Tesla has assembled.) My fuel cost – zero.

Tesla includes free charging with the Model S. But even if you have to pay commercial rates to refill the Tesla’s battery, the cost is many times lower than buying gas. It also feels good to drive a zero-emissions car.

My trip up the coast has taught me that there’s much more to electric cars than fuel savings and green cred. The Tesla eliminates almost all of the mechanical components that we’ve depended on since the time of Henry Ford.

As I learned during my mechanical apprenticeship, the internal combustion engine is a complex device. Burning fuel drives pistons up and down inside an engine block that must be massive enough to contain the energy of heavy metal parts reciprocating at supersonic speeds. Air and atomized gasoline must be sucked into the engine through a set of valves, ignited with a perfectly timed spark, then blown out through another set of valves into the exhaust manifold.

The internal combustion process is hot, so you need an elaborate cooling system. It’s also noisy, which necessitates a set of mufflers. Friction is also a problem – without oil and an intricate network of passages that routes it through the engine, the moving parts would overheat and lock themselves together in a violent mechanical cataclysm (this sometimes happens anyway).

And then comes the overarching problem of speed range – internal combustion engines produce their power in a relatively narrow band (typically 1,500 to 5,000 revolutions per minute or rpm). You need a transmission that lets the engine stay within its limits as the car travels through a wide range of speeds. (Transmissions are even more complicated than engines, and when they go out of whack, be prepared to pay heavily.)

As you can see, this is not an ideal arrangement. But all this complication has created an enduring industry – the repair business that I once belonged to. Changing dirty oil and rebalancing VW crankshafts paid my way through university. I apprenticed with German master mechanics who taught me to adjust valves, hone cylinders, and plane cylinder heads so they didn’t leak.

I loved all this at the time, but driving the electric Tesla makes me realize that there’s a better way. Tesla’s motor is packed in the tail near the rear wheels – it’s a small, barrel-shaped device that produces more than 400 horsepower. Because of its vast rpm range and flat torque curve, no transmission is required.

With the Tesla, there are no tune-ups, oil changes or cylinder-head overhauls. There are no coolant flushes or fan-belt replacements. It’s a mechanic’s nightmare. The oil companies hate it. But it’s a driver’s dream come true.

Electric car technology isn’t perfect. At the moment, the biggest obstacles to widespread adoption are battery technology (gasoline holds more energy per pound than batteries can) and infrastructure (there are a lot more gas stations than recharge points).

But as history has shown, superior technologies have a way of prevailing in the long run. Someday we will look back on the gas-powered car in the same way we look back on horses, typewriters and steamships.

Tesla

Will electric cars such as the Tesla Model S become the new transportation paradigm? Here’s hoping.

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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