Driving the Sea to Sky Highway out of West Vancouver, cresting above Horseshoe Bay and arcing northward to Whistler, the Tesla Model S feels like the future. The all-electric luxury sedan runs eerily quiet and it is a rocket on wheels, a stealth sports car. When it unveils itself, the Model S is a superhero of the road. All it takes is a light touch of what in most other cars would be called the gas pedal and the Tesla takes off, gaining significant speed in barely an instant.
This is the future as imagined by Elon Musk, the billionaire behind Tesla. The 42-year-old is one of the iconic industrialists of this age, propelling not only a pioneer of electric cars but also private space flight – he spends about half his time as CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. – and solar power, where he is chairman of SolarCity Corp.
Musk’s future on the road, however, remains aspirational. A Tesla for everyone is several years away. A luxury SUV, complete with gull-wing doors, arrives first, next year, and there are currently three versions of the Model S, of which a total of 35,000 are set to be built to order this year. The S with a smaller battery – and a range of about 350 kilometres – starts at $77,800 in Canada, and a model supplied for test drives, a performance version with a larger battery, loaded with features, and a range that approaches 500 km, goes for $124,770. One would expect such a vehicle to be extraordinary.
There are all-electric cars closer within the reach of the middle-income earner, such as the Nissan Leaf that costs around $40,000, but the savings come at the cost of a limited range of only 135 km. Musk's conviction was an electric car must succeed as a car first and the S is the embodiment of that idea – the superhero car that no one would recognize as an electric, save for the telltale silence and the T on the grille.
The Model S, to Musk’s mind, is a pronouncement: “to show that an electric car truly can be better than any gasoline car,” as Musk told the Queen’s University Alumni Review last year. (Raised in South Africa but born to a Canadian mother, Musk attended Queen’s for two years before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania and going on, briefly, to Stanford.)
A Tesla is not quite what was imagined by the Jetsons – it does not fly nor fold up into a briefcase – but it is a remarkable vehicle, now in its third year of production and lauded by Consumer Reports as the No. 1 car on the road. “It’s the very best car I’ve ever driven,” Jake Fisher, the magazine’s director of auto testing, declared in February.
On the Sea to Sky Highway, the burst of speed occurs like a magic trick, absent of the sound ears have been forever trained to associate with acceleration: the atavistic roar of the past century, the explosion of gasoline and the firing of cylinders. Inside the Model S, all is serene, as the car almost floats on the road. The experience is not unlike a high-speed train flying above the deep blue water of Howe Sound and across from white-capped mountains.
Musk first made his money, after dropping out of Stanford, on the Internet with two scores, the second of which was PayPal. He parlayed the win into what looked like three wild, destined-to-fail bets: rockets, electric cars and solar power. Instead, all three paid, as Musk has conjured into real life the stuff of science-fiction books he adored growing up in South Africa.
Tesla is as much about mission as making money. It is building cars of the future but also erecting infrastructure of the 21st Century. The company already has a network of 100 power stations called Superchargers dotted around North America, Europe and Asia, to fuel long-distance travel, and another 200 are to be added by the year’s end. Work on the world’s largest battery plant, a $5-billion (U.S.) project, will begin soon. Dubbed the “Gigafactory,” it is the fulcrum of Musk’s plan to drive down the price of batteries so that a Model T, a Tesla for the masses, is possible.
The swirl is part of the company’s busiest-ever year. The expansion includes a flurry of new showcase stores in cities including Vancouver – the third in Canada after Toronto and Montreal – to promote its vision and sell its product. Spreading the “good word,” as company vice-president Jerome Guillen puts it.
“I’m fully aware that not everyone can afford a Tesla – yet,” says Guillen, in an interview at the new Vancouver store. “But it doesn’t matter. Our mission is not only to sell Tesla. If someone comes here and realizes how cool an electric car is, and decides for their future purchase to consider an electric car, then it’s fantastic. Mission accomplished.”
The electric car, alone, is not the whole answer – electricity is not necessarily cleanly generated. The largest source of power in the United States is coal, though in states such as California, where Tesla is most popular, the majority of power comes from natural gas, somewhat cleaner than oil. In Canada, nearly two-thirds of electricity is generated by hydro.
The power puzzle is where Musk sees solar as the answer – and the third arm of his industrial empire, SpaceX, eyes Mars as an eventual destination. In this rubric, Tesla isn’t a simple car maker. It is part of Musk’s dream to “expand the scope and scale of civilization,” as he said in a New Yorker profile in 2009. “We’re like a giant parallel supercomputer, and each of our brains runs a piece of the software.”
Driving a Model S, then, is channelling Musk himself. It is a pronouncement of politics and an envisioned future, not just another fancy car with an amazing engine, electric or not. The Tesla, when one drives it around town, does not have passersby ogling the vehicle, no eyes pop out of sockets cartoonlike, mouths falling agape – the reaction some might have to a Lamborghini or a Ferrari. Instead, people who see a Tesla study its sleek aerodynamic lines and consider it with an intellectual, impressed air: so this is what tomorrow looks like.
It remains a glimpse. The stock market has fallen in love, yes, catapulting the stock to more than $250 (U.S.) a share in early March from $50 just 10 months earlier. Even as the rapturous excitement has cooled somewhat, the shares stand at around $180. Tesla has made Musk the world’s 175th richest man – worth about $8-billion as of early May, according to Forbes – but the company is still a tiny speck.
The 35,000 cars Tesla aims to deliver worldwide this year are fewer than the number of Hondas sold in Canada in the first four months of 2014. In another calculus: Tesla figures its Model S customers have saved the equivalent of about 50 million litres of gasoline, but that number is not even a drop, when one considers that vehicles in the United States inhales 490 billion litres a year. Tesla has saved the world 0.01 per cent of gasoline that would have otherwise been burned in one year in the U.S. in internal combustion engines.
This is not, however, to diminish Musk’s vision. Instead, it is to show how little society has pushed to change its ways, and how much one man is driving change. While most of the world is entranced by the latest iPhone, and auto makers fight off legislative efforts to increase fuel efficiency, Musk forges to find the future.
Sitting in the front seat of a Model S, rolling through traffic in Vancouver, or floating and flying up and down the curves of Highway 99, the future feels amazing.
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