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CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk waves after ringing the opening bell at the NASDAQ market (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk waves after ringing the opening bell at the NASDAQ market (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)

Globe editorial

The electric car is not the future; it’s rail Add to ...

Advocates of clean, green electric cars suffered a double disappointment last week: first, a harshly unfavourable report in the New York Times, alleging the failure of a vaunted Tesla S electric sedan to complete a weekend test drive without drama, culminating with a dead battery and a tow truck; and secondly, the intemperate reaction of Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, who denounced the report as “a fake” and claimed to expose it using trip data surreptitiously collected by the company during the test.

The dispute has become a critical test of credibility for a bold new industry for which Tesla, equipped with a $465-million government loan, is the popular champion. Despite the promise of 500 kilometres of driving on a single charge in a $90,000 Tesla S, real-world tests suggest “range anxiety” remains an unavoidable drawback to life with even the most advanced electric cars.

The disputed test was meant to showcase a new network of charging stations on the I-95 highway between Washington and Boston. Tesla backers say it is still too new to function satisfactorily; skeptics say it never will. The obvious question that neither side addresses is why anyone would want to drive that distance in the first place.

In Europe and increasingly in Asia, such intercity travel is very much the business of high-speed electric rail, not cars or even planes. Rail’s success contrasts sharply with unimpressive experiments with all-purpose electric cars.

In 2007, Madrid-Barcelona was the busiest air route in the world, with 971 flights a week. Shortly after construction of a rail link between the two cities, more than half those flights disappeared, and discounters began selling seats for as little as $10. Most travellers now choose rail, at about $200 for a one-way ticket. A trip that once took drivers six hours can now be accomplished in two and a half.

The Eurostar rail link between Paris and London and the TGV connection between Paris and Lyon have wrought similar revolutions. Meanwhile car use is declining throughout the developed world, even in countries where there is no modern rail. Experts dispute the causes, citing everything from a reaction against urban sprawl to a new generation’s “love affair with the phone,” not the car.

The paradigm shift that electric-car enthusiasts have long heralded seems to be actually happening – but it runs on steel, not rubber.

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