Tesla dreams

I spent yesterday in the carport with Nick, working on both of our cars.  Nick is my local “Mercedes buddy,” a fellow enthusiast who owns a 1980s era Mercedes 300D like mine.  Neither of us are accomplished mechanics but we both enjoy learning and so periodically we get together to tackle car repairs together.  So far we’ve had good luck and no major disasters.

Yesterday’s jobs were to replace the front door seals on my car and the speedometer cable, and on Nick’s car we replaced the engine mounts, replaced the fuel primer pump, and changed the oil.  My carport is the preferred location for this because it has a nice smooth concrete floor and is fully shaded.  With the Airstream Safari summering in Vermont, there’s plenty of room for both cars. Unfortunately, Tucson hit 108 degrees yesterday so even though we started early in the morning, it was a brutally hot and dirty experience.

I say “dirty” because these cars are relics of the petroleum-burning era, producing copious amounts of soot and nitrogen oxides with minimal emissions controls.  They are about as far from “earth friendly” as you can get, and a fact revealed on every greasy carbon-coated engine part.  We wear gloves while working on them but still get our arms and faces smeared with black very quickly.  It’s hard not to think about where all that mess comes from, and realize that the car is really an obsolete rolling polluter.

The clunky old diesel engines do a particular job very well, namely motivating 3,000 pounds of steel for up to half a million miles. For this reason they are coveted by people who see them as the pinnacle of automotive engineering: user-repairable, computer-free, and incredibly durable.  I look at the mechanical engineering that went into it and I have to really respect it.  The thought and effort that went into every part to design it perfectly for the task is just amazing.

But honestly, I am conflicted about my car.  I run 99% biodiesel in it because it reduces emissions and is good for the fuel system, but that’s not going to make it a “clean” or “green” car.  It still emits much more unburned hydrocarbons, NOx, CO2, and soot than a comparable modern car.  If even a quarter of the country drove around in cars like this, the world would be a nasty place.  I’d probably be first in line to have them banned.  The only reason we get away with it is because most people drive newer cars which pollute only a fraction as much.  So as much as I love my 300D, I also know it’s an unsustainable antique.

The future, I’ve come to believe, is electric cars.  A few years ago I would have scoffed at that idea, since “everyone” knew that electric cars were silly toys that couldn’t go more than 80 miles and needed 10 hours to charge.  But Elon Musk and his team at Tesla have changed my mind.  The Tesla “Model S” and the national infrastructure envisioned by Tesla have changed everything—and despite widespread press, I don’t think the implications have fully sunk in to most of the car-driving public.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the changes Tesla has implemented.  The Tesla can easily go 200-300 miles on a single charge, with the option of picking up a 200-mile range boost in 20 minutes at a Tesla Supercharger station or swapping out the entire battery pack for a fully-charged one in 90 seconds.  That’s quicker than filling a gas tank.  With an in-home charger your car is always “full” every day you start to drive it.  And using the Supercharger stations is free.  Tesla even has installed solar panels at each station so that the station generates more power than it uses.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Imagine owning a car that has no engine, no transmission, and no emission or exhaust system. That means you never have to get an oil change, tune-up, belt replacement, radiator service, filters, emissions check, etc.  No more Midas Muffler, or Jiffy Lube.  No more 10,000 mile services at the dealership.  Heck, even the brakes won’t need service because they are regenerative (meaning they put energy back into the battery) and hardly ever wear out.

You can’t get any “greener” than an electric car.  Any traditional car (even a hybrid) burns petroleum.  Ain’t nothing green about that, even with a miniature chemical factory mounted on the car to reduce the emissions, which is what we have to put up with these days.  The electric car has zero emissions and can be powered (indirectly) through electric generation from lots of sources, including solar, hydro, wind, natural gas, nuclear, oil, and coal.  If the source of the power is dirty, at least it comes from one plant where emissions can be controlled more readily than on 100,000 separate vehicles.

I have come to realize that a lot of the negativity about electric cars comes from viewing them from a petroleum-powered perspective.  In other words, we tend to let our preconceptions taint our view.  An example is fear about the giant battery pack.  In eight years to ten years, you’ll have to replace it and that will cost a lot.

Sure, but in eight years of gasoline burning you’ll have to replace belts, hoses, plugs, fluids, filters, gaskets, water pump, battery, muffler, and probably a few other things, in addition to the risk of a major repair to the combustion engine.  Add to that the hard-to-quantify costs like health problems resulting from dirty air.  Then, add to that about $20,000 in petroleum fuel cost over 100,000 miles.  Suddenly that battery pack isn’t looking so bad.  We are so inured to the ongoing cost of maintaining our dirty little petroleum combustion engines that we don’t consider how expensive (and resource-consuming) they really are.

Another common gripe is what the automotive press calls “range anxiety,” the fear that you’ll run out of power and not be able to charge up again quickly.  Tesla addressed that one with their Supercharger network, which is being built out right now.  In 2015 you’ll be able to drive almost anywhere in the USA with a free 20-minute Supercharge (or battery swap) available within 200 miles. You can’t say that for hydrogen or natural gas fueled vehicles, and it probably won’t ever be true for those because of the cost of building those complicated infrastructures.  Electricity, on the other hand, is already piped everywhere.

An electric car won’t yet replace our tow vehicle, and I wouldn’t expect such a thing to be available for many years.  For now, we’ll continue to run the “clean diesel” Mercedes GL320 to tow the Airstream around.  Likewise, gasoline cars will continue to be the majority of the market for a long time.  The Tesla is still financially out of reach for most people.  But it shows us what the future will hold.

Every time I look under the sooty hood of my 1984 diesel Mercedes and compare it to the much-cleaner, computerized 2009 diesel I can see the progress of 25 years.  Looking at the elegant engineering of the Tesla S electric car, I see the progress of the next 25 years.  I’ll hold onto the old Mercedes as a reminder of the great engineering of that day, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can drive the future.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine