Engineering

What Are Tesla Up To?

It’s been 200 years since the invention of the telegraph revolutionised human communication. Before that, the fastest you could get a message around was horse-speed. Can you imagine explaining to Henry VIII that one day you could send messages using magic, invisible sparky stuff as quickly as you could wiggle the little lever of the telegraph machine? You would probably have been accused of sorcery and burned at the stake. The telegraph is often underappreciated as the precursor to all modern communication. The first use of electricity to send a message. Be thankful for the telegraph.

There are similar revolutionary tales regarding medicine (we no longer “blood let”, use leeches or rely on smoke enemas), smoking has had its moment and is now illegal in pretty much every public building, and most people are fairly convinced now that the world is round, and orbits the sun once a year. That’s progress, my friends!

These changes have happened over centuries and millennia, and historically speaking, people will see maybe one or two revolutions of this kind within a lifetime. Someone who had gone half their life without ever sending a telegraph would still be amazed by the ability on their deathbed. Progress was slow and steady.

That is, up until the technological revolution. In the same way steam power drove the industrial revolution, the invention of the microprocessor, the transistor and the integrated circuit board have created a new epoch. These components have religiously obeyed Moor’s law (doubling in performance or halving in size every 2 years) since the 1950’s meaning the advancements we get to see in our own lifetimes far outnumber those of the previous centuries combined.

The first iPhone was released in 2007. A seismic shift in the technology available to us and a precipitating force in the development of other electronics and technologies. Arguably, the capabilities of the iPhone are not leaps and bounds ahead of where they were 10 years ago, a similar interface, it has a camera, access to the internet, and (apparently) the ability to make and receive phone calls, but there has been one significant technology that has improved dramatically. Batteries. Specifically, Lithium-ion batteries. Those small, discreet blocks of chemical witchcraft that power much of our modern world.

Three hundred and something words later, and I promise I’m getting to my point…

We have not seen any changes within the automotive industry on par with the pretty much every other industry in the world. Whilst I accept that the automotive industry has embraced technological advances, nothing huge has happened to the fundamental way in which cars are made to move.
We have ABS, and airbags. There are TV’s and touchscreens in cars now. Headlights that know when it’s dark and wipers that know when it’s raining. A Ford Mondeo will warn you if you start drifting out of your lane, and run of the mill hatchbacks can park themselves. But real progress in the underlying technology? None.

Cars still run on liquefied dinosaurs. They still frequently crash in to one another. And it’s fairly conclusive that what comes out the back of them isn’t very nice. This is not progress.

Now I am, at heart, a petrol head. I like the sound of a V8. I enjoy the punch from a turbocharger. I revel in a satisfying and well balanced chassis. But I do feel that these types of cars will retire from being everyday use items in the not-so-distant future. They simply have to. And whilst I plan on keeping something petroly and noisy for years to come, it will become a weekend car. Something I use for fun, rather than necessity. It will become rare and expensive to drive one of those noisy old-fashioned things. A revolution is coming. And it’s being led by one, Mr Elon Musk.

Musk is a true philanthropist. However instead of helping at a local homeless shelter, or setting up a fresh water initiative in Africa, he endeavours to save the entire planet in the first instance, and setup a colony on Mars just in case that doesn’t go to plan. This man is thinking BIG.
Musk’s inter-planetary aspirations will have to wait for another day – what I am going to focus on is one of his hobbies that is changing (read “saving”) the world. A small car company called Tesla. Rumour has it he spends just two days a week managing his electric car enterprise in Silicon Valley, but what he achieves in those two days is staggering. Musk’s team are designing, developing and building the future. And once they’ve done that, they start again, and design, develop and build the next future. Endless innovations and technological advances pour out Tesla and they are really starting to have an impact on our world.

Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, was not a commercial success in any traditional sense, delivering less than 2500 units in the 5 years of production. Not a sustainable business model, but this was never really the point. Musk used the Roadster as a proof of concept and a development platform, funding it with his own money, and some generous donations from equally altruistic friends. The Roadster moved battery and motor technologies forward more in 5 years than they had done in the last 50. (Hat tip to AC Propulsion for their development work here! Great stuff people!)
The roadster was, by all accounts, a very good sports car. That magical top trumps statistic of 0-60mph is a staggering 3.9 seconds. The chassis was borrowed from a Lotus Elise so it was light and had excellent handling characteristics. The interior, whilst snug, was futuristic and generally a fun place to be. It was a good car… that cost over $110,000.

The main drawback, other than the price tag, was that the technology for an electric car just wasn’t quite ready. People spending that sort of money on what is, by all measures, a supercar, expect certain things. And one of those things is the ability to drive from their house in the the south of England to their (other) house in Saint-Tropez for a long weekend. The Roadster can’t do that.

It’s range, an impressive-for-an-electric-car 200 miles, would get you to Lille. A lovely, quaint French town, but not the Mediterranean sanctuary you’re looking for. The 850-mile journey would take 5 full recharges of the Roadster’s batteries, meaning you would experience a collection of delightful Bed and Breakfasts on route, but it does put a choke on your long weekend. Each charge takes several hours, so an overnight stopover is best, but having only travelled 200 miles, you’re left with a large chunk of the day that you would rather spend on your Aquariva.

So the Roadster was not an all-out success. But the truth is, it wasn’t really planned as one. The Roadster allowed Tesla (and specifically Mr Musk) to develop and test new motor and battery technologies, and that in turn paved the way for the next Tesla. The Model S.

The Model S was a totally different beast to the Roadster. Aside from the blistering performance, the two have little in common. The Model S is a big, 5-door saloon car. It has a spacious cabin, large boot and frunk (that’s a FRont-trUNK by the way) with class leading safety credentials and absolutely all of the latest toys and gadgets available on the road today. Oh, it can also pin you to your seat with 1.1G of brute force whilst getting to 60mph in anything from 6 seconds to under 3 seconds depending on your spec. There is no other car available today that can compete with that combination of practicality and performance. None.

Battery technology moved on leaps and bounds since the Roadster’s introduction, mainly spearheaded by Tesla themselves, and the range of the Model S was now around 300 miles (still not enough to get to Saint-Tropez) and the charging infrastructure had expanded rapidly. The new Supercharger technology means a full charge in an hour, so suddenly the French Riviera is within reach. Battery and charging technologies are constantly under development and charging times and ranges are set to improve as time goes on.

Two 1-hour stops whilst travelling across France would be welcome relief driving any modern supercar, so I really don’t think the range thing is a problem now. The price tag was still high, starting at around $73,000, but it was now no longer competing with the supercar market. Now it was targeting the luxury saloons. BMW 5-series, Audi A6’s Mercedes S-classes – these became the new prey of Tesla.

And you know what? Tesla made a dent!

In the 12 months to September2018, Tesla sold over 180,000 cars worldwide. Up from approximately 75,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017.

Petrol engines worked and could be tweaked year on year to improve performance and emissions. The car industry was too stubborn and too frugal to invest in changing from the status quo. This is reason that electric cars have not been progressed in the last century – they are incredibly expensive to develop. Battery technology, motor technology, regenerative braking technology – this is cutting edge stuff. Formula One and Formula E have driven some development in these areas, but nothing really suitable for road use. Until Tesla came along that is.

Musk not only spent his own money on developing all this stuff, he then had the audacity to make everything open source. He gave it away. Anyone can get the designs of the new batteries and motors and make their own version. Now that the investment had been made, more and more car makers will be jumping on board, piggybacking off Tesla’s work with just a fraction of the development costs. There is already a strong and healthy relationship with Mercedes in Europe and Toyota in Japan, and it is only a matter of time before more manufacturers eat their humble pie and ask for help.

Tesla has released another model since the introduction of the Model S, the Model-X, to enter the SUV market. Whilst the Aristocrats might stay loyal to their Range Rovers for the time being, “soccer-moms” might be convinced to go electric. With them, the range issue disappears completely – each day they will do 20 miles or so dropping the kids at school and running errands, plug it in overnight, and never stop at a petrol station ever again. What’s not to like about that?

There’s more.
The Tesla Model-3. This one is the real game-changer. A $35,000 car, with updated battery technology and sports car levels of performance. Don’t expect the range or power of the Model-S, but expect this to compete feverishly with high performance German saloons and all the current hot-hatches. The Model-3 will be accessible to a huge swathe of the public, and that will only go to further fund Musk’s relentless drive towards cheaper and better electric car technology.

In a few decades’ time, probably the 2040’s, don’t be surprised if the next generation are judging us for once using liquefied dinosaurs to get around. That fact that we had to burn a gallon of the stuff just to move 30 miles will seem ludicrous to those being born in the next few years. People still using those smoky old-fashioned contraptions will most likely be true-to-heart petrol-heads (me), or sad anoraks (potentially also me).

The death of the petrol engine will be a sad time for some. In the same way steam trains and typewriters were looked on with despair as they were surpassed by new technology, so too will be the case for the internal combustion engine. But that melancholy attitude will pass, and people will begin to judge those of the past (which is us today) for not making the change sooner. I’ll miss the sound of a V8… but I’d miss fresh air more.
Petrol engines have helped us get far in the last century. But the time has come for them to be surpassed.


Go on Elon!

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