Who Saved the Electric Car?

It appears that 325,000 revved-up Tesla fans did—and they may represent just the tip of the iceberg.

The Tesla Model 3 EV Image courtesy of Tesla Motors

There’s a terrific scene in the 2000 political drama The Contender when the president of the United States (played by Jeff Bridges) issues what is, for my money, the most exquisitely crafted backhanded compliment of all time. As he opts not to choose a popular governor to be his vice president, he says to the man he’s just rejected: “You’re the future of the Democratic Party. . . and you always will be.”

That’s basically how electric cars have been perceived for decades. You’re the future of personal transportation . . . and you always will be. We so greatly admire all that you’re doing and all that you stand for—which is why it’s such a shame that you’ll never live up to your full potential.

Fortunately, times have changed. Last week, electric cars finally got to enjoy a white-hot moment of cultural cachet, signifying their transformation from earnest-but-unsexy to undeniably cool. The moment came when Tesla Motors announced that it had received more than 325,000 online reservations, at $1,000 a pop, for the forthcoming Model 3 EV—over the course of just seven days. Assuming that all those reservations turn into actual purchases, they represent nearly $14 billion in future sales. The overwhelming customer response compelled Tesla to pronounce, only somewhat breathlessly, that the kickoff was “the single biggest one-week launch of any product ever.”

The GM EV1 Image courtesy of The Henry Ford/Flickr
Frankly, the inherent un-sexiness of most electric vehicles (
EVs) has been a part of their problem. Carmakers have long presented them to consumers as environmentally virtuous alternatives to gasoline-powered cars—and too often they’ve been designed to stand out accordingly, to the extent that many practically scream out: I’m far more concerned about the planet than I am about my own market share! In the late 1990s, especially, automakers apparently assumed that the typical EV buyer was someone who simply didn’t care if her car resembled a prop from a low-budget sci-fi movie or a loaf of bread on wheels.

Hyperbole aside, this is a big deal. It’s not for nothing that the blog post in which Tesla’s announcement appeared was headlined “The Week That Electric Vehicles Went Mainstream.” And while it’s too early to tell how many of those 325,000 reservations will pan out (the $1,000, it should be noted, is fully refundable), the mere fact that so many people didn’t hesitate to part with that much cash now just for the opportunity to pay Tesla another $41,000 a few years from now bespeaks a groundswell of excitement that’s genuinely unprecedented.

The Tesla Model 3 EV Image courtesy of Tesla Motors

Genuinely unprecedented, perhaps, but easily explained. Spurred by the phenomenal success of gas-electric hybrids over the past decade, manufacturers seem to have come around to the idea that EVs deserve the same attention to styling, power, and performance as gas-powered vehicles do. Technology has changed along with the times. In addition to looking sleeker, the next generation of EVs will be able to go more than 200 miles between battery charges, which should help to assuage many drivers’ perfectly reasonable concern—sometimes referred to as “range anxiety”—about reliability and long-distance travel. These batteries are getting cheaper, too, promising to bring the total price of many EVs within reach of the average car customer.

The fundamental consumer and environmental logic behind EVs has never been in question; their delayed entry into the mass marketplace has always been a function of technological and economic limitations. Once the primary hurdle was cleared—the development of an affordable battery that could go hundreds of miles between recharges—all that remained was for someone to put that battery into a sexy, streamlined body . . . and to see how the marketplace responded.

We now have that response, and it’s not only heartening but thrilling. Anyone who doubted that the terms “electric car sale” and “consumer frenzy” would ever appear in the same sentence must now reconsider the possibility that EVs are poised to hit it big, and soon. According to Bloomberg News, 2022 is the year that electric cars will achieve commercial liftoff—the year their price comes down enough to make them actively competitive with gas-powered cars. By 2040, electric vehicles could account for more than a third of all vehicle sales, and given the trajectories of economic S-curves, that figure may actually be conservative. (An animated video accompanying the Bloomberg story helps put the issue in perspective.)

The Peak Oil Myth and the Rise of the Electric Car from Bran Dougherty-Johnson on Vimeo.

It’s fitting that the first vehicle to get hundreds of thousands of consumers demonstrably excited about EVs is made by Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley–based company run by Elon Musk, a larger-than-life futurist who has made no secret of his intent to change the world. Until now, Tesla’s electric cars have been prohibitively expensive for most; the Model 3 is the first of several EVs scheduled to roll off the lines in the next few years (including cars from Chevy and Nissan) that will combine affordability with style and extended battery life. In anticipation of increased demand, Musk is building new plants in order to ramp up production tenfold, from Tesla’s current 50,000 cars a year to 500,000 by 2020.

If Musk succeeds, he may turn out to be one of those rare billionaire industrialists who publicly promise to change the world—and then actually follow through. But regardless of who’s behind the wheel, the automobile world is definitely changing. We appear to have arrived at the moment when technology, design, and demand have fully merged into a verifiable phenomenon, auguring a cultural shift. And the effect of this shift on oil consumption and carbon emissions can’t be overstated.

The future is no longer the future, in other words. For electric cars, the future has arrived. And from the climate’s perspective, not a moment too soon.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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