Electric Car on Steroids

As a belated Father's Day gift, my daughter Tali arranged for and accompanied me on a Tesla test drive yesterday.  It was an unforgettable experience.

The Tesla is an amazing vehicle.  Too amazing for my staid tastes, though.  And I'm not just talking about the $65,000-plus price tag after subtracting the $7,500 federal tax credit and $2,500 Massachusetts rebate for plug-in electric vehicles.

The Tesla showroom we visited is in the heart of one of my least favorite places in Greater Boston: the cavernous Natick Collection.  When my two daughters were in their teens, I used to park my 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid (horsepower: slightly north of 100) in the lot outside this vast indoor shopping mall.  Then I'd park myself in the food court while they pursued their fashion dreams.  Not my favorite way to spend a weekend afternoon, but I love my daughters and felt this was my duty as an adoring dad.

Returning to the mall yesterday was, admittedly, a lot more fun.  The Tesla showroom is visual ice cream.  The cars are impossibly sleek, the technology is riveting, and our sales rep was a super-well-informed Northeastern University undergrad majoring in international business.  Once I signed the release form promising not to do anything really stupid while test-driving the priciest vehicle I'd ever handled, we headed out through a maze of corridors to a parking garage where a jet black Tesla Model S 85D awaited us, plugged into its 240-volt charging station.  As I approached the driver's door, a recessed zinc handle magically emerged, Bond-style, from the smooth surface of the side panel.  That was the beginning of an electronic journey that reminded me just how far we've come from the good old days when windows were cranked by hand, maps were read on folded paper, distance from nearby vehicles was registered by eye, and just about every other aspect of driving was self-administered. 

The Tesla I drove doesn't operate fully on autopilot yet.  (That'll happen soon enough, I'm sure.)  But it does automatically brake if 360-degree sensors detect imminent danger, and apparently it can vary speeds to match surrounding traffic, change lanes at the tap of a turn signal, detect parking spaces and automatically park in them, and much more.  Maybe it's an older guy thing, but I actually like to control those things myself!

Once airborne -- I mean enroute -- the sensory experience was practically overwhelming.  Rather than detail every aspect of the driving experience, I'll just describe the acceleration exercise that our Tesla host asked me to perform.  This particular model, with 422 horsepower, goes from zero to sixty in 4.4 seconds - not nearly as peppy as the 691-horsepower P85D, which reaches that speed in an alarming 3.1 seconds.  Experiencing this "slower" car's acceleration, though, I don't think I'd survive the faster alternative.  As it was, I felt I was going to faint from the G-force punch that pinned my head and torso against the seat.  When I hit the pedal, my daughter Tali exclaimed something that I was too distracted to remember and probably wouldn't repeat here even if I could. 

I was too stunned to look at the speed gauge, but I'm sure I didn't make it much beyond halfway to 60 MPH.  At age 61, that was all I could stand.

So what does all this say about the present state and future promise of electric vehicles?  My own take is this: Elon Musk has an undeniable flair for pushing the frontiers of travel - terrestrial and otherwise.  I have grave misgivings about his SpaceX adventurism, but in dramatizing the outer reaches of earthly electric car technology, he may be doing all of us a service.  I just hope that we don't take him too literally.  What we really need are electric vehicles that safely, reliably, and affordably deliver us from one place to another.  That can be done with a whole lot less than the Tesla has to offer.