Volt heads can rev up, as I’ve test-driven the future
Last week I was bored to death reading coal industry propaganda and needed some inspiration, so I took $50,000 worth of new green technology for a test drive.
The Prius is the worlds first and biggest selling hybrid car, meaning it has both an electric motor and a petrol engine, which work in tandem to minimize petrol consumption. It also features a HUD heads up display, like in a military jet and solar panels built into the roof. If Captain Planet had a car, this would be it.
The market for hybrid cars is driven (sorry) by both Peak Oil and climate change. Peak Oil is the term for ecological limits as they apply to crude oil, or more specifically, the point in history at which oil production reaches a peak.
The world’s foremost Peak Oil campaigner is Richard Heinberg and he nominates 11 July 2008 as THE day when global oil production reached its apogee. If he is right, then we are now living through the beginning of the end of the fossil fools era.
The selling point of the hybrid car is that the electric motor acts as a brake when you need to slow down, recouping waste energy and storing it as electric power in the battery. This is why the Prius has the best Greenhouse rating in the Australian Governments online Green Vehicle Guide.
An article in Car and Driver Magazines latest edition concedes that the petrol auto is dead and will soon be replaced by hybrids and other designs that use electric engines for some or all of the drive power.
My favorite technological toy in the Prius was the HUD, which displays the speed and other data low on the windscreen directly in the drivers line of sight. It accentuates the futuristic note that Toyota hit in the dashboard design.
Although I suspect that as the planet hots up, Prius drivers will say the best thing about the car is the solar panel built into the roof. This powers a fan that extracts air, stopping the car from heating up while it is parked.
Overall, the most notable driving sensations are the luxurious quietness of the electric motor and the gentle acceleration, especially when in Eco or electric-only modes.
Despite or perhaps because of this restrained, intelligent design, Prius is the number one model in Japan in July, for the third month in a row. More than one million have been sold internationally, which is a serious sales statistic, even for the worlds number one car manufacturer. There is no doubt, the Prius is a very good car.
Tesla cars, by contrast, are better than good, they are downright evil. Tesla is a silicon valley start-up company that builds sports-performance, fully electric cars. It was founded in 2003 by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk and markets at aspirational not ethical consumers (although it is claimed they can get up to twice the energy efficiency of a Prius).
The Tesla Roadster is the first model and has enough testosterone in the design and engineering to catch the eye of Jeremy Clarkson and Co of Top Gear.
When Clarkson drove the Roadster to beat a Lotus in 2007 he moaned about its reliability and charge time but was agog at the performance. The Lotus overtook on the curves with its superior handling but was no match for the Tesla in the straights. (The performance side-effect of the Tesla electric motor is it delivers peak torque from 0 RPM right up to around mid-range, giving prodigious acceleration and all with one gear).
The official Top Gear test run by Stig the madman clocked the electric car at the same track speed as a Porche 911. The Roadster is even faster, getting from 0-100km in 3.7 seconds.
I have said for years that suburban Australian blokes will fall in love with the new energy economy only on the day some boofhead wraps his electric sports car around a pole, doing 250km/h on the M4.
Even though the Prius took almost a minute to get to 40km/h in full electric mode, it still propelled me out of my green funk. It demonstrated that we can reject our coal industry’s propaganda that coal is here to stay and renewable energy is beyond our reach. The Australian Coal Association’s lazy, whining world view ignores the incredible energy humans can unleash when we choose to be creative, intelligent and determined.
The leading edge of the auto industry, the building industry and many others, is no longer a debate about whether to go with green tech, but which one. Economic success now is increasingly a design challenge, in which upstarts like Tesla can overtake dinosaurs like Ford in the blink of an economic downturn.
So will I buy the Prius? Probably not. How about a Tesla Roadster? In my dreams.
I own a little Toyota Echo, which I intend to replace with public transport, a Go Get car for occasional use and best of all walking. When I remember to schedule meetings so I can walk, I arrive with a clearer mind and far more energy than if sit in a car, bus or train seat for an hour.
For the early adopters, walking is cool. Jeff Scher has made an animation of the passing parade of pedestrians in New York because, to his artists eye Walking is life at its most immediate. In London and other big cities, walking is activism, a way of reclaiming and getting to know not the people of the City but some more abstract essence of place.
For the late adopters of the green wave, being a petrol head is OK for now, but it will soon give way to volt head.
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