All Vehicles Will Be Electric, Says Spaceflight Pioneer Elon Musk
NEW YORK -- Electric cars have just begun their road renaissance, but the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who inspired Hollywood's latest version of "Iron Man" already envisions a future where practically all vehicles run on electricity rather than fossil fuels.
Elon Musk made his prediction after one of the first screenings of the documentary "Revenge of the Electric Car" at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23. Musk has two startups: electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors and private spaceflight firm SpaceX.
"I actually am absolutely convinced that all modes of transport will go fully electric -- with the ironic exception of rockets," Musk said.
Electric cars still face an uphill battle against their gas-guzzling cousins. Just 20,000 out of 73 million cars sold in 2010 ran on electric batteries, according to Carlos Ghosn, chairman and CEO of Renault and Nissan, who also spoke during the "Tribeca Talks" event.
But Ghosn seemed confident in the electric car's future. Nissan has spent $5 billion so far to launch its all-electric Leaf car as part of a calculated gamble on that future.
"I don't think you can innovate without taking any risks," Ghosn said. "But if you want to take a risk on something, this is a good one."
Selling like hotcakes
Anyone who wants to slide behind the wheel of their own electric car will have to get in line. Nissan can't make the $30,000 Leaf fast enough for people on the waiting list. Ghosn said he doesn't even bother trying to convince skeptical buyers, given the existing demand.
"We have no interest in electrifying people who don't want to be electrified," Ghosn said.
He meant their cars, of course.
About 250,000 "hand raisers" have already expressed interest or signed on to buy the Leaf, which went on sale in December. Nissan surveys show that most want the Leaf as a second car for the family, and they don't suffer the "range anxiety" about how far they can go on a single battery charge.
Most of the would-be Leaf owners drive about 50 miles a day. That covers 80 percent of the planet's driving habits, Ghosn said.
More than half of the people who bought or ordered the Leaf also have a hybrid car. That suggests that Americans can get used to electric cars by using hybrids.
Hybrid cars may serve as the "training wheels" for electric cars, said Dan Neil, an automotive columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He was recounting what he had been told by Frank Weber, lead engineer for General Motor's hybrid Chevrolet Volt.
"Over the years they will get habituated to plugging in, and then they'll finally ask: 'Why do I need the gas engine at all?'" Neil said. "It's psychological and it's cultural. This, I think, is the biggest mountain to climb of all."
Those mental barriers come in the form of a "culture of unlimited mobility" in a big country, Neil added.
Hitting the open road
Drivers who love to see miles of highway vanish in the rearview mirror can still do it in electric cars, according to Musk. He pointed to the 300 mile-per-charge range of Tesla Motors' Model S, an all-electric sedan scheduled to go on sale in 2012.
Charging the battery pack to full takes just 45 minutes, so that drivers can go about 100 miles for every 15 minutes of charging.
"You can stop for half an hour, plug your car in, grab a bite to eat, go to the bathroom, get a coffee, come back and you're ready to do another 200 miles," Musk said. "You can go across the entire country that way."
Neil played devil's advocate by pointing out that the charging station infrastructure still needs to be built across the country. He also challenged Musk's suggestion that truly range-hungry drivers could get their battery packs swapped out for a fresh one in less than 60 seconds -- less time than filling up a gas tank.
Going mass market
Still, the battery-swapping solution applies to only a small minority of would-be electric drivers. Most would easily make do with even the shorter range of the Nissan Leaf, as Ghosn said.
Musk described Tesla Motors' goal of following Nissan into the mass market with electric cars. He added that a "low price, high volume" car made by his company could be achievable within four or five years.
But the electric car innovators don't have to go it alone. The U.S. government and others have made billions of dollars in loans available to electric car manufacturers, and have created tax credits or similar incentives for consumers to buy the vehicles.
Such public funds can help electric cars reach a critical mass of 1 million vehicles on the road, Ghosn said. Then the mass production scale would work in favor of electric car manufacturers, and the industry could shed its own training wheels.
"I think the first generation of electric cars is the ones coming now, but in three or four years, you're going to see much more efficient cars coming with longer range, smaller battery, cheaper cost," Ghosn said.