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Tesla Motors, the maker of electric Roadster sports cars, plans to begin selling the Model X by 2015. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg News
Tesla Motors, the maker of electric Roadster sports cars, plans to begin selling the Model X by 2015. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg News

Silicon Valley driving electric car advances

By producing electric cars that can perform better than traditional vehicles while cutting carbon emissions, Silicon Valley's new breed of carmaker hopes to develop a safer form of automobile.

The aim is to replace the dirty technology of the internal combustion engines with cleaner and safer smart vehicles, including the self-driving ones from Google. Tony Glover writes

A Silicon Valley believes it is only a decade away from solving the world's fossil fuel crisis while dramatically cutting road deaths.

By producing electric cars that can perform better than traditional vehicles while cutting carbon emissions, Silicon Valley's new breed of car maker hopes to replace the dangerous and dirty 20th-century technology of the internal combustion engine with a cleaner, safer form of automobile. Some of the computerised electric vehicles being driven around California are also programmed to do all the driving, potentially cutting the number of road accidents.

Silicon Valley's first indigenous electric car maker Tesla launched a high-priced electric sports car, the Roadster in 2008, some of which can be seen being driven around the UAE. The Roadster runs on laptop batteries and had a basic price of US$109,000 (Dh400,335), but it can accelerate from nought to 100kph in 3.7 seconds. It was followed by the Tesla Model S last year, a full-sized electric four-door fastback sedan with a price tag of $57,400, just over the half that of the Roadster. The company intends to launch a new electric car, the Model X, a full-sized sport utility vehicle, around 2015.

According to the Tesla spokesman, Karl Berridge, the Silicon Valley car maker subsequently will launch "third-generation electric cars" with a lower price tag and designed to have mass appeal, although the company's first priority has been to make its current model turn a profit.

"In the first quarter of this year, 4,750 vehicles were delivered. This is a significant number as it moves us into full profitability, making it over 7,000 Model S delivered [in total so far] with more than 20,000 to be delivered this year," says Mr Berridge.

But it is by no means certain that Tesla will be able to make the leap from a manufacturer of rich men's toys into a mainstream car maker. Even if electric car enthusiasts' claims that the traditional car makers are paying only lip service to electric cars is true, companies such as Toyota and Volkswagen may prove to be deadly competitors in an industry they know well. The Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle that runs on both petrol and electricity, is already selling well in Tesla's home market of California.

But Tesla believes that cutting-edge technology will win out over traditional methods.

"We would see hybrids as a stopgap measure only," says Mr Berridge.

He adds: "Hybrids lack many of the benefits of electric cars. For example, the location of the battery on the floor of the vehicle means it handles and brakes better and has two trunks. This also makes the car faster and easier to service."

Google, whose co-founder Sergey Brin was recently spotted in a pink customised Tesla bearing a Batman sign, has already developed truly 21st-century in-car technology in the form of cars that are capable of automatically driving to a given location. This enables the driver to have more time to log on to online communications and entertainment services such as those provided by Google itself.

The main barrier to Google's domination of yet another industry is that its self-drive cars are a little like mobile phones and internet connections in that they are not of very much value until a significant number of people use them.

According to the Silicon Valley analyst Rob Enderle, the principal analyst at the Enderle Group: "It may be some years before enough electric vehicles are on the roads to enable them to communicate with one another to a point where human drivers no longer have to take the wheel.

"I pass the self-driving Google cars several times a week and generally there is a human driving them. The ongoing problem is that the lane lines aren't always in great shape, weather and visibility vary, and there is no conversation going on with the cars around them," says Mr Enderle.

He adds that the new breed of "smart" cars will gradually start to take over some aspects of driving before eventually taking over the driver's role entirely.

"This will probably initially enter the market as an ever more capable set of cruise control and auto-parking capability until we have a critical mass of cars that can communicate with each other and better anticipate problems," says Mr Enderle.

"Once that happens the conversion will happen pretty quickly, but we are likely well over a decade out before we will get the necessary critical mass."

But once in place car users should be able to get to their destination more quickly and know accurately at departure when the arrival time will be. "Smart cars" may also be safer than those driven by humans.

"Accidents, even those caused by equipment failure, will happen far less often. Fatal accidents will be all but eliminated, and cars will largely migrate towards looking like living rooms on wheels," says Mr Enderle.

But he adds that today's driver will soon become "an electronic pod person".

 

business@thenational.ae

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