Don Pittis: Thanks to Tesla, electric car in passing lane to the future

Not only has Tesla Motors posted its first profit, but its Model S just received the highest-ever rating in Consumer Reports magazine. CBC's Don Pittis thinks this is a transformational moment for the electric car industry.

Company posts first profit, Model S gets record high score in Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports magazine just gave the Tesla Model S, an electric car, its highest rating ever. (Tesla)

Could it have been just six years ago that a film called Who Killed the Electric Car? described a brilliant new technology overwhelmed by dark forces? Led by America's powerful oil lobby, said the film, a homegrown conspiracy took a promising technology and literally crushed it, as General Motors called in all their leases on the EV1 and destroyed all but a handful.

I am convinced that today the future of the electric car has suddenly been transformed. Two nearly simultaneous events suggest electric vehicles have smashed through a crucial roadblock, and that you will likely be driving one in your lifetime.

The first significant event was the announcement yesterday that Tesla Motors, the all-electric upstart automaker run by Elon Musk — a real-life Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) — has had its first ever quarterly profit.

The second significant event is a review today in the highly credible Consumer Reports magazine that called the Tesla Model S "the best car we've ever tested."

It would be easy for skeptics to say I am suffering from an over-charge of enthusiasm. Certainly most auto critics have been hard on electrics. Whether due to the industry-wide conspiracy implied by the film mentioned above or the basic conservatism that affects us all, most automotive writers have pronounced little but doom for battery-only vehicles – cars, as some said, that were for no one but committed "enviro-weenies."

Initial objections to technology

The vehicles were criticized for their looks, their similarity to golf carts and the lagging battery technology that left owners shuddering with "range-anxiety" as the automotive establishment lined up to get their licks in.

And most of their objections were just. Fossil-fuel-powered cars are getting more efficient at a fraction of the price. Plug-in hybrids provide the advantages of batteries without the need to recharge. The long-awaited improvements in battery technology still have not arrived.

Strong criticisms, but none of them able to contend with Elon Musk, the California scientist billionaire with Canadian roots. Among his other business interests, Musk intends to make humans a multi-planetary species, and with his private rocket ship company, SpaceX, he is well on his way. To him, transforming two of the world's biggest industries, energy and automobiles, was a mere terrestrial endeavour.

What Musk has done is worked his way around all the obstacles and built a car that Consumer Reports, and many others, say is a pleasure to drive: acceleration quicker and smoother than an expensive sports car, characteristic good looks, a range of hundreds of kilometres and virtually silent inside and out.

But consumer appeal is only half the battle.

Canada's Bricklin sports car was ahead of its time. But it had one huge flaw: it didn't make money.

This week, Tesla Motors stepped over that crucial barrier. And with that one step, in business, everything becomes possible.

I remember a lesson from a friend who ran a business helping people overcome drug addiction. He pointed to a competitor who charged less because he didn't want to earn money from peoples' suffering. That competitor went broke and could help no one.

In a similar way, Tesla has passed the same test as my friend. By making a profit, the company has earned the right to continued existence.

Electric cars still far from perfect

Despite a 99 out of 100 rating from Consumer Reports – a company that cannot be bought and accepts no advertising – electric cars are far from perfect.

The Tesla Model S is not ready for a marathon long-weekend ski trip from Regina to the mountains. Most of us still don't have chargers in our driveways and car parks. Many of us are not prepared to spend $70,000 for a technology we don't yet believe in.

But by earning a profit, Tesla has proved it may just be here for the long term. Building on a product that sells now, Tesla can wait for better batteries, it can wait until charging systems improve, and it will be here when energy companies learn to use electric cars as reservoirs for intermittent green power sources.   

Seventy-thousand dollars sounds like a lot, but it is well within the price range of other luxury brands like Lexus, Mercedes and Audi. And if you want to make a car that will convince the conservative car buyer, it is far better to start at the high end, rather than with something that looks like a golf cart.

The automotive business is based on the technology of serial improvements. With each new model year, the expensive innovations of the high-priced cars flow down to the more affordable marketplace. The electric car, far from dead, is now on that road to the future.