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Chapter 3: Teslas In The Middle of Nowhere

The Future In Front of Me, The Past Behind Me is a gasoline-fueled narrative by automotive journalist Tony Borroz. It details the joys, thrills, and even the uncertainties of the car-obsessed lifestyle. In advance of the book’s release, we are previewing the first few chapters. Chapters one and two here

Thanks to the little voice in my head, okay, the voice from Google maps coming through my Bluetooth earpiece (a necessity in a soft-top, it’s loud in here), I’m bounced off the main route from southern Arizona through Phoenix and on into Palm Springs. Google says this is for traffic, and I believe it.

Besides, since my Miata is both black and lacks air conditioning (must save weight), the last thing I want is to get stuck in the middle of traffic, in the middle of Phoenix, in the middle of yet another broiling day in the desert.

Buzzard Buffet

So I’m shunted off towards Maricopa and Gila Bend and through the Sonoran Desert National Monument. It looks like a Road Runner cartoon. And, as predicted by Google, sparsely trafficked. I’m heading north doing my usual five-over the posted speed limit when a dark blue Tesla Model S blows by me.

“Well you don’t have range anxiety it seems,” I say to myself.

Maybe it’s too many experiences of having the finest in British electrical “systems” fail me in the middle of nowhere that I see this man – older white guy driving, not-as-older white gal in the passenger seat, both of them quaffed and polished, rich-looking, in a word – as being a little on the brave side at first. How far is he from a charging station? If he runs the batteries dry, will Tesla come out to rescue him? If they do, will they get to him before those buzzards do? (Side note: There are literal buzzards in the sky more often than not around here. When you see them wheeling down, closer and closer to the desert floor, you know something (or someone) is coming to a rather grizzly end.)

I figured he knows what he’s doing. The Tesla had Arizona plates, and everything about the guy said “Scottsdale” or “Chandler” or some other rich, white burbclave where you can drop 100K on a car and the rent-a-pigs at the front gate of your “community” stand athwart any of those people who make you feel uncomfortable. But still, it was the rarity of seeing an EV out in the middle of nowhere that caught me by surprise.

You see lots of Teslas in large metro areas. Lots in Phoenix and Tucson – and with the near-constant sunshine and dropping prices of solar panels, here’s the area where you could take your personal transportation completely off the grid. The Bay Area has a lot of them, per car-capita, but Seattle has tons of the things. I’m assuming the rich, well to-do buyers in places like Chicago and Los Angeles and Miami and such look upon Elon’s offerings with approval.

Still . . . desert + middle of nowhere + failing battery capacity = buzzard buffet.

desert highway travel concept usa PCRJHED
“Well you don’t seem to have range anxiety.”

Tolling Bells

At least in my mind, I’m musing, when whoosh, another Tesla Model S goes stonking by me. Given my rate of speed, this second one must be pushing the ton. This one was white, again with an older white guy driving, but with no passengers. If the first guy was brave, in my initial, conservative estimation, this guy was braver than Indiana Jones.

But there it was: The Future.

That was my conclusion as the white Tesla disappeared into the vanishing point distance. If not one, but two people, and in quick succession at that, felt just fine driving an EV in this situation, then eventually everyone would.

They might not all be Teslas – and probably won’t, given Tesla’s shakiness (both in terms of falling quality at the moment and continued red ink) – but eventually EVs will become a larger and larger portion of what we see on the road. Eventually performance cars with internal combustion engines will be regarded by other drivers and by people walking down sidewalks with the same curiosity they show today when they see a Model T. “Look’it that, you have to start it with a crank!” “No airbags. Not one!” “Your Ferrari has twelve cylinders?!”

I hear our funeral dirge, far off in the distance, can you?

Oh well.

Fast & Furious

Performance cars were always a small slice of the pie. And who cares if nine out of ten drivers choose something with all the personality of a toaster to “drive?” I don’t. I’m actually quite rare for a gearhead: I love public transportation. It’s handy in big cities and, from a gearhead’s perspective, actually beneficial to us. The more people using public transportation, the fewer of them there are on the road. In front of me. Going five miles an hour under the speed limit. Texting. Causing my blood pressure to rise . . . to . . . breathe, breathe Tony. Calm down.

And in a way, a variation about that is how I feel about EVs. The facts of the matter are pretty clear by now: cars are poisoning our atmosphere and are a leading contributor to global warming. We are going to have to Deal with that, or it will Deal with us.

And EVs are fun, even if most people don’t realize it. I’ve played around with my fair share of Teslas and, in addition to being high-tech and flashy and Helping with the environment (with a capital “H”), they are GD Friggin’ fast! Teslas, and any EV with software set up that way, are a complete blast to drive. They almost feel like driving in a video game (Forza or Grand Turismo, take your choice). All you have to do is mash your right foot and point it. BOOM! You are Down The Road. And I mean like now, daddy-o.

Tesla Roadsters, for example, are frighteningly effective on an AutoX track. They’re small enough to fit between gates and around cones and, thanks to the physics of electric motors, all that torque (and there is a lot of it) comes in rightfrigginnow! Sure, the Roadster is heavy, no way to get around that. But as my oldest brother once said: “horsepower overcomes many handling deficiencies.”

Roadster Rear 34
Tesla Roadster. Photo: Tesla Motors.

The More Things Change . . .

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t there more EVs out there?

To me, there are two main factors: range and cost.

Range is something anyone can readily understand. The good thing is this is slowly being dealt with. Slowly, range is becoming greater and greater. That won’t be a problem. Eventually. Of course, this does run right into the concept of energy density. Energy density works like this: How much energy do you get out of a power source of a given size. Look at my 1994 Miata. It has an 11.5-gallon fuel tank about the size of an old hard-sided suitcase. Once full, I can drive 300 miles (easy) before it runs dry.

To get that same range (give or take) out of a Tesla (the current range performance benchmark) takes a battery pack the size of a futon that weighs right around half a ton. That is energy density. And that is the other engineering hurdle to be cleared after getting that range thing finally wired.

Cost, on the other hand, is more problematic. At the moment, the price point of these things, Teslas specifically, are high. Like right around $100,000 high. Yes, there are cheaper alternatives and yes, there is the (slowly) rolling out of the Tesla Model 3, but still, if you want to get what counts as “acceptable” in the EV world, you better have the cash. Is that really so bad? Yes, yes it is. In a way. Because I want one of these, but 100-large is still 100-large (and hey, I’m a writer, I don’t even have one-large at this point).

Of course the thing about electric cars is that you have to realize you’re paying for pretty much everything up front. Since there’s no (real) maintenance to speak of, manufactures build that in to their profit structure (i.e. no dealer profit streams). It’s sort of like you’re buying all the “gas” you’re ever going to need right up front too, in a way, since your electricity rates are (generally) pretty low. So if you factor that in, if you went and bought a Camry and had to pay for all the maintenance up front, and had to pay for all your gas up front too, Camrys wouldn’t be that cheap either.

The More They Stay The Same

But where would I have been a century ago? Would I have been standing on a sidewalk in a city, seeing a rich guy drive by in a Marmon and sighing wistfully, “Man, if only I had the bank account to afford that!” Yes, yes I would. Think about it. 100 years ago, cars were finicky, short-ranged toys for rich people to play around with and have bragging rights over their lessers. And today? Tell me a Tesla Model S or X doesn’t do the same thing. Sure, for now they’re 90 percent owned and operated by rich people, but soon enough, the Model T of the electric vehicle world will show up, and that will be the end of the ball game.

Soon there will be something that does 90 percent of what a Tesla Model S does, and it will be affordable to 75 percent of the public, and that will be that. Goodbye to minivans equipped with internal combustion engines. Good-by to sedans and taxis and delivery trucks and school buses and SUVs equipped with internal combustion engines. They will be parked in museums next to horse-drawn wagons. So it goes.

Autoworld Horse Drawn Carriages Carl Anthony
Horse-drawn carriages on display at the Autoworld Museum, Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Carl Anthony for Automoblog.net.

Odd Couple

I’m outside of Blythe or Mesa Verde or Desert Center – who can tell, it’s miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. I’m stonking along at 85 or so. It’s hard to tell. Did you know first-gen Miata speedos are set a little low? They are. You’re always going about two miles per hour slower than indicated. Anyhoo, ahead of me in the right lane (keep right except to pass (or unless the pavement is too chewed up for a short wheelbase car)) is something red and low and loping along. It looks like a big red running shoe. As I gain on it, and I’m pulling it by the yard, I see what it is: A brand new Ferrari GTC4Lusso. The refined replacement for the rather odd Ferrari FF.

And I mean odd in a bunch of ways.

Both the FF and the GTC4Lusso (yeah, it’s all crammed together in one word like that) had this bizarre, if effective, four-wheel drive system. Sure, it works, but it’s complexity only brings visions of frighteningly large repair bills to my mind. I mean, “You have to re-do the entire foundation on my house?” large. The other odd thing is the way it looks. It’s an old style, shooting-brake, long roof kind of thing. In a way it works.

On the Ferrari, it looks sleek and rapid and well proportioned. And it does have a level of practicality to it. GTC4Lussos seat four (they say) and are, of all things, hatchbacks, so you can carry a fair amount of stuff. But from some angles, they look like a big clown shoe; la scarpa di buffo. Ferrari comes ever so close to pulling it off. So very, very close, but . . . la scarpa di buffo. Whataya gonna do?

Fat Cats, Fast Cars & False Assumptions

So I pull up on the GTC4 and ease around him without breaking my stride. Of course I’m thinking that if our situations were reversed, and I was driving something with a six-liter V12 painted Rosso Corsa I’d be going considerably faster than he was.

“C’mon old man, give it some boot!” I think as I pull alongside him. I glance over and see that he’s looking at me. Older. Well-heeled. Accessorized with a Rolex, a gold bracelet, and a gold neck chain. Money. Moneymoneymoney.

I know he couldn’t hear me, but at that moment he shot me a look like a Mother Superior mid-rage.

It was if he said, “How dare you, you insolent little urchin. You with your mass-produced car from a non-European country. Good day. I said good day!”

I snap my gaze back to the road ahead. The next vehicle is about 30 yards away, so no worries there. I get 15 yards on the GTC4, signal and pull back into the right lane. I swear as I look into the mirror I see the old guy slowly shaking his head at me. “Such an affront! I do say! Away with you, away!”

Immediately my mind drifts to what happens to those who possess his attitude unchecked. Gauzy visions of the Place de la Concorde and jeering crowds and a massive shiny blade held high in the morning sun. Le rasoir national attend, mon vieux! Le rasoir national attend! It’s amusing how the rich and entitled feel so secure and sheltered by their treasures and privileges. Antoinette felt that way; the czarina felt that way I think to myself as I leave the GTC4 in my rearview mirror.

Le rasoir national attend. Attention, ça t’attend!

Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He is the author of Bricks & Bones: The Endearing Legacy and Nitty-Gritty Phenomenon of The Indy 500, available in paperback or Kindle format. His forthcoming new book The Future In Front of Me, The Past Behind Me will be available soon. Follow his work on Twitter: @TonyBorroz