Home > Cars > From hand cranking to charging: Why Tesla’s…

From hand cranking to charging: Why Tesla’s Model S is the Model T of our time

What is the future of the automobile? One hundred years ago, America was in the midst of a mobility revolution as the Ford Model T put the nation on wheels for the first time. Today, we’re seeing the next era of mobility begin to unfold, and much of the credit goes to that EV icon, the Tesla Model S.

After more than a century of driving gasoline and diesel-powered cars, hybrids and fully electric vehicles are finally beginning to chip away at the market share of their fossil-fueled forefathers. So what has a century of progress wrought? I recently had the chance to get two revolutionary cars – a 1913 Ford Model T and a 2013 Tesla Model S – together at the same time to see where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

While electric vehicles today seem like something from a science fiction future, the truth is they’re as old as cars themselves.

When Model Ts started rolling off Ford’s assembly lines in 1908, they typically ended up jostling in largely unregulated city traffic with horse-drawn transportation, early motorbikes, pedestrians, electric streetcars and myriad other brands of cars. The majority of those car builders are now long gone, but among them were several brands of electric cars, such as Detroit Electric.

While the world’s economies became dependent on petroleum, electric cars became the province of tinkerers, home builders and eccentrics.

Their simplistic construction, along with clean and quiet electric operation, were popular selling points against the loud, dirty and maintenance-intensive gas-powered cars of the day. But range and recharging times (or the ability to recharge at all – many homes at the time didn’t have that new-fangled electricity) handicapped electric vehicles. The nascent electric car sector was eventually run over by ever faster, more reliable and sophisticated gas-powered autos.

Gasoline and diesel went on to power our world. While the world’s economies became dependent on petroleum, electric cars became the province of tinkerers, home builders and eccentrics.

Today, the petroleum-based infrastructure and fueling of cars (and most other things) is just another part of our daily reality. But thanks to the fluctuating prices and political volatility, oil is also akin to a sleeping dragon we all tiptoe around. Inevitably, the dragon stirs whenever there’s a terrorist attack, stock-market quake, international conflict or another face-off in the interminably convulsive Middle East. The oil dragon belches fire, making gas prices drop or soar, the latter more often than not.

Today, a gallon of gas in most parts of the United States costs about $4 and once again, we are used to it. Elsewhere in the world, especially in countries even more heavily dependent on oil imports such as Japan or Britain, the price is much higher, if not double. Spin it however you like: the fact is that oil is getting harder to find and more expensive to pull from the earth in terms of dollars, energy expended and environmental costs. Eventually, it will run out or simply become unsustainable as a business.

Model T vs Tesla

With the U.S. and world economy still on shaky legs after the crushing Great Recession, any turbulence in the petrol market can send consumers scurrying for financial cover, but most everyone still has to buy gas, which throws water on any kind of simmering economic growth. Oil has become a Sword of Damocles hanging over the world economy and most working people. Banks we can bail out. If the oil supply from the Middle East were to get shut off again, we would be truly screwed. No matter how much we produce domestically, it’s not nearly enough to sustain our current consumption rate of 18.8 million barrels a day for the U.S. and 89 million barrels per day worldwide for any useful amount of time.

If our frenemies in OPEC were to mount an oil embargo like the one we endured in the 1970s, there wouldn’t just be long lines at gas stations, there would likely be panic in the streets, such is our seemingly inextricable economic dependence on fossil fuel.

How did we get to this point, where dropping $60 or more to fill up is just another expense we budget for or roll onto our gas card account? What would life be like if a full tank of juice was, say, $4? Or less? Or free? How much money could we save? How much more could we drive? What other consumables could we consume, bolstering other segments of the economy? What would it mean for the future of Big Oil?

Welcome to what’s possible in a world filled with electric cars.

The Model T: Where the world’s road trips began

The two cars faced off near Salem, Oregon. The 1913 Ford Model T is owned by car enthusiast Bruno Amicci, and we were met by the Tesla’s owner, Steve Ou, and his wife, Lea, who drove down from Olympia, Washington. He recently took delivery of an 85kw Performance version of the Tesla Model S.

Today, we’d call the Model T the automobile industry’s Killer App.

Context is important here. Before the Model T was first introduced in 1908, Henry Ford was competing not only against other automakers but also against his era’s main mode of travel: the horse. The stout animals were essentially family members, and had been a reliable primary form of transportation for centuries, millennia even. But they also require much care and feeding.

In 1913, gasoline was about a two cents per gallon, and you bought it at a store in a glass jar (there were few if any gas stations until about 1914). Measured against the cost of horse feed and care, a $500 car was compelling. Until you drove it.

Spindly, loud, smelly, oily, smoky, unreliable and complicated to operate – these were all apt descriptions of early cars from any automaker at the dawn of the 20th century. The rutted dirt roads of the era still favored horses and wagons, not high-speed car travel. I’m sure many prospective buyers were more than happy to slip back into Ol’ Paint’s saddle after a turn at the wheel of most any gas-powered car of the time.

Model T front

But with the Model T, cars took a big step forward in terms of quality and reliability. A growing number of people understood and acted on the compelling promise of the Model T, which offered relatively cheap, personal long-distance travel, hauling ability and greater speed than any horse could muster. Today, we’d call the Model T the automobile industry’s Killer App. But back then it was just a better way to get outta Dodge, and for many people then, just like today, the lure of easy travel was irresistible.

We know how it turned out; Ford sold millions of Model Ts. Sorry, Turner and Cook. As the car’s popularity increased, so did the related industries surrounding it including gas stations, auto repair businesses and the like. Eventually, city planners turned cities into car-friendly grids and multi-lane highways replaced dirt roads. The car became a status symbol, an item both central to human culture and a transportation reality we take for granted.

Driving the horseless carriage

Many Model T owners replace some of the aging tech on their antique cars, but Amicci is a purist: Everything on his car is stock, and original parts he could not find he had fabricated to replicate original parts. There’s no upgraded ignition system (a common weak point) and no modern carburetor or upgraded brakes, which are popular modifications. Amicci’s Model T also has no electric starter. You have to crank it by hand, from the front, as if you’re trapped in some old Charlie Chaplin movie. Count on building up a sweat. Amicci and I struggled to get his Model T, which he named the “Brass Monkey” due to it’s many brass trim items, to fire up for this story.

The small gas tank is thoughtfully located right under the seat. Safety first!

After about 100 rounds of cranking to bring the cranky Monkey to life, I plopped sweatily into the passenger seat while Amicci deftly manned the T’s myriad and confusing controls to keep the 100-year-old car running and moving.

Amicci’s Model T is the sporty version (for 1913) and has just one bench seat that holds two people, one of which is driving the car. Amicci said his Model T model was typically owned by doctors, lawyers, judges and others in the upper class who needed to get places in a hurry. There is a small trunk behind the seat just big enough to hold a satchel or doctor’s bag. The small gas tank is thoughtfully located right under the seat. Safety first!

Going down the road, the reason early cars were called “horseless carriages” becomes immediately apparent. They are, essentially, fancy wagons, sans horses. You sit up quite high, as in a carriage or a modern SUV, and look at the world going by at an astounding 30mph, which seems like 60mph due to the noise, vibration, noise, height, noise and a complete lack of surrounding structures, save a flimsy-looking windscreen that will rain shards of glass upon you in pretty much any kind of impact. It was a warm day for our drive, and the feeling of exposure was compounded by the fact that we left the Model T’s folding bonnet down for maximum velocity and some 1913-style air conditioning (complete with sunburn).

The only admissions to modernity on Amicci’s Model T are a pair of seat belts that he added, which while improving the safety aspect of the 1,200-pound Brass Monkey by about 10,000 percent, still leaves you without a prayer if the vibrating petrol wagon were to ever get hit by anything larger than a moped.

Once started (never easy), the Model T is almost hysterically complicated and dangerous to pilot. Drivers need to watch where they are going while simultaneously doing the hand jive and tap dancing. It makes cell-chatting teen drivers look like paragons of focused, safe driving.

There’s no gas pedal, and the brake pedal is where the gas pedal is on modern cars. The throttle is controlled by your right hand using a small lever on a stepped ring right under the steering wheel (unintentional 1913-era cruise control?) and at the same time, you also have to work spark advance using a second lever with your left hand, also located on the steering wheel, to keep the engine happy. Your third hand is for steering.

How did we get to this point, where dropping $60 or more to fill up is just another expense we budget for?

Meanwhile, your feet are kept moving controlling three pedals on the car’s floorboard. As noted, the one on the far right is the brake, which is the gas on modern cars. The center pedal moves the transmission between two gears and the pedal on the left is the clutch. And that brake pedal? It tightens a woven cotton belt that goes around the main driveshaft. It’s like having anti-lock brakes, because there’s almost no way outside of an ice storm you can lock the brakes, which by the way only slow the back wheels. The front wheels have no brakes. And if that cotton belt breaks, well, let’s just say I made sure my life insurance was full up.

Under the hood (or cowl, in this case), a 2.9-liter inline-four cylinder engine with a single, cantankerous carburetor develops 22 horsepower, which when you think about it from a time and power context, was simply amazing since most people were getting around on one or two horsepower at the most – because they used actual horses. Having over 20 stallions stuffed under the flimsy metal hood of the Model T must have been like buying a whole horse ranch for the back-then price of $550 ($14,000 today). And you only had to feed it gas, oil and parts now and again.

A century ago, you used horns to clear out the traffic on Main Street, which consisted of horses, horse-drawn wagons, the occasional donkey, kids, dogs, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and occasionally, other cars. On the Model T, there are two horns, a big bulb honker and a plunger-operated ooga horn. You know which one the kids all love. Driving at night? Just drop a puck of calcium carbide into the tank on the driver’s running board and the two big acetylene headlights will burn the gas and light the way ahead for an hour. Maybe. HIDs they ain’t.

As we lurched down the road, gaining speed on the downhill sections, it was apparent that a few of the four wooden wagon-style wheels shod with scarily thin reproduction tires were not even close to true as they wagged back and forth at speed. I’d like to say “the car seemed solid” but in truth I can understand how anyone going for ride in one of these rattling, swaying machines that seemed bent on either breakdown or death might view them as a fad once they got back on their familiar, quiet, reliable horse.

Model T license place

But that said, it was also apparent why people bought Model Ts by the thousands. All that forward motion with no horses? It was a miracle of the age. Out on rural roads without the hazards of driving in modern traffic, riding shotgun  in the Model T is a hoot as it scoots and bounces down the pavement. Kids and adults wave, drivers of modern cars pass ever so slowly to get a closer look and snap cell phone pix. I found myself calculating just how long it would take to drive the Brass Monkey to the Oregon coast from Salem. Let’s see, 74 miles at 25mph or so … three hours. Even at twice that time, the ability to take an overnight trip to the ocean when most people rarely strayed a few miles from where they were born all their lives was a revolution 100 years ago.

But you know the story as you read this on your phone, tablet or laptop: Technology marches on. Competition breeds innovation. By 1919 the Model T had gained an electric starter and other comforts. The Model A soon made it look like an antique. Paving crews began striping the nation and the world’s car obsession – and the reliance on the liquid fuel that powers it – began.

Which brings us to the Tesla.

Driving the future: The Tesla Model S (85kw Performance version)

Walk up to it and the door handles emerge from their flush position in anticipation of your arrival. Sit down in the sculpted seats and a giant 17-inch vertical touch screen in the center of the dash beckons with maps, endless settings, energy reports, ride controls, cellular-based Internet, a backup camera and more, all in split screen if you’d like. There are no keys to turn, no button to push to start it up. Step on the brake and the elegant driver’s display spools up quickly, then pull the little lever by the wheel to “D” and the Tesla Model S is ready to drive. No warming up. No shift linkage. No drama.

Despite all the weight, the Tesla rails through corners, flat and confident…

In decades of driving, I’ve never been in a car that spoke so loudly of the future as the Tesla Model S. It’s just impressive from any angle, both visually and of course, technologically. And to think this is only a second-generation car for the upstart automaker headed by Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX and other ventures. Technically, it’s a first-generation car since the Roadster was based on a Lotus Elise platform while the Model S is a clean-sheet design.

Take your foot off the brake and the Tesla creeps forward like it has an automatic transmission, sans noise. Any noise. It’s the silence of the car that immediately impresses, just turn the audio system off and enjoy it. Along with the odd lack of audio cues is the absence of vibration – at any speed. A glass-smooth electric motor the size of a big watermelon sits spinning between the rear wheels, propelling nearly two and half tons of weight with a single gear and over 400 horsepower. There is no throb of the engine in the steering wheel, no low-level engine buzz through any surface in the car. Talk normally. Enjoy the ride – just buckle up and hold on.

Then, mash down the accelerator.

Tesla S front right

In the future, electric cars go really, really fast, as in 0-60 in a few ticks over four seconds. It literally takes your breath away. It’s not just the speed, it’s how the acceleration starts instantly and just builds and builds, with no gear changes and no engine noise. There’s no turbo lag, fueling delays, transmission hysterics or waiting for the engine to come on the cam, it just speeds up and keeps on going faster and faster. Soon, road noise and some wind noise intrude but the level is low. While the Tesla’s top speed is limited to just over 130mph, you know if could do more if Mr. Musk deemed it so. And it’s a firmware upgrade away from doing it.

The Model S weighs in just short of 5,000 pounds by itself and we had four adults in the car. Despite all the weight, the Tesla rails through corners, flat and confident, begging you to go faster. How the car is loaded up seems to make no difference in how it handles. Additionally, this Tesla features air-adjustable suspension, which can be manually adjusted through the car’s touchscreen.

Mr. Musk changed the equation and now everyone is chasing the Model S

The big sheet of batteries under your feet will whistle the Model S down the road to the tune of about 250 miles before needing a recharge, and it’s here, and pretty much only here, that a chink appears in the Tesla’s armor.

Driving around Portland with the Telsa’s owners, we cruise over to a mall where Tesla has a showroom – and a 240-volt charger. Not a Supercharger that Tesla is planting all over the nation, but a Tesla charger none the less,which means it’s free for Tesla owners. The charger plugs into a lighted port on the side of the car, and after we have dinner and wander the mall for about 90 minutes, which includes a stroll through Tesla’s mall-based store, we hop back in the Model S. It now has enough juice for Steve and Lea to cover their journey home to Olympia.

But in time, this issue will be solved. If Musk had waited for governmental agencies to plop down chargers, the Tesla might be a lost cause. But Musk has pledged to build Supercharger and battery-swap stations around the nation and the world, allowing quick stops for either a 30-minute recharge or a 90-second battery swap. I imagine that the battery swap option will eventually become the norm with home charging stations topping off the cars at night. The only problem here is that only Teslas can charge up at Superchargers. A proprietary charging infrastructure could hinder EV deployment, but many carmakers are on the same page as far as charging standards go. We’ll have to wait and see how Musk plays his cards. 

The Car 2.0: How the Tesla Model S is revolutionizing mobility and the way we think about cars

Just as the Model T changed the way we think about horses, the Model S is also changing the way we think about cars.

The Model T melded two disparate technologies of the time: wagons, which had been around forever, and the then still relatively new internal combustion engine. The Model S is doing the same thing, except this time around, the old technology is the car and the frontier it’s melding with is the computer, and in more ways than just a fancy tech interface in the dash.

The hot start

The Tesla is a bit like the Apollo moon landings. In truth, the lunar missions came before their time. We were supposed to orbit, build a space station platform, then head for new worlds. But President Kennedy’s space race with the Soviets lead the U.S. to leapfrog the Step 2 Space Station and throw for the end zone. Nice catch, NASA.

The Model S is making the electric car market do much the same thing. Logically, we should all be driving the offspring of the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight: cars with gas engines and electric motors mixed together for high mileage and unlimited range with no “anxiety.” Hybrids, in all their forms, were supposed to be the bridge from gas to the all-electric future. But Mr. Musk changed the equation and now everyone is chasing the Model S, years ahead of schedule.

Tesla Model S front

That the car is so tremendously good at this stage in its development cycle is a credit to Mr. Musk’s engineering prowess and his able employees. But years from now, history will show it shifted the proverbial paradigm just as the Model T did in the early 20th century.

Carmakers of all sizes are now scrambling to bring all-electric vehicles to market – all while the infrastructure to power them remains off the pace. Hopefully, Tesla’s Superchargers will light a fire under carmakers, politicians, city planners and transportation departments to get chargers in place to fuel the growing number of electric cars. Once the charging network hits critical mass – which is when EV owners can essentially drive anywhere and charge up quickly – electric car ownership numbers will carve heavily into those of gas-powered cars.

The Model S has blown the apart the confines of vehicle design

Eventually, it will be goodbye gasoline, at least for personal cars. How that will play out for oil producers, who now cannot put the EV toothpaste back in the tube thanks to the impetus of the Model S, will be interesting to watch. Will they drop the price of gas to try and steer people back into gas stations? Anyone who has driven an electric car will tell you that ship has sailed, both from a driving experience perspective and a simple cost analysis. When it costs a fiver (or much less) to charge up your EV and 10 times that much to do the same distance on gas, the party is already over. Even hardcore petrol heads (like myself) will admit that, at some point, the performance potential, lower cost, simplicity and superior driving experience will be too good to ignore, especially while filling up yet again. 

Liquid fuel will still be needed to power trucks, trains, jet planes and other large vehicles, but even in those industries, change is in the wind. Electrical power, especially when combined with solar collection systems, could push down demand for liquid fuel in those segments as time goes on.

Design frontiers open wide

I briefly touched on this subject in another article but I’ll reiterate it here: the Model S has blown apart the confines of vehicle design. About the only thing past and future cars will have in common is four tires and a steering wheel. Beyond that, everything is up for a rethink when it comes to electric vehicles.

The Model S moves the fuel supply – sheets of batteries – to the bottom of the car, lowering the center of gravity in ways a gas-powered car can’t ever hope to. The powerplant, with power outputs above 400hp and 400lb-feet of torque from a standstill, is tiny compared to what a gas engine would require in size, complexity and liquid fuel for the same performance. In the Tesla, it drives the back wheels, but in the future Model X, Tesla has hinted that an all-wheel drive system will be available. It may come to a new iteration of the Model S as well.

Tesla-Model-S-rear-left

Electric motors can also be placed in each wheel of a vehicle, eliminating drive shafts, heavy transmissions, differentials and other complexity. Additionally, in-wheel motors would allow all-wheel steering on par with experimental vehicles that don’t need to parallel park; they just rolled sideways into the spot. Such a system allows a turning circle the size of the car itself. An experimental EV by DLRde called the ROboMobile is a taste of what’s to come.

It’s the silence of the car that immediately impresses…

In terms of physical design, carmakers are no longer tied to the concepts of hoods and trunks. The Model S features two trunks, one front (the “frunk”) because there’s no engine there, and a traditional hatch out back. Yes, I know VW did this in the past but the Model S takes it to another level and eventually, it will be the norm. Cabin dimensions will expand as electric motors end up in wheels or take on various incarnations outside of the melon-sized lumps that power the Model S and others. Electric motors can be disc-shaped, tubular and more, giving designers options on placement to allow, perhaps, new passenger seating configurations formerly dictated by engines, drivelines and fuel tanks.

While BMW’s new i8 stole the show at Frankfurt in 2013, the real breakthrough beemer was the i3, with its carbon-reinforced plastic space frame, suicide doors, cartoon wheels and grille-less grille. The i3 shows that BMW gets it, that the possibilities are pretty much endless when it comes to what’s possible in EV vehicle design as we move forward under electric power. The Model S has given carmakers license to think very radically again, instead of having to work around the same old form factors that have been with us since the Model T.

The car computer

Model S owner Steve Ou succinctly summarized the future of vehicle technology when he said the Model S is essentially “a computer on wheels.” The Tesla allows give and take over the 3G cell network, and cars capable of interplay with 4G LTE are coming on line soon. Even people who are only moderately tech savvy can usually update their smartphone, computer or smart TV/appliance with a firmware update, apps and new OS. It will be the same for cars very soon, especially for electric vehicles. Beyond that, controlling the car with other connected information nodes, such as Google Glass, show how serious tech companies are about getting into the computerized car.

While the installed sensors and data networks in a car may stay the same, operating updates will continue to give those systems new abilities and functionality. Warning systems like lane-departure systems, pedestrian alert and ever-increasing autonomous tech will continue to race forward, boosted by cheap computer components and competition. While gas-powered cars will benefit as well, its in EVs where the real miracles will occur, since electric motor-control systems are already mature and robust.

As fabulous as the tech and 17-inch screen in the Model S is, it’s a 128K Mac in terms of EV car computer evolution. Expect rapid, meteoric advances as cars become just as connected as phones, let alone the symbiosis they will share with our addicting pocket computers. Pandora and other common entertainment apps are pointing the way to a day when updating your ABS system and battery-efficiency programming is a download away. The downside: Malware might allow third–party control over your car (and your life itself). Security will be a corporate priority, unless they want to hire a lot more lawyers.

Safety first

Lastly, the Model S has demonstrated how freedom from the design conventions of gas-powered vehicles can give us hugely safer cars. The Model S was recently feted for being the safest car ever tested by the NHTSA. It broke or maxed out the administration’s roof strength testing machinery, and it had perfect scores in every test, another remarkable result for a first-gen car.

There are no keys to turn, no button to push to start it up.

Of course, Musk and his team designed the car to be safe, but to push the bar up as high as they did illustrates the design freedoms they worked under. With no gas tank or the heavy inertial lump of a gas engine to deal with, structures can be made that improve passenger protection that in the past were under the purview of “strong but light” thinking. Now, they can be made stronger than ever and in ways designers had only hoped and dreamed of.

As electric vehicle models mature, designers free of century-old conventions will be able to construct new ways to protect drivers and passengers. Coupled with emerging autonomous technologies such as lane departure, back-up collision avoidance, emergency automatic braking for pedestrians and other obstacles, electric cars could become the safest vehicles we’ve ever driven. It stands to reason since the Model S already is.

_____________ 

History will show the Model S is the Model T of our time. Both were designed by men driven by their visions. Both changed the course of mobility history. The present-day automobile traces back to a spindly, smoking little runabout that braved muddy roads and set the world on a trajectory of oil dependency. The future automobile will trace back to the Model S, which made it possible to possible to slip those shackles and drive at high speed into a cleaner, smarter and less expensive era of personal transportation.

Twenty five years from now, when you get into your fully autonomous Tesla and videoconference on your way to … wherever, just remember that the sleek sedan from the start of the century that seems like an antique was the second coming of the car.

 What’s your take? Is the Tesla Model S a once-in-an-era car? Leave a comment.

I've been a wirehead and motorhead since I could turn a knob or throttle - and then I fell in love with photography, so Digital Trends is pretty much a perfect fit for my many tech interests. However, motorcycles are my passion! Follow me on Twitter: @BillRobersonDT

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: