From crankstarting 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.


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