Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Car of the Future Open Production

Project Updates

2.23.07 Frank Talk and Fresh Air

Given all the recent buzz about plug-in hybrids, we decided to go to U. C. Davis to visit Professor Andy Frank, who's considered the father of the PHEV (that's car talk for plug-in hybrid electric vehicle). For years, he's been a lone voice in the wilderness—working with dedicated students to prove PHEV technology is ready to hit the road. He's pleased that others, including GM, are beginning to feel the same way and cautions against waiting in the hope that less certain technologies (like the hydrogen economy) will become a reality.

Frank CU

Here's a sample of what he said during our interview: "The danger is the magic bullet notion gives people false hope. And, in the meantime, people believe they can continue living the way they're currently living. The trouble with that philosophy is we don't have time to wait anymore. The plug-in hybrid's ready for prime time. My main goal is to show that the technology is not a limiting issue in making them a reality."

Frank and Equinox

Tom and Ray hit the road with Andy and T. K. Williams, the leader of U. C. Davis's Team Fate vehicle design group, in the modified Equinox van they're creating for Challenge X, a fuel-efficiency competition sponsored by Argonne National Laboratory and GM.

Eager to test new automotive technology, Ray also toured the campus on an all-electric machine with Beth Weitzel, a master's candidate responsible for the team's advanced CVT (that's car talk for continuously variable transmission). Beth rode a more traditional zero-emission vehicle.

Ray and Beth

The next stop on Tom and Ray's West coast odyssey was Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley startup company founded by Martin Eberhard, who claims:

"You don't really understand electric car performance until you drive the car. There's no clutch. The motor has absolutely maximum torque at 0 rpm, and that means that sitting at a stop you just put the pedal down and the car takes off and you just keep the car pointed in the direction you want to go. Your mom can do 0-60 in four seconds."

Tom, Ray, and Martin

Tom and Ray discovered he wasn't kidding.

Martin's goal is to make Tesla Motors the next great American car company. He's not kidding about this either. (Detroit, take note.) Efficient energy use is central to his vision.

"The gasoline engine is terribly inefficient—below 20 percent efficient typically. An electric car like ours is in the neighborhood of 85 percent efficient. It's that kind of difference. If you look at the entire well-to-wheel efficiency curve, it's legitimate to say the Tesla Roadster is about twice as efficient as the better hybrids on the road today. So it gets about 135 miles to the gallon. Big difference. In the car that does 0-60 in four seconds."

Ray persuaded Martin to let him take Tom for a ride in this multi-million-dollar prototype. In doing so, Ray became the first person to drive the black roadster without a Tesla employee on board. When they sped away Tom mentioned he'd put a very long extension cord in the trunk. They were last spotted heading south towards Mexico.

Tom, Ray, and Teslax

With just a few more interviews to go, we'll be heading into the edit room soon to sort through the footage and get a show ready to share with you all in the fall.

—Joe Seamans, Producer, "Car of the Future"


Back to the 'Car of the Future' homepage

Car of the Future Home | Send Feedback | Image Credits | Support NOVA


© | Created February 2007

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site