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When Tesla Motors announced in March it would build a new, all-electric car at a starting price of $35,000, it was a turning point for the company. General Motors is also developing an all-electric sedan and hopes to market it early next year. Will increased competition and new options spur more sales? NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent John Larson reports.
"Welcome to the stage, Mr. Elon Musk!"
When Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced in March that his company would build a new all electric car for the masses, many believed it might be a turning point toward a Holy Grail of sorts, a combination of cost and range that might somehow attract the mass market of American car buyers, and rewrite the more than century-old story of gasoline powered cars.
"We have an amazing product to show you tonight, I think you're going to be blown away."
In its first 10 years, Tesla Motors had gone from a Silicon Valley startup to a small, but critically-acclaimed maker of expensive battery-powered cars. Its Model S, rolled out in 2012, cost between 60 to 120-thousand dollars and could go well over 200 miles on a charge at a time when most electric cars couldn't even go 100. As we can attest, the Model S is one of the fastest-accelerating cars on the market, powering from 0 to 60 in under 3 seconds.
"So do you want to see the car?"
Musk says his new sedan, the "Model 3," will cost 35-thousand dollars, but less than 30-thousand with Federal rebates, and it will have a driving range of at least 200 miles on a single charge.
"So what do you think?"
Within a week, more than 300,000 people ordered the car, placing one thousand dollar refundable deposits.The factory to build the car wasn't even built yet, and the car would not be available to most who ordered it for two, or or even three years. But the pre-orders represented 14 billion dollars in sales, making it the most lucrative rollout of any commercial product of any kind in history.
You have to understand, you've got car companies that have been around for a century. Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, the world's oldest, they've never seen anything like that.
Car and Driver Magazine Executive Editor Aaron Robinson says the public's reaction to Tesla's announcement stunned boardrooms around the world.
You had this case in Germany, there was shareholder meeting at Mercedes Benz where people were demanding of the board, 'why, how come Tesla gets all this attention and we've never had anything like this? We're falling behind.'
Last week, Mercedes-Benz introduced a new electric car line at the Paris Auto Show. So did a dozen car manufacturers, including America's GM and Ford, which now have new electric cars in planning and development.
Electric cars have a long way to go. Of more than 89 million vehicles projected to be sold worldwide this year, less than 1 percent are projected to be electric. In the US, Tesla's Model S is projected the top selling electric car this year, followed by the Chevy Volt, Tesla's Model X, the Ford Fusion Energi, and the Nissan Leaf. Electric car sales are growing rapidly, up almost 40 percent in the US this year and 70-percent globally.
Tesla made electric cars cool. Tesla made them driveway jewelry for the wealthy, and once you're driveway jewelry for the wealthy, you're then desired by everybody else.
In an effort to take electric cars mainstream. For the past year, Tesla has been building the world's largest electric battery factory, in Nevada, called the "Gigafactory" to help lower battery costs. It has already built thousands of charging stations that are free to all of its car owners worldwide.
Tesla's head start for an affordable electric car for the middle class has strong competition from Detroit.
"Ladies and gentleman, meet the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV!"
GM CEO Mary Barra has announced Chevrolet will deliver an all electric vehicle, the Bolt, with a range of 238 miles fully charged, for about the same price as Tesla's Model 3.
"And now for the real kicker, this isn't some science project or a concept that is years away, the Bolt EV will be in production this year."
The once viewed as stodgy General Motors from Detroit may beat the Silicon Valley darling to market by more than a year.
Josh Tavel is Chevrolet's Chief Engineer for the Bolt EV.
We talked about the Holy Grail, right? When you hit that 200-mile mark, that's when the masses start considering, "yeah, maybe this car could be for me."
GM is already producing the cars at its assembly plant in Orion, Michigan. Unlike Tesla, GM has massive production capability in place. Customers won't have to wait. GM invited NewsHour Weekend to be the first national news broadcast to get a test drive.
"So you're betting people when they drive this thing are going to really like it, they just don't know it yet?"
The best thing we can do is just have customers come drive the car, come drive the car for two minutes, get in the car, drive the car.
"The one thing I'll tell the camera that is not a sales pitch, is it's different, there's no question about it. It feels different. It sounds different, drives different."
Different, meaning the car is unusually quiet. There's no gasoline engine running. And, it's surprisingly fast, accelerating from 0 to 60 in six-and-a-half seconds. The cost of charging any electric car varies widely depending on the source of electricity. On average, it costs a driver about 3 cents a mile. But charging an electric car on the road is not that simple. A Tesla plug will not fit a Nissan Leaf. And, the quick charge plug for the Leaf will not fit the Chevy Bolt, or the electric vehicles from Volkswagen or BMW.
Charging is a little bit like the Wild West right now. You have different kinds of charge adapters. This all scares the normal car driver, because when you pull into a gas station, it's not like there's different pump shapes and everything, you just stick the pump in, stuff goes in and then you go.
Few drivers know more about the charging hurdles than San Diego resident Tony Williams, a retired airline pilot who sells adapters for electric car chargers and consults for the industry. In 2012, he organized an electric car rally, driving from Mexico to Canada.
I thought well I'll be the first guy to drive from Mexico to Canada and the first guy to cross Oregon and Washington on this brand new west coast electric highway.
With the range on his car at the time only 80 miles and limited charging points. It took him six days just to get out of California. Then last year, Williams drove his Tesla Model S cross country using Tesla's free charging network the whole way. TONY WILLIAMS: And then I returned to the north through Cleveland, Chicago, and through Montana, and then back to Washington State, and then all the way 11-hundred miles back to here.
His total cost for driving 7,500 miles? Just a few bucks, for using a charger outside the Tesla network.
"It was ten dollars round trip, plus hotels and sandwiches."
California, pushing for zero emission vehicles, has more than 10 thousand public charging stations. The state has spent 51 million dollars putting in thousands of charging connections, and will spend 21 million more within the next year and-a-half. Public utilities, like San Diego Gas and Electric, seeing a revenue growth opportunity, are planning thousands of charging stations at workplace locations and apartment buildings.
Across much of the country, dozens of quick charger stations have sprouted up, mainly in big cities. This, for example, is Chicago. Atlanta. New York. But away from the big cities, like Tuscaloosa, Alabama? Good luck.
In the race to make an affordable, long-range electric car, Tesla has been issuing stock and burning through cash, spending billions trying to bring its Model 3 to market.
They've made a huge impression on the industry, but they've also stuck their neck on the chopping block. If you're Volkswagen or you're Toyota, you're the world's largest car companies, you get to make mistakes. If you're Tesla, little Tesla, you don't get to make a mistake. It's not guaranteed that these guys are going to make it to the start of production for Model 3. My own personal feeling is that they are just barely holding this thing together.
And electric vehicle incentives, 75-hundred dollars in tax deductions per car from the Federal Government are scheduled to phase out.
"A lot of people say, well you know these cars couldn't exist on their own unless there were incentives. What are your thoughts?"
So I think they're right up until this point. I think there needed to be that push because they didn't exist for these vehicles to start existing. But I think these cars aren't going to continue because the government is putting money on the hood in incentives. I think customers are going to value what electrification can bring.
So far GM has no plans to help build quick charging networks across the country as other car companies have. Tony Williams believes it might be 20 years before electric car charging stations are as mainstream as gasoline stations.
Emission requirements aren't going away. They may wish they would or they would hope they could pay lobbyists to make them go away or complain a lot, but they're not. And global warming I don't believe is going to go away either. So the combination of the two events, with continued, constant and increasing political pressure is the only thing that is going to make manufacturers adopt electric drive in that 10 to 20 year period, and I do believe that will happen.
Car and Driver's Aaron Robinson, who loves gasoline cars, also owns an older model electric car with a range of 60 miles.
Most people don't drive 200 miles every day. They drive 20, 30 maybe 40 miles a day. All of the electric cars including the one we're currently in will fit those needs.
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