The Tesla Alone Can't Save the Electric Car

According to the Tesla (NAS: TSLA) website, the maximum range for the 85kWh battery version of its Model S sedan is 300 miles -- if driven at a steady 55 mph. That's pretty good for a plug-in only electric vehicle, but for those eager to make full use of the vehicle's massive power -- enough to move the 4650 pound Model S from 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds, and then on to a top speed of 125 mph -- that range would, of course, be diminished. How much less, the website does not happen to mention. The cost for that amount of frustration comes to a C-note shy of $70,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit.

For those who don't mind calling a tow truck to get their Teslas to an AC outlet after a night of red light drag racing, that money admittedly gets them a car of sleek beauty:


Source: Tesla Motors.

Source: Tesla Motors.

To the moon, Elon
But, while watching 60 Minutes rerun its profile of Tesla's founder Elon Musk, I couldn't help but think that his extremely ambitious SpaceX project has magnitudes more chance of success than does his car company. In other words, I have more confidence in a Musk-built rocket ship reaching the moon than in Tesla putting its luxury electric vehicles in enough driveways to ensure the company's viability.

Why? Because if Musk really wanted to make the electric car a common form of transportation, he should have followed Henry Ford's example of building affordable cars, not hood ornaments for the eco-conscious wealthy.

Ford (NYS: F) pushed 15 million Model T's out of its factories between 1908 and 1927. The Ford's then starting price of $440 made it possible for Americans to get out on the highway in such numbers that it forced government to build highways to accommodate those vehicles. It also made it financially attractive for private industry to put gas stations along those highways. The smaller market for a luxury Packard, say, at $2,600 a pop, would not have had that kind of motivating power.

The same holds true for the current crop of electric vehicles. If there isn't enough pressure on governments and private industry to build the necessary recharging stations throughout the land, can the electric car survive?

A new Model T?
Yes, the Tesla Model S is a pretty face, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and lest one think I am a knee jerk anti-plug-in Luddite, let me introduce you to an electric car that really lights up the pleasure centers of my brain. Please meet the object of my electric lust, the T.27:


Source: Gordon Murray Design.

Wait, stop laughing. That is not a car from Roger Rabbit. I'm as serious as the man in the photo, Gordon Murray, who is the car's designer. Under the cartoonish skin of his creation lurks the DNA of a Formula One race car. Lightness, crashworthiness, and hyper-efficiency underscore the car's achievements, not surprisingly, as Mr. Murray has been one of the world's preeminent racing car designers over the last 40 years.

That's not to say the T.27 has much in the way of speed going for it. It tops out at 65 mph, and its zero to 60 time is a stifled yawn below 15 seconds. But just as an open-wheel race car is bred for nothing but going fast, the T.27 was designed to be nothing but an affordable, energy-sipping, about-town vehicle.

The T.27's qualities:

  • Small on the outside -- less of a footprint than a Smart ForTwo

  • Space on the inside -- seating for three

  • Excellent mileage -- the equivalent of 350mpg in a 2011 Royal Auto Club efficiency competition

  • Practical range -- 100 miles to 130 miles, depending on usage

  • Low price -- an estimated $11,000 (when it starts being produced)

That's why I think the Gordon Murray T.27 could be the modern day Model T. It's affordability and practicality could attract enough buyers to make electric vehicles so commonplace that energy companies would see recharging stations as a good investment. And that in turn could help Tesla's luxury electric vehicles start to make sense to enough buyers that Tesla could stay in business.

The rub
Of course, there's a caveat here. Gordon Murray does not plan to produce the T.27 himself. He wants to license the rights to produce the T.27 to another. The good news is, according to Murray, he is "currently engaged in talks with a prospective customer that could see ... [the] T.27 being manufactured."

Musk should hope that deal goes through. Far from being a threat to Tesla, it could make the world see electric vehicles in a whole new light.

In the meantime, while we wait for the hordes of electric vehicles to clog up our highways, it's still a good idea to keep an eye on the oil industry. If you want to find out which oil companies are the ones to buy for the rising price of oil, get this special report from the Fool: "3 Stocks for $100 Oil." The report is free and essential reading!

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorDan Radovskyhas no financial interest in the above-mentioned companies. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor and Tesla Motors.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Ford Motor and Tesla Motors.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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