The much more radical full-electric cars, such as the Tesla, are showing up not in the garages of my eco-nut friends, but in the garages of my car-nut friends — indeed, practically all of the Tesla owners I know are full-blown right-wingers. (Okay, selection bias in the sample, admittedly.) Tesla owners are an enthusiastic bunch: Last summer, a man I had known for about 42 seconds handed me the keys to his new $100,000 sedan with a mandate: “You have to try it.” We were in Montana, so there wasn’t much to hit other than the odd stray bison, and it was indeed the sort of thing that makes me feel like I’m living in a William Gibson novel, which is one of my favorite sensations.
The electric car is a great example of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The day before yesterday, the question about electric cars was: “Will they ever be good enough to really compete with gasoline-powered automobiles?” Today, the question is whether makers of traditional internal-combustion engines should even bother trying to catch up or just throw in the sparkplug.
One of the rarely appreciated aspects of the capitalist model of innovation is that the wealthy subsidize the development of products for everybody else: The mobile phone is a case study in that process, as is the electric car, as indeed were ordinary cars. The firm that developed the first automotive air-conditioning and power windows was a high-end marque that despite its landmark innovations is no longer with us: Packard. The Bonfire of the Vanities–era financiers who carried the first mobile phones paid for much of the research and development that made them ordinary products for non-gazillionaires. My own financial means at the moment do not, alas, afford the purchase of the new plug-in hybrid from Porsche — which is a million-dollar supercar — but the technologies developed for the 918 Spyder will make their way through the marketplace the same way that the automatic transmission (Oldsmobile, 1940), the supercharger (Mercedes, 1921), and the independent suspension (Mercedes, 1933) went from being expensive options on cars for the rich to being standard equipment on your Hyundai. We get our futuristic 21st-century cars the same way Johnny Cash got his Cadillac in 1976: One piece at a time.