It must have been round about 7.30pm and the traffic on the M40 was not getting any better. Ahead of us stretched the lava flow of red tail lights, and in front of us was a fellow doing a quite unconscionable speed in a BMW 4×4. When I say it was unconscionable, I mean it was unconscionably slow. Come on, Grandma, I yelled at his rump. Some of us have places to go, people to see, columns to write.
But on he plodded, no doubt picking his nose, and altogether showing a sublime indifference to the number one law of the British motorway – that the national speed limit of 70 mph is more honoured in the breach than the observance. At length I could take it no more. It was time to leave this dawdler behind.
Indicating carefully, and in full conformity with the law, I put my foot down – and pow. It was warp drive. You remember that bit in Star Wars, when the Millennium Falcon makes the leap into hyperspace, and the stars are turned into white streaks?
That’s the kind of acceleration we are talking about. My passenger and I were blapped back into our seats like fighter pilots. We shot past the nose-picking BMW, and in that brief moment of ecstasy I was reminded of some of the vital statistics of the machine.
The car I was driving has more grunt off the blocks than a Ferrari Maranello. It has the same acceleration as a Porsche 911, in that it can go from 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds, roughly the time it takes for you to read and absorb the sensational meaning of this sentence.
It’s not just that it has fantastic quantities of torque, the name we use for the twisty physical force that turns an axle. It is unlike a normal car, in that you don’t need to produce fresh bursts of torque by working the gears and the throttle. It has 100 per cent torque at 0 mph, and then whips those wheels round faster and faster in a seamless progression of energy.
So, whoosh, we overtook the BMW and discreetly, legally, we settled in front of him like an insolent snowflake – and what did he observe about the machine that had so elegantly shown him up? He saw the raking contours of a 150 mph king of the road, with a wide flaring bonnet, and soaring wheel arches curved and massed like the haunches of a greased panther. He saw the way it handled, shifting from lane to lane as if suspended from a steel rail.
But as he goggled in stupefaction at the back of our car, there was one thing, my friends, that he did not see. There is something that protrudes from the rear end of every Porsche, every Lamborghini, and every Ford Focus, and which this car does not possess.
It has no exhaust pipe. It has no carburettor, and it has no fuel tank, and while every other car on that motorway was a-parping and a-puttering, filling the air with fumes and particulates, this car was producing no more noxious vapours than a dandelion in an alpine meadow.
As far as the eye could see there were cars roaring and groaning and belching, and no matter how tightly they drew the curtains, and no matter how loud they turned up the television, there were people in living rooms for miles around whose lives were filled with the noise of billions of tiny explosions, as the fossilised remnants of ancient forests were detonated in the cylinders of internal combustion engines.
My car, on the other hand, was silent except for a musical hum, like a chorister tuning up for a madrigal. Every other car on the M40 was guilty – yes, even the Priuses – of contributing directly to the great billowing clouds of CO2 that are rising and quilting the planet in the tea-cosy of doom.
My car was innocent. It was an electric car, made by Tesla in California, and though it is currently just about the only one on British roads, I believe it marks the beginning of a long-overdue revolution.
I remember about 15 years ago my old chum Radek Sikorski wrote a rather brilliant piece. He’d just come across this new way of communicating, by which you could send messages to people at their personal addresses on what we then called the information superhighway.
It was called email, he said, and he was sure there was something in it. He was right, and having driven the Tesla I have something like the same sense of revelation. Of course this is not new technology, but electric cars have evidently reached a point of development where they are now in serious competition with conventional machines.
Yes, there is carbon dioxide produced in the generation of the electricity – but only about a quarter of the CO2 produced by a similar sports car. If we used nuclear or other low-carbon power sources, we could achieve spectacular reductions in vehicular CO2.
Yes, the batteries are bulky, and electric cars are still expensive. But the batteries are becoming ever smaller and the price of the cars is coming down; and even in a Tesla, a high-performance sports car, you can drive 200 miles for the price of a cup of coffee, and then just plug it in to recharge.
Imagine the lagoon of petrol you buy over the lifetime of the internal combustion engine, and think of the saving you make by going electric. Yes, the Tesla is made in California. But shouldn’t we be making similar batteries and cars in this country?
What this car shows is the vital importance of technological optimism. We can produce solutions that allow people to drive fast, and have fun, and overhaul the slowcoaches – and still save the planet. Many green ideologues will not like that idea. They will instinctively prefer a reduction in consumption, and no fast cars at all.
They should remember that they are dealing with the human race, which is essentially a fun-loving, consumerist species, and that sometimes the best way to make people green is to make them green with envy.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 10 March 2009 under the heading, “How to drive fast, have a good time – and still save the planet”]