Tesla Model S Electric Car Versus ... Ford Model T? A History Lesson

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1914 Ford Model T

1914 Ford Model T

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Well, give Car and Driver points for high concept: In picking a car to test against a 2013 Tesla Model S luxury electric sedan, the magazine chose...a 1915 Ford Model T.

Yep, the most advanced, most talked-about battery-electric vehicle on the planet was pitted against the car that put the world on wheels a century ago.

MORE: Road Trips In A Tesla Model S Electric Car: Lessons Learned

The premise of the article in their February issue, in their words: "We stage a multi-state enduro to find out if today's automotive pioneer can outrun its predecessor."

GM EV1 and Tesla Model S electric cars, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, Oct 2013

GM EV1 and Tesla Model S electric cars, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, Oct 2013

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The key, in this case, is how you define "outrun."

While the fast-expanding network of Tesla Supercharger DC quick-charging stations now permits both coast-to-coast and New York-to-Florida road trips by electric car, the magazine conducted its test last October.

No nearby Superchargers

And as it points out, in its area of the country (Ann Arbor, Michigan), there were no Supercharger stations last fall.

(There is now one, along I-94 in St. Joseph, Michigan, 26 miles north of the I-90 cross-country corridor--one of 76 operating U.S. Supercharger locations as of today.)

So it couched its Tesla-vs-Model T test as the equivalent, a century later, to the question it imagined potential buyers of the first automobiles may have pondered: How does this stack up against my old, familiar, predictable horse?

The article runs seven pages online and has lots of photos. Read it and make your own judgments about whether it's appropriate or insulting, light-hearted or heavy-handed.

Old Gas Pumps

Old Gas Pumps

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Gasoline scarce too

For the first quarter century of car ownership (roughly 1890 to 1915), owning any "horseless carriage" was a challenge in overcoming limited infrastructure and finding fuel.

It wasn't until the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 that national government got involved in planning and funding roads that crossed state boundaries.

World War I underscored the need for a reliable network of roads, to allow the new tanks and trucks recently adopted by the military to move among units.

In due course, small roadside businesses sprang up to sell gasoline for the newfangled contraptions, usually in the same place they could be repaired.

But travelers couldn't be confident of finding gasoline until well into the 1920s, a result of the Model T turning the U.S. into a car-based nation almost by itself.

Tesla Motors Supercharger Network In 2015 - released May 2013

Tesla Motors Supercharger Network In 2015 - released May 2013

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Interstates for defense

Similarly, the Cold War aftermath of World War II produced the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created what we know today as the Interstate Highway System built from 1956 through 1989.

The system was then known as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, created to permit movement of large, motorized military units, including heavy trucks, tanks, troop carriers, and other current wheeled military vehicles.

In retrospect, the flaw in the 1956 Act was that it funded the construction of the highways, but failed to address the need for ongoing maintenance funds. That's a different story altogether.

In this context, however, with the first Tesla Roadster delivered at the end of 2008--and the first mass-priced plug-in electric cars two years later, in December 2010--electric car infrastructure has clearly proceeded at a far quicker pace than did either roads or gas stations.

2013 Tesla Model S at Supercharger station in Corning, California, Nov 2013 [photo: George Parrott]

2013 Tesla Model S at Supercharger station in Corning, California, Nov 2013 [photo: George Parrott]

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California: well beyond Model T already

Tesla buyers in California, much of the West Coast, and parts of the Eastern Seaboard have already passed well beyond the "better than a horse?" stage of Tesla evaluation.

For them, the article underscores the limitations of print publishing: By the time a piece makes it onto paper and gets passed around, it's already out of date.

If Tesla is able to build out its network of Superchargers as depicted in an alluring map on its website, that core question won't apply to much of the rest of the country by the end of next year.

Still, it's a neat concept for an article--and we like the historic perspective. Even if proving that a Tesla is far more comfortable to drive long distances than a Model T isn't hard.

Nicely done, guys.

[research hat tip: Brian Henderson]


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