People at the green end of the spectrum tend to roll their eyes at the very mention of the word SUV. Some have even alleged that the term stands for “supersized unconscionable vehicle.” Others have wondered if rising fuel prices will lead to the demise of their nemesis. It would be nice to think that as people’s awareness and concern about the impact of their behavior on the environment grew, that they might switch to smaller more fuel-efficient vehicles. That’s probably not going to happen fast enough to really make a difference. The fact is, SUVs are fun to drive and people feel safe in them (whether they actually are or not). The good news is that at least the vehicles are getting more efficient.
That trend took another big leap forward with the announcement that Tesla Motors is going to unveil a new all-electric SUV on February 9th. The new Model X SUV is the third model developed by the California company following the Roadster and the Model S. Based on its predecessors, the Model X will surely be a high end, high performance machine, out of the price range of most consumers (the Model S starts at $49,900). But they are still important because they have set the standard for others to follow.
According to Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, “the biggest effect that Tesla will have on the market is being a good example for the overall car industry. We can show the industry that if you make cars that look good, have good performance and long range, then people will buy them. With the Roadster we spurred GM to create the Volt, which Bob Lutz has been kind enough to acknowledge. The second effect will be the sector effect. Through the cars we make and the power trains that we supply to others.”
Based on numbers provided by Tesla, their electric cars are 3.2 times more efficient than a hybrid that gets 55mpg, or 4.9 times more efficient that a gasoline powered car that gets 36 mpg, next years CAFÉ average for small cars. This assumes that the electricity used to charge the car is derived for natural gas. That is roughly equivalent to 176 mpg. With the largest battery the Model S will have a 300 mile cruising range.
Tesla will also be providing electric powertrains for the all-electric Toyota RAV4, which is scheduled to come out later this year, followed by an electric Scion iQ City. The 2013 electric RAV4 will be built in Woodstock, Ontario. It is expected to have a 100 mile cruising range on a full battery charge. It was designed to accommodate the new electric powertrain, so no cargo space is sacrificed to make room for the batteries.
Toyota, which currently owns 2.9 percent of Tesla’s stock, actually made a first-generation electric RAV4 back in 1997 of which roughly 1500 units were sold or leased in the US.
So, is this a game changer?
In 2008, (the most recent year for which I have numbers) there were close to 5 million SUVs sold. Let’s say they average 27 mpg (which is generous). If only 10 percent of those sales were for SUEVs instead and they drove the national average of 15,000 miles per year, some 228 millions of gasoline would be saved. That’s a reduction of over 2 million tons of CO2, annually, just in the first year. Reductions would continue to grow over time as more electric vehicles replaced their gas-powered predecessors.
I would say that’s pretty significant. Not nearly enough to reverse climate change, but another piece of the puzzle.
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.