Electric Cars For Enlightened Stars

Actors like George Clooney have made high-performance, zero-carbon vehicles a new fashion accessory

3 min read

It’s been all the rage in the last couple of years for Hollywood celebrities to flaunt ownership of hybrid cars like Toyota’s modest Prius. But even better than a hybrid--which, after all, still gets all its energy from gasoline and therefore also emits carbon dioxide--would be an all-electric, zero-emissions car. Fortunately, for the pure-of-mind and very rich Hollywood god or goddess, just such cars are available--and some of them provide performance matching the best sports cars.

Take the Tesla Roadster. Created by a start-up, Tesla Motors, in Silicon Valley’s San Carlos, Calif., the Roadster is powered by lithium-ion batteries--6831 of them to be exact--and costs US $100 000. If you put down $75 000 and wait until the middle of next year for your car, you and Oscar winner George Clooney can have something in common. He bought one of the sold-out first 100 Signature series, sight unseen, as did actor Dennis Haysbert (perhaps best known for playing the president in Fox’s TV drama ”24”).

The Tesla was conceived by entrepreneur Martin Eberhard, who wanted a fast, environmentally friendly sports car but couldn’t find one. Convinced that advances in lithium-ion battery technology would permit such a car to be designed and built, he hired England’s Lotus, famous for its small, very light sports cars, to do the engineering. The whole Tesla car weighs just 1134 ­kilograms, including 408 kg of batteries. But when you floor the Tesla, the car slams you in the back--silently--because the 185â''kilowatt electric motor develops its maximum torque starting from zero revs. It’ll do zero to 100 kilometers an hour in 3.7 seconds. That’s fast�Ferrari fast.

Clooney already owns a Tango 600 electric car, a tandem two-seater only a meter wide, which was created by Commuter Cars, in Spokane, Wash., and built by England’s famed Prodrive racing shop. The Tango weighs 1388 kg and its two rear-wheel motors provide a combined torque of more than 1356 ­newtonâ''meters. The Tango can accelerate to 100 km/h from zero in 4 seconds. Clooney has boasted that he enjoys taking other drivers by surprise, zipping around them in his slender little car [see photo, "Cool Cat"].

Photo: Steve Fecht/General Motors

Red Hot

Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the rock group The Red Hot Chili Peppers, tried to steal the show when Chevrolet recently unveiled its Sequel, a concept car that runs on fuel cells.

While the Tango relies on 19 to 25 lead-acid batteries, the Tesla uses lithium-ion batteries, technically almost identical to those used in a cellphone or digital camera. They have roughly three times the charge capacity and weigh substantially less than lead-acid batteries of the same size. (Like the Tango, General Motors Corp.’s now-defunct EV1 electric two-seater ran on lead-acid batteries. For a range of 100 km, it took up to 12 hours to recharge.) With the same 400â''km range as a typical car, the Tesla can recharge in as little as 3.5 hours. It comes with recharging cables, too, by the way--just like a cellphone--which gives it another edge over hybrids.

Though Tesla Motors’ $60 million in venture funding puts it almost in a class by itself, it’s far from alone in the electric vehicle business. The global roster of new electric vehicle makers numbers more than two dozen. In fact, small companies specializing in EV engineering and conversion have plied their trade for years--they continued to do so even after big automakers like General Motors dropped out.

One thing about celebrity fashion is that it turns on the proverbial dime. While Clooney awaits his Tesla, what could be an even fairer siren beckons--the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. Only a few thousand exist globally, many of them transit buses. But when Chevrolet recently showed its Sequel fuel-cell concept car to the press, Anthony Kiedis--lead singer of The Red Hot Chili Peppers--wangled his way into the press preview and was widely photographed [see photo, "Red Hot"]. Next year, Chevrolet plans to distribute 100 Equinox Fuel Cell SUVs to teachers, engineers, firefighters, government officials, business partners, and media in California, New York, and Washington, D.C. Who’s taking bets on whether some celebrity will get included in that group, too?

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions