by Nicholas Stehle and Rod Martin
November 13, 2015

The attention-grabbing headline from Tech Crunch says it all: Elon Musk Says Tesla Cars Will Reach 620 Miles On A Single Charge “Within A Year Or Two,” Be Fully Autonomous In “Three Years”

You read that correctly; by 2017 (at the latest), Musk expects his Tesla cars to reach 620 miles on a single charge. For comparison, top-end for current Teslas is about 280, the Nissan Leaf just 200. The average gasoline car manages 450, and doesn’t take 20 minutes (or more) to refuel.

Electric Vehicles and Range

So recharge time aside, Elon is promising a car that is actually superior to current technology, and by a pretty wide margin. Range has been the main limiting factor for EVs.

The advantage is about to shift.

Electric cars have come and gone over the years, but conspiracy theories aside, what has consistently killed the electric car is the fact that Americans want to be able to drive further than just across town without worrying they’ll get stranded. A 620-mile charge, coupled with Tesla’s growing network of (solar powered!) charging stations, means average Americans can soon look forward to driving EVs and telling despots and oil cartels to shove off. That may seem a small thing, but it’s proven enough to sell millions of hybrids, cars that still use gasoline, cost more than they save, and don’t go almost 200 miles further on an, er, fill-up.

Additionally, Musk predicts full autonomy (self-driving cars) within three short years. Google has famously pioneered the technology, driving over 2 million miles without a single at-fault accident.

But Tesla (and their incredible battery technology) aren’t the only ones making waves when it comes to future fuels.

A Hydrogen Economy?

Toyota’s foray into radical new cars that run on hydrogen rather than gasoline has the potential to be a game-changer. The Toyota Mirai is a hydrogen fuel cell powered car (Rod has been talking about fuel cell cars for a long time, though not surprisingly, Elon Musk is not a fan). Since most hydrogen is derived from either natural gas (95% in the short term) or seawater (more expensive for now, but dropping quickly), it is even cleaner than electric vehicles, which are often powered by electricity generated at coal-burning electricity plants.

And did we mention it only takes a few minutes to fill your hydrogen tank? It’s no different than a gasoline car.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about hydrogen fuel cells: they emit only water. Whatever you may think of global warming, we can all agree that less smog is a good thing, and like EVs, this technology is a big step forward for dense urban centers.

There are problems yet, among which are a 300 mile range. But Tesla launched its roadster with a fraction of that and so far hasn’t matched it, and there’s no inherent reason hydrogen cars can’t improve too (especially with Toyota behind them). And since no one knows how these differing approaches will fare in the long run, a certain amount of technology promiscuity is wise.

Mind-Boggling Energy Needs — and Real Solutions

Significant changes to the selection and distribution of fuel mean that the quantity and quality of electrical generation is becoming far more important.

Natural gas certainly has a significant role to play. As coal becomes more heavily regulated, fracking for gas is essential for meeting the world’s energy needs: it’s also just a whole lot cleaner. And it’s not an insignificant bonus that the U.S. has become an energy giant and dominating global force when it comes to cleaner-burning natural gas. Anti-fracking zealots are doing their level best to make life harder for billions of people, but despite their efforts and even the current OPEC-led price war, U.S. energy production remains high thanks to fracking, meaning not only the growing use of cleaner energy but decreased dependence on foreign sources. You’re subsidizing Middle Eastern tyrants a lot less these days.

It gets better.

There’s a new kid in town (well, new to you: he’s actually about 50). Thorium reactors are a modern miracle. They cannot melt down (cannot!). They produce just 1% of the radioactive waste current uranium-based nuclear reactors do, and they can even burn up all of the radioactive waste already produced. A thorium reactors costs just 1/5 the price of current reactors. And thorium cannot (yes, cannot) be used to make a bomb.

There’s enough thorium to power the world for about two million years. So given its safety and cost, this is a very big deal.

America has known about thorium since the 1950s, but prioritized uranium because it served the Pentagon’s Cold War priorities. Jimmy Carter actually killed the technology in the 1970s, perversely enough during his push for energy independence.

But today, China and India, desperate for clean fuel sources to meet the growing power needs of billions of people, are putting huge resources behind a new generation of safe thorium reactors. Bill Gates and other private investors and companies here at home are too. In other words, this isn’t some dream: it’s reality, and serious people are taking it seriously both here and, far more so, abroad.

Longer term (but perhaps in the not-too-distant future), nuclear fusion could supply the electricity that powers your electric vehicle or produces fuel for your hydrogen-powered car. Government may have failed to deliver on fusion, but some of the world’s brightest billionaires are putting their fortunes where their mouths are. Tech titans Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, and Paul Allen are investing heavily in the technology.

The technology is well worth pursuing. One tablespoon of liquid hydrogen fuel could produce the same energy as 28 tons of coal.

There are currently six private-sector fusion projects underway in the United States. We find this point extremely noteworthy. Government may be able to print money, but billionaires have to earn it. If the latter start spending their own money on something, it’s a good bet they think they can make it not just real but profitable, and soon.

Natural gas, nuclear (thorium) and even nuclear fusion make it much more likely that average people will have a Tesla Model S or a hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai in their driveways and garages in the very near future. We are not among the many naysayers regarding oil: far from it. But the benefits of these technologies are nothing short of astonishing, economically, environmentally and geopolitically.

Oh, and in case you missed it, Elon makes a darn good car.