I try to look at the silver lining of the pandemic. For example, how many guys have used these excuses: “Honey, I’d love to take you to the new vegan restaurant, but it’s closed. Let me go to In and Out and just bring home some burgers.” Or, “Honey, of course, I’d love to see a Broadway musical, but there’s nobody performing right now. Let’s just watch TV.”
Another plus: We have cheaper gas and unclogged freeways. Police have given out more 100-mile-an-hour-plus speeding tickets in a month than they have in five years. Think about it: Not since 1958 have people gone more than 12 miles an hour on the 405 Freeway.
And maybe it’s my imagination but I find people are more friendly when I’m driving around the city. I have a green 1950 Plymouth station wagon that my wife calls a “roundy” car. We drive it to the supermarket. The other day there was a line of people with masks and they were sort of scowling and as soon as they saw this car, they all started smiling and waving because it looks like a big friendly dog. It’s a six-cylinder, goofy-looking car from the 1950s with big whitewall tires, and it seems to make people smile.
It makes more sense to drive something like this during a pandemic than some sort of ridiculous Lamborghini with open exhaust, like some deposed dictator’s idiot son. People would throw rocks at me.
People are also more polite. I saw this the other day: Someone was having car trouble, and everybody stopped to help her. That’s because we’re all sharing the same tragic events. I think it brings people together a little bit. It’s like, maybe being the top salesman in your office is not the most important thing right now. Let’s concentrate on what really counts.
The last new car I bought was my 2015 Tesla Model S.
I think it’s safe to say that a child born today will probably drive in a gasoline car about as often as people do in standard shift cars today. They’ll still be around, but everything will be electric.
For years, electric cars fell short because they weren’t as efficient, they didn’t have the range, and were, for the most part, glorified golf carts. I drove one of the first electric cars by General Motors, the EV1, back in the 1990s. It had a range of maybe 70 to 100 miles, but in reality, it went much less. The range on electric cars is like sex—all guys lie about it.
With new technology, it can’t just be equal. It’s got to be superior. Now with the advent of Tesla and all these other companies, you have cars that have a range of 400 miles or more, so that’s not even an issue anymore. They’re faster, they’re more efficient, and they don’t cost as much to run. That’s why electric will take over. I don’t know any Tesla person that’s gone back to a gas car.
I think your Ferraris, your Cobras—these fancy cars—become the equivalent of what snowmobiles are now. They will be weekend recreational vehicles because, let’s face it, driving a high-performance Ferrari in L.A. traffic—bumper to bumper—doesn’t make any sense.
So, you’ll drive your electric car to get around the city and go to the airport. And then on the weekends, you take your sports car and you drive up to the hills or wherever you go for recreational driving.
Making the change
Steam ran this country from 1800 to 1911. Internal combustion took over from 1911 to just about now. And now we’re in the electric phase. It’s still at the beginning.
It won’t take long for those who love gas-powered cars to switch to electric. The first time your Ferrari or Lamborghini gets blown off by an electric car, that’s pretty much it.
I bought my Tesla because it is the fastest-accelerating four-door car I could buy. Really, there’s nothing faster. The fact that it happened to be electric, the fact that it didn’t use any gasoline and it never requires any repairs, that’s all secondary.
I like fast cars. I wasn’t really thinking about the environment when I bought it—lower emissions are the byproduct. I was thinking that’s a pretty good deal for the fastest-accelerating car you can get. All this extra stuff is just extra.
Some love gas-powered cars because they like the look of the engine. That will change, too. When you open the hood of a gas-powered car, there’s nothing to look at these days anyway. Just a big sheet of plastic over the engine.
Engines used to be attractive. I have a friend of mine who collects antique Maytag washing-machine engines because the engine was exposed, and it had a lot of nickel, brass and a lot of polish to it. They were fascinating to look at, like looking at the back of a watch.
And then somebody realized, we could just put a white box over all of this. We don’t have to make the engine attractive at all and we can save money. And then the idea of collecting washing-machine motors just fell out of favor because there’s nothing interesting about it—it was all under the box.
That’s the way modern cars are. The average person on the street could not tell an electric car from a gas car by looking at it. But they know the electric one is faster and now it can go longer, and it doesn’t require any maintenance. So give me the electric.
The one hurdle is cost for most consumers. Right now, electric cars are more expensive, on average, than gas cars because they cost more to manufacture, but that will come down.
Think about the costs and the hassle of a new gas-powered car: After the first 600 miles, first you have to change the oil and service it, and eventually you have to replace the brake pads. Electric cars have brake pads too, but they also have regenerative braking, so they slow you down and you don’t use the brakes nearly as much. My Tesla brake pads still look brand new because I just let my foot off the pedal and the car slows down. I only use the brake pedal to come to a full, complete stop.
Then there’s the gas. I used to have a big Jaguar four-door sedan that cost me $80 to $100 a week in gas. I got the Tesla, and it’s maybe $6 a week of electricity to charge the battery.
The cutoff point in America is $30,000. I think once they figure out how to build electric cars for less than $30,000, you’ll see more and more people going electric. If it hits people in the pocketbook, that’s the game-changer. If you can make a car cheaper, more efficient, faster—game over.
Driving driverless cars
The idea of a driverless car is a misnomer. It’s more like driver assist, with sensing systems that alert drivers when they veer over a lane or approach a vehicle in front. At one point in time, power steering was considered antithetical to true drivers. People protested and claimed, “I’m not using that power steering. I want to feel the tires turning when I turn the wheel.” Power brakes were the same because it’s putting something between you and the road. Well, now people wouldn’t leave their house without anti-lock brakes.
It’s all relative.
The idea of you hopping in the back seat with a bottle of Scotch and the car driving you somewhere—I don’t think that’s going to happen for a long time. You’ll always have to have a person behind the wheel. If you have an accident, who’s responsible?
Driverless cars don’t interest me because I like the interaction of mechanical things. I prefer to turn the wheel. I like winding mechanical watches before I go to bed. I like feeling that little “tick, tick, tick” as you turn the crown wheel.
But that didn’t stop me from testing a driverless car. Audi invited me up to Sonoma Racetrack to try one of their prototype electric vehicles. I sat in the passenger seat. They programmed the car and it was going well over 100, 120 miles an hour by itself racing around the track. I sat there and I watched the steering wheel turn and I watched the brakes move up and down. That was fascinating—it’s as if the invisible man was driving the car.
The first time I tested a driverless car, the whole trunk was filled with electronics. The next time we did it, the electronics were the size of a cellphone.
I’m a hopeless optimist. I believe engineers will save the world.
Look at how engineers have developed cars over the past 50 years. When I came to L.A. in the ’70s, you couldn’t go outside more than 100 days a year because of the smog. Now, we have at least 10 times as many cars on the road, or so it seems, and while the air is not perfect, it is remarkably cleaner. I think we’re moving in the right direction.
Key Dates on Cars in 2020
• Sept. 22: Tesla CEO Elon Musk outlines a plan to use lower-cost batteries to begin making a $25,000 electric vehicle in about three years.
• Sept. 23: California bans the sale of new gasoline- and diesel-powered passenger cars in the state, effective by 2035. It’s the first state to commit to such a goal.
• Nov. 9: General Motors plans to hire 3,000 tech workers as part of its push to develop electric vehicles in-house.
• Nov. 13: Volkswagen says it will invest about $86 billion in developing electric vehicles and other new technologies over the next five years, seeking to pass Tesla as the leading maker of electric cars.
• Nov. 16: Tesla will be added to the S&P 500 index effective Dec. 21, S&P Dow Jones Indices says. Tesla is on track for 2020 to be its first calendar year of profitability.
Mr. Leno is the host of “
Garage” and former longtime host of “The Tonight Show.” Email him at email@example.com.
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