5 minutes with… Jay Leno

We talk to owner of one of the world's largest private car collections about his electric vehicles and the future of the internal combustion engine.

By Gavin Conway on August 10, 2011 2:13 PM

TCP: You’ve got an amazing collection of cars of all types, including a 1909 Baker Electric. Electric vehicles didn’t take off back then, so do you think they have a future in America?

JL: Oh yeah, I think they have a big future in America. I’m not sure if lithium-ion batteries are the key – the main problem with electrics is you can’t recharge fast enough. I’ve got a Chevy Volt [an extended range electric vehicle], which I consider to be the perfect electric vehicle because I’ve put 6,400 miles on it and used 2.2 gallons of gas [petrol]. I get 40 miles ‘free’. I drive to work which is 28 miles, I plug it in, I leave work and I have 40 miles again, I run errands, I do stuff, I go to my garage, I plug in and I do some work in my garage. 2-3 hours later I’ve got 40 miles again and I go home. And that has been my schedule since November. So consequently I have used only 2.2 gallons, and yet if I wanted to go to San Francisco in it I could.

Jay Leno drives a Chevrolet Volt extended range electric car (pictured)

The problem with electric vehicles as they stand now is, it’s a second vehicle. You need a petrol car because some day you’re gonna have to drive to the hospital or go to Vegas or go somewhere more than 100 miles away – and you need a car that can do that. With the Chevy Volt, it’s an electric car that can be your only car. Sure it uses some petrol, but it’s not bad considering – I mean it’s the perfect stop-gap.

I think that the real breakthrough will be when electric cars can literally pull electricity from the sky – you’ll have an antenna like an FM antenna and you will somehow – the same way we can send radio waves and television waves and micro waves through the air – we will send electricity over the air. And you can literally go down a road replenishing yourself as you drive.

Some people have talked about putting strips in the highway the same way that you have those pads you just lay your cell phone on and it charges; that would be under the road and your car would be charging as you’re driving.

TCP: You drove the latest Tesla Roadster Sport in September. A couple of years after the first time you drove one, you seem impressed by its progress. Any chance you’ll buy one?

JL: Well again the Tesla is a great car, but the one I drove was $180,000. For electricity to become truly the savior environmentally it has to be a car under $30,000 – it has to be a car everyone can buy.

A Tesla Roadster Sport

Let’s face it, most guys that own a Tesla probably also have a Porsche Turbo, an S-Class Mercedes, a big Cadillac – something else – and this is their runaround car. And that’s fine, I’m not putting that down. But the idea is that it’s got to be more than a rich person’s toy. Its got to be a viable thing that a working person can say, “Gee, I need to save money, I’ve got $25,000. Should I buy this gas car or this electric? Okay, in the long run I’ll save money with the electric so I’ll get that.” That’s when it will really be viable.

TCP: Chris Paine, the film maker who made Who Killed the Electric Car, recently told us that much higher gas prices might get America into more efficient cars and EVs. Is that a realistic approach to EV adoption?

JL: Yeah. I think its already getting people into more sensible cars. Lets face it, people do things with their pocket and when gas gets expensive enough, people think smaller.

TCP: Hypothetically, if in 25 years’ time all cars were electric, what would be the thing that you would miss most about gas engines?

JL: Well I like things that roll, explode and make noise. I mean its fun. I don’t think in 25 years the gas engine car won’t be here. Don’t forget, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the internal combustion engine. We just don’t like the fuel. The fact that you would throw 150 years of technology out of the window because you don’t like the fuel doesn’t make a lot of sense.

For example, BMW makes a V12 BMW that runs on liquid hydrogen. I demonstrated it about 10 years ago – we drove it into a theatre and I put a glass under the tailpipe. I spoke for 20 minutes, the glass filled with water… and I drank it. It wasn’t the best tasting water, but there was nothing wrong with it – and that was the only by-product.

A BMW Hydrogen 7 being refuelled with liquid hydrogen - is this a more accurate vision of the future

So there’s an internal combustion engine. Lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If someone comes out with a better fuel… for example I was reading about some scientists bombarding seawater with radio waves and literally getting it to combust and explode. It took way more energy for that to happen than they got out of it, but the fact that they did it at all, well, there’s a fuel source that nobody has ever even thought of. Seawater? Maybe there’s something there.

15 to 20 years ago, or 40 years ago, everybody thought there’d be flying cars. But nobody predicted GPS. Nobody predicted every single human being with a communication device like a cell phone, where they could carry an encyclopedia with them at all times. I think that the internal combustion engine is here to stay for at least the next 50 or 60 years, I think the fuel source will be up for discussion.

Leno owns a 1909 Baker Electric (pictured)

TCP: So which power source do you think will be dominant in 25 years time?

JL: I have to admit I find natural gas fascinating – it’s easy to convert an internal combustion engine to run on natural gas. A friend of mine has a 1938 Packard, he converted it to run on gas, and it meets current emissions standards. That’s pretty good. I mean, there you go – an engine that is not particularly high tech and yet it doesn’t pollute because again, the engine is fine, we just change the fuel source. We have natural gas, we have it here in America, why not use it?

TCP: There’s something you wrote in Octane magazine, a really cool piece about future collectible cars like the first generation Prius. Do you think that electrics like the LEAF and the Volt will be future classics?

JL: Oh, sure I think they will. As this type of vehicle becomes more sophisticated, they will be viewed as ‘quaint’. People will remember driving with their grandfather in the first Prius, and people pointing and laughing and going, “How fast will that go?” In the same way, early 1950s Volkswagens now are very collectible, as are Renault Dauphines and the first Mini Coopers, because they’re seen as quaint and simple and easy to fix. The first generation Prius will look like a toy compared to what we have in 20 or 30 years.

A Nissan LEAF could be highly collectible in years to come

TCP: Does MPG matter to you or is it all about the more visceral emotion of automobiles?

JL: I think most men like to make a game of things. With the Chevy Volt, I enjoy hyper-miling with it. I enjoy driving so when I come down a hill, I take my foot off the gas pedal and I watch the regen put energy back. And I enjoy playing that game of seeing how many miles per gallon I can get out of this thing. But I like one extreme to the other – if I’m gonna drive a Lamborghini, I’m not that concerned about the gas. Whatever type of vehicle I’m in, I like to use it for its intended purpose – if I’m in a sports car, I like to go fast. In the Chevy Volt, my goal is to go the entire year on the original tank of gas that I left the dealership with.

TCP: Who’s the biggest electric car nut you know?

JL: Well that would probably be Ed Begley, Jr. Ed’s a big environmentalist. But I don’t think a pure electric car like the Nissan LEAF, which they say does 100 miles – it really goes about 60, and that’s on a nice day when the sun is shining. I don’t know what it’ll do in Minnesota in the winter. To me, that doesn’t seem like progress, it doesn’t heat the batteries or cool the batteries, so your range is very dependent on temperature.

If you get 60 miles that means you can really only go 25 miles from home, and then you have to turn around and come back, so to me that is a second car; it’s a keychain car that you put on your keychain and use it when you need it. It doesn’t seem as practical to me as some of the others.

[N.B. Range is dependent on driving style, road conditions and weather - many owners achieve the officially-recognised range in the LEAF. Thermal management has been announced for the 2012 LEAF.]

TCP: How do you feel about electric car conversions. For instance, converting a Ford GT40 to electric – is that like putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa?

JL: You know I don’t get the electric car conversion; it’s what I call the veggie burger theory. Someone said, “A hamburger looks delicious, so lets take a veggie burger but make it look like a hamburger.” So it looks like a hamburger, but you bite into it and go, “Bleugh… this doesn’t taste anything like a hamburger!” So why make it look like a hamburger? Make it look like something else.

Ford GT40 race car in 1966 Le Mans-winning colours

When you take a car, like I know a guy that was converting VW Rabbits [‘Golf’ outside North America] to electric. Ok you take a car that got reasonably good mileage, you rip all the safety features out of it – the airbags, the door-guard beam – you try to make it as light as possible. You fill it with lead-acid batteries, which if you have an accident will corrode your skin quicker than anything. So you’ve taken a car, you’ve made it less safe, it won’t go as far, it’s not as fast, and it cost you more than the car is worth. And when you go to sell it, it’s not worth much of anything. So what’s the point in that? For electric vehicles to be viable they should be built ground up as an electric vehicle.

[With thanks to Jeremy Hart]