Tesla: Little electric roadster that could
SAN CARLOS, Calif. — A little roadster that goes into regular production
in two weeks is already electrifying the auto industry.
It's not about promises that the Tesla will deliver
pin-you-back-in-your-seat acceleration — 0 to 60 miles per hour in a
Ferrari-like 3.9 seconds — or its sexy appearance.
THRILL RIDE: Putting Tesla's pedal to the metal
Tesla's groundbreaking distinction is under its carbon-fiber skin. The
$98,000 Tesla is the first production high-performance electric car. It
is powered entirely by electricity, a plug-in that will never use a drop
of gasoline. And it's billed as being able to go 221 miles in mixed
city/highway driving on a full battery charge.
The sports car from San Carlos-based Tesla Motors has European sex
appeal with power to match that defies the image of electric vehicles as
poky carts for golf courses or senior villages.
Tesla is being touted as the first of a wave of electric cars that will
bring the most profound change in the auto industry since the first
Model T rolled off Ford Motor's (F) assembly line 100 years ago. From
Toyota (TM) to General Motors, (GM) the quest for clean air and
independence from foreign oil is leading to the wall socket.
"It's in the vanguard of the electric car revolution that is coming,"
proclaims Elon Musk, the digital-age tycoon who is Tesla Motors chairman
and largest shareholder of Tesla Motors.
Critics, however, say Tesla's high price, exotic battery technology and
lack of onboard backup power mean it will remain a niche vehicle.
Even consumers who can afford one may be spooked by the car's limited
range. Unlike hybrids, it has no gas engine as a backup.
"If you run out of juice, you're dead in the water," warns Dick Messer,
executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles,
which ordered a Tesla roadster for display, then canceled.
A lot is riding on the launch: A Tesla flop could short-circuit the
electric-car revolution. Fans already have been disquieted by a
six-month production delay and internal troubles, including a public
spat between Musk and former CEO Martin Eberhard that has played out
over Internet blogs.
Yet the fundamental idea remains compelling: to build a car without the
compromises usually made with alternative-fuel vehicles. The car is
intended to be the top-performing sports car in its pricey bracket — and
one which just happens to run on electricity.
"Tesla is out front in timing and in dispelling all the myths, building
a car that shatters every stereotype of what an electric car is," says
Chelsea Sexton of Plug In America, a Los Angeles-based electric-vehicle
A Silicon Valley start-up
Tesla has taken root in a pair of industrial buildings south of San
Francisco. The car's engineers and computer nerds are grounded far more
in the entrepreneurial ethos of Silicon Valley than in Detroit — and
they showed it with a creative solution to their greatest technical problem.
From the start, it was clear that the big technological hurdle was to
develop a safe, reliable, reasonably priced battery that can deliver
longer ranges than the nickel-metal hydride units in today's
gas-electric hybrids. That meant lithium-ion technology, such as
typically used for laptop batteries.
While big automakers also are trying to develop their own electric
drivetrains, Tesla's engineers figured out a shortcut in the process.
Rather than design a new battery from scratch, they made the roadster's
energy-storage system a multitude of rechargeable laptop computer
battery cells — 6,831 per car — arranged in a half-ton block that's
catacombed with cooling channels. Each cell is a little bigger than a AA
battery, virtually identical to the few lithium-ion cells that power the
IBM ThinkPad on which this story was written.
The battery pack is designed to last more than 100,000 miles and operate
in weather extremes, says JB Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer.
With today's gasoline prices and environmental concerns, major
automakers from Toyota to Mercedes-Benz have become serious about
electric power. General Motors' Volt performance electric car is due in
Tesla is the upstart. Deciding five years ago to try to independently
develop a performance electric car was a gutsy move. At the time that
Eberhard and his small group began, gas was cheap, and venture capital
was still recovering from the tech-stock meltdown.
In the beginning
They created Tesla Motors, which takes its name from the inventor who
pioneered alternating electrical current and AC electric motors more
than a century ago.
The fledgling company's finances were boosted by the involvement of
Musk, who made his fortune creating the PayPal (EBAY) online payment
system now owned by eBay. He was hooked on the potential by taking a
spin in a test electric sports car from another maker.
Musk, Tesla's chairman, says he has provided almost half of the $145
million that Tesla Motors has raised, including a big stake in the
latest $40 million in financing (and he has enough left to be developing
his own rocket company).
The engineering team started by trying to modify a small model from
British sports-carmaker Lotus to handle Tesla's evolving electric
After all the development work, about the only components that a Tesla
and a Lotus now share are the windshield, steering wheel and instrument
panel — 6.5% of the parts, says marketing Vice President Darryl Siry.
And Tesla's building operation is truly an international affair. The
battery cells come from Japan, the 248-horspower motor arrives from
Taiwan, chassis are made at Lotus' factory in England and final assembly
will take place in California. Up to 400 are expected to arrive this
year; up to 1,800 next year.
Eagerly awaiting them are more than 600 buyers for the 2008 model who
have already deposited anywhere from $50,000 to full price for their new
car. An additional 300 are on the list for 2009 models.
New Teslas were to start arriving last year. But the project encountered
roadblocks and unanticipated expenses along the way in designing an
Redesigning the headlights to not look so bug-eyed cost more than
$600,000. The door sills were dropped 2 inches lower than they are on a
Lotus to make the car easier to enter and exit.
The biggest hurdle, however, has been the transmission. Much time was
spent trying to develop a two-speed transmission. Now, Tesla engineers
are going back to a single-speed design.
Even with the production date so close, little changes keep coming. Musk
ordered a change in the seats because he decided they weren't comfy enough.
Growing pains spark turmoil
Such costly changes, along with growth that has pushed companywide
employment from 50 less than two years ago to 250 today has increased
internal friction and led to a falling out between Musk and Eberhard.
Late last year, Eberhard quit. He also set up a blog,
www.teslafounders.com, in which he posted entries critical of the
company. One lambasted the company for a "bloodbath" in which 26
employees were dismissed.
Though he's pulled down some posts under threat of a lawsuit, "I don't
agree with some of the decisions that the company has made recently,"
Eberhard said in an interview.
Musk says Eberhard is "obviously disgruntled," and his "blogging has
been harmful. It has disparaged the company in a way that wasn't true."
He says the company under Eberhard was racked by spiraling development
Eberhard counters that he was denied the ability to hire financial
executives who could have kept a tighter rein on costs.
Eberhard was replaced as CEO by veteran technology executive Ze'ev
Drori, who calls Tesla his "most exciting" challenge.
After official production of the Tesla starts March 17, the company
hopes to add more models. "We're trying to build a company that has a
long future," Straubel says.
An electric sedan that would sell for about half the price of the
roadster is in the works. Production is scheduled to start in 2010, in
time to rival GM's Volt.
The company is also trying to market its electric drivetrain to other
automakers pursuing alternative technologies.
Big makers get turned on
No doubt about it, there's plenty of interest among big automakers.
Chrysler just showed off a electric-powered concept car in Detroit in
January. Ford and Toyota are pushing ahead with tests of plug-in
electric hybrids — vehicles that would run solely on a plug-in battery
charge part of the time. Mercedes-Benz recently announced it will be one
of the first makers to use lithium-ion batteries in its hybrids.
The prospect of such hulking potential competition has given added fuel
to Tesla doubters.
Museum director Messer says continuing changes to the car, remaining
questions about battery reliability and performance and the company's
long-term financial viability are all factors that buyers should consider.
"It's a fun, look-at-me car," Messer says. But "If GM and Chrysler can't
make it, it's tough to see how (Tesla) will make it."
Dave Cole of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.,
calls Tesla a "fun aside" to the overall progress of the auto industry.
Cole says that though it's too expensive to capture mainstream buyers,
the electric roadster will at least serve as a way station on the march
to a leap forward in technology.
Tesla "serves notice we're entering a new era," Cole says.