Tesla Wows With Model S Rides, Factory TourBy Scott Doggett October 4, 2011
It was only a year ago that Tesla took over ownership of the former New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) factory jointly operated by General Motors and Toyota for a quarter-century. But today the old NUMMI plant is barely recognizable. Its surfaces are scrubbed clean. Countless windows have been added to let in natural light. A fresh coat of bright-white or Tesla-red paint covers seemingly everything. Plus 90 percent of the equipment needed to make the upcoming Model S (above) battery-electric sedan is installed. On Monday, the Silicon Valley electric-vehicle maker allowed a handful of journalists to tour the state-of-the-art factory. The tour included slalom-course and high-speed-track rides in Model S beta vehicles that were only so many tweaks away from the version Tesla says it will start delivering to customers in less than a year.
As soon as Oct. 17, the company will stamp the first body shell of the Model S at the factory using robots, then paint it using the company's high-tech robotic painters and assemble it using people on Tesla's assembly line, Gilbert Passin (below), vice president of manufacturing, told AutoObserver during the plant tour. "The first car using the production equipment should be done by mid-November. By the way, I just wanted to tell you that we have already built cars here. We've built four cars already using some of the equipment. What I'm talking about now is using the production equipment completely."
Passin, who led high-profile divisions at Toyota, Volvo, Mack and Renault across North America and Europe prior to joining Tesla, said of the first car that will go down the line, "We're going to learn a lot from that car, because it's not going to be perfect. We know that there's going to be some bugs and some debugging." That first car will have the internal name of beta 2 to differentiate it from the Model S betas that were on hand for test rides on Monday. Those did not use the production tooling equipment in the factory for their construction. Tesla is looking at a release candidate that's a car that's identical to or extremely close to the production version by January or February, Passin said. "Our target delivery date for the first car to a customer is mid-2012. That means that we will probably fill up the production pipeline before that, of course, so that we can deliver the car by mid-2012 By year-end 2012, we should be producing between 5,500 and 6,000 cars delivered to customers." That number nearly matches the number of deposits Tesla has taken for the model.
Scaling Up The Staff
Tesla has hired nearly 200 people at the vehicle-manufacturing site, located in Fremont, Calif., with most of the hires being engineers and production managers, as well as some assembly-line employees, Passin said. By 2012, when Tesla expects to reach full capacity with the Model S 83 cars a day during one shift, or approximately 20,000 cars a year about 500 people will be involved with the vehicle's production, he said. In addition, there will be nearly as many people at the Fremont plant who are involved with powertrain manufacturing, he said. The company expects to sell powertrains to numerous other automakers.
On more than one occasion Passin referred to not only the cleanliness of the factory, which is also bright and airy, but he also pointed out things rarely found in automotive plants. The NUMMI plant was constructed in 1984 on the site of a GM assembly plant that had been built in 1960. When the last car rolled off the line at NUMMI a black Toyota Corolla S, at 9:40 a.m. on April 1, 2010 the plant was and looked well past its prime. But in the makeover, the final inspection area has the cars conveyed along an elevated platform adorned with gorgeous bamboo flooring. All of the equipment looks new and spotless, and the interior of the factory with all its natural light and fresh paint, is attractive. The overall effect of the improvements that Tesla has made to the facility is that most people would be proud to work there, and that pride will carry over into the quality of work that those on the assembly line put into the vehicles they manufacture, Passin said. The fine working environment is also a tool to help Telsa achieve one of its often-stated goals: Hiring the best and the brightest people to fill its ranks.
Could Have Fooled Me
The term "beta" is borrowed from Teslas Silicon Valley roots, denoting a near-final test phase. Now that the Model S's architecture and performance have been proven, Tesla will continue learning, testing and incorporating feedback into the final, polished product. But the cars Tesla brought out for test rides a Tesla employee drove while an autowriter sat in the front passenger seat had the fit and finish most people would expect if they saw them in showrooms. The Tesla sedan whipped through the slalom course like a sports car, then headed down a straightaway. Tesla claims the Model S achieves zero-to-60 mph acceleration in 5.6 seconds. On the banked track, it quickly reached 105 mph and did so quietly, due to the electric drivetrain that produces a fraction of the vibration of a gasoline- or diesel-powered engine.
The Model S, which will have the longest range between charges of any mass-produced electric vehicle when it goes on sale, will be offered with three range options: 160 miles, 230 miles and 300 miles. In the United States, the Tesla Model S with the 160-mile range starts at $57,400 ($49,900 after the U.S. federal tax credit). The 230-mile Model S starts about $10,000 higher and the 300-mile Model S starts at about $20,000 higher than the base. This past weekend, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that Tesla will soon offer a Model S Sport sedan, featuring a larger electric motor and a zero-to-60 time of 4.5 seconds. No price has been disclosed. All versions of the Model S will offer a 17-inch display that garnered a great deal of attention at Monday's event. Like an iPad, its many applications can be activated by touch, eliminating the need for the usual switches and knobs found in luxury cars while offering a dynamite navigational system and telematics.
Overhead was the largest moonroof in the industry. It is controlled by the touch screen. Audio volume can be operated through both the screen as well as controls on the steering wheel. Peter Rawlinson, vice president and chief engineer for vehicle engineering, told AutoObserver that every Tesla engineer is encouraged to come up with innovations, and among the many on the Model S are an optional pair of rear-facing seats at the back of the vehicle for children. The innovation allows Tesla to claim that the model has seating for five adults and two children. Without the seats, there's enough cargo space for two bikes, a pair of backpacks and more. Unlike some other electric vehicles, the Model S has been designed as a primary vehicle, as opposed to a commuter car.
A Real Crowd Pleaser
This past Saturday, Tesla opened the factory and offered rides to individuals who had paid a deposit on a Model S. Tesla said that more than a quarter of the depositors showed up so many, in fact, that the test rides continued until 1 a.m. Saturday and resumed Sunday, although the event was supposed to end on Saturday. The first person to show up was a man from Iceland, said Ricardo Reyes, vice president of communications. The man had been expressing interest in the Model S for two years. "He showed up a half-hour early and literally ran to the car" for a test ride, Reyes said. Apparently, the Icelander was impressed with what he saw. With CEO Musk beside him, the man took out a checkbook and, on the hood of a Model S, made out a check for $500,000 enough of a deposit to hold 100 of the vehicles. AutoObserver has identified the man as Gisli Gislason. He owns a company that has installed electric vehicle chargers in Iceland and reportedly has plans to lease or resell most of the vehicles to businesses in that country.
Also in attendance for the customers' event this past weekend was Adam Jonas, an analyst for Morgan Stanley. Jonas had this to say in a report he sent to members of the media and others on Monday: "If the goal of Tesla's weekend driving event was to accelerate early customer excitement in the Model S and investor confidence in the timing and production process mission accomplished. We are encouraged by the progress Tesla has shown, particularly on the manufacturing side. We expect the next major catalysts for the stock will be when Tesla unveils its Model X crossover variant at the end of the year and when the release candidate vehicles are complete (expected first quarter 2012). The production launch of the Model S and pace of early customer adoption is loaded with execution risk. That may help explain why Tesla management is making such extraordinary efforts to share its early accomplishments with the public. Just in case they need to cash the credibility check for factors outside of their control."