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Can a Car Company Change the World?

Tesla Motors thinks it can

(updated April 29th, 2009)

"America seems to have finally woken up to the need to address global warming and our oil dependency."

While it may sound like Al Gore has started selling cars, that statement actually comes from Diarmuid O'Connell, Tesla Motors' director of corporate marketing. O'Connell, who worked on national security matters under former Secretary of State Colin Powell, is explaining to me why the Tesla Roadster, an all-electric vehicle with a 250-mile range that can do zero to 60 in a neck-snapping 4 seconds, is more than just a really kickin' electric sports car.

"We're working on American foreign policy by other means here," adds O'Connell.

An automaker that is shunning Big Oil? Impossible, right?

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The Roadster's exciting shape hardly screams "green."

The Roadster's exciting shape hardly screams "green."

Normally I'd say yes, but as I've come to realize, Tesla Motors is not your average car company. And the Roadster, the company's first production vehicle, is not your average car.

Tesla Motors is the most non-car car company I have ever come across. Situated in the midst of Northern California's Silicon Valley in a non-descript warehouse filled with cubicles, early 1900s electric car ads and a hangarlike garage bay, Tesla employs a crossbreed of dot-commers, sports car enthusiasts, car industry veterans and folks who are just out to change the world. The company's CEO and driving force, Martin Eberhard, has never made a car before, and the company's main financier, Elon Musk of PayPal fame, is an environmentalist with the means to make a difference.

Eberhard, fresh from the sale of his startup Nuvomedia, was interested in finding a sports car that would fit with his environmental philosophy. After much research into alternative fuels and several "well to wheels" studies (a comprehensive accounting of the entire energy used in a vehicle's creation, fueling and eventual disposal), he concluded that electric vehicles (EVs) were the only way to go. His quest eventually led him to AC Propulsion, a Southern California outfit that was building an EV called the T-Zero. The engineers at AC then introduced Eberhard to Musk, who was in the midst of his own EV awakening. The two teamed up, modeling their company on what they knew best, and Tesla Motors was born.

"We're kind of half Silicon Valley startup, half car company" says Mike Harrigan, vice president of customer service and support. "From a technology point of view, this car couldn't have been made anywhere else. The battery pack itself has 12 computers in it. No other electric car has ever had this kind of system in it."

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The battery system that Harrigan is referring to is at the heart of the Roadster. The ESS (electrical storage system) is made up of 6,831 lithium-ion battery cells, the kind found in most computers and cell phones. The engineers chose this technology because it was readily available and a tried-and-true workhouse within the electronics industry. The packs are expected to last in excess of 100,000 miles. For those who question the environmental impact of all those batteries, fear not. "People who buy these cars can rest assured that the battery will be completely recycled," notes Harrigan. "We've identified a company that will recycle the batteries, and prepay their fee out of the cost of the car."

To further illustrate their belief that cool cars and a small environmental footprint can go hand in hand, the company plans to offer a solar alternative as well.

"It's conceptual at this point," says Harrigan, "but eventually there will be a solar option to check on our Web site." This will allow consumers to investigate installing solar panels on their own property or buying dividends in a solar farm, either of which would offset the electricity needs for the car, rendering it carbon neutral and an even cleaner ride.

Tesla recently received the Environmental Leadership Award from Global Green USA for demonstrating "that electric cars can be simultaneously stylish, high-performance and emissions-free," and has also been bestowed with the prestigious Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award for 2006, proving that it can straddle the line between environmentalism and technology without sacrificing either.

Like I said before, it's not your average car company. But enough about the company. Let's talk about the car.

The Tesla Roadster is that rare electric car that the EV market has been waiting for, the one that may pave the way for EVs to become a viable alternative. While early EV owners have felt compelled to say things like, "I know how it looks, but hey, it is electric," Tesla owners will proudly be able to proclaim "Oh, by the way, it's electric as well." This is a car that any auto enthusiast would be psyched to own. The low-slung two-seater sells for $100,000 and comes with all the amenities one would expect from a high-end car. Featuring sleek lines, an elegantly simple cockpit and a remarkably ergonomic fit, it's bound to get noticed on style points alone. But as nice as it is on the outside, it's the drivetrain that really sets it apart.

The motor, slightly larger than a watermelon, weighs a mere 70 pounds, yet is close to 90 percent efficient and can deliver 100 percent of the torque right off the line, unlike a gasoline engine with a torque curve that only delivers its full power on the high end. It's kind of like your electric blender. You turn it on and it's on full blast: no real ramping up to speed as you churn out your mango smoothie.

The Tesla is no different. I was able to go for a ride in one of the test vehicles, and to put it quite simply, "Wow." The first thing you notice about the Roadster is how unbelievably quiet it is. So much so that in future models, Tesla is thinking of adding a secondary "Hi there" horn to alert unsuspecting pedestrians.

And then there's that torque. Harrigan pulls up to an on-ramp, asks me if I'm ready, and hits the "gas" pedal. The car rockets forward and seems to be accelerating faster than should be possible. It's an initially uncomfortable, but ultimately exhilarating, feeling. We don't quite hit 60 but it's close enough to get the idea across. In terms of handling, the Roadster is as tight as any car I've been in and hugs the road just as well.

In addition to simply making a great sports car, the folks at Tesla Motors looked at all the electric cars that had come before and decided to take on every EV drawback they could find in one fell swoop. Take a look at some of the Roadster's numbers:

  • 250 miles to a charge
  • 135 miles per gallon equivalent
  • Operating costs of one cent per mile compared to 15-33 cents for gasoline vehicles
  • Charges off of 220 or 110 volts (any standard household outlet)
  • Full charge in 3.5 hours off 220 volts (overnight charge off 110 volts)
  • "80 mph" 220-volt charge — a one-hour charge will equal about 80 miles
  • Smart charging interface: The car and charger communicate to make sure connection is safe before the electricity begins to flow
  • Battery safety monitor that automatically cuts power should any major problem occur as a result of an accident or fire
  • Five-year/100,000-mile warranty on the battery pack and an anticipated lease option where the owner would pay a small amount per year and receive lifetime battery replacement

As for service, "there's not much to do on these cars," notes Harrigan. At first they will probably want to see the cars every 10,000 miles or so "to make sure that customers are getting the best care possible," but eventually service will only be required every 25,000 miles. Tesla plans to set up factory-owned dealer/service centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco.

Demand for the car has been greater than expected. As of the writing of this article, Tesla had orders for 180 cars, the first of which will be delivered in June of 2007. It expects to build 800 cars in the first production year and then double that in the following year. Of considerable note is the fact that close to two-thirds of the car's buyers have never actually seen one up close, and none have been able to drive it, yet they have happily agreed to put down the full $100,000 advance payment.

While the car is obviously geared toward a certain market, help is on the way for those who find the Roadster's price tag a bit steep. "Five years from now, batteries of the same capacity will be about half the price. Our hope is to get the price down to where we can compete with the hybrids in the $30,000 range," says Harrigan.

Presently the company is working on a four-door sedan, available in 2009, which will be in the $50,000-$60,000 price range. After that, a smaller hatchback model will follow. Within 20-30 years, the company hopes to offer at least five cars, all of which will be EVs. "We're trying to build a company that's sustainable and that's devoted to a vision of an electric car in every garage," predicts O'Connell.

So can Tesla Motors really change the world? Probably not on its own, but it is paving the way for an automotive revolution that may just put us on that path. With global warming a reality and the end of cheap oil in sight, the Tesla Roadster is proving that electric vehicles are a viable alternative, and a desirable one at that.


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