No Compromise Motoring
Steve Schaefer, Fri, 20 Apr 2007 08:00:00 PDT
When you think of electric cars, what do you picture? A golf cart? A meter maid? Do you recall the GM EV-1 or Honda's EV-Plus? Maybe you picture a Toyota Prius Hybrid, which is only partially electric. What you probably don't imagine is the high-performance Tesla Roadster.
Check out these numbers:
Zero to 60 in about four seconds (Wow!)
250 miles per charge on the EPA's Highway driving cycle (Your mileage may vary.)
Zero Emissions (It doesn't get better than this.)
$92,000 (Good things don't come cheap-did you see that first figure?)
1 (The number of pennies per miles it costs to drive one.)
2 (The total number of passengers, and they'd better be friendly.)
375 (This many are already ordered.)
Tesla Motors, named after Nicola Tesla, the late 19th, early 20th century inventor, physicist, mechanical engineer and electrical engineer, didn't start out to build an electric car. Company co-founder Martin Eberhard decided on an electricity only after carefully researching the various options, from gasoline to hydrogen to biomass and others.
If you're running an engine on corn, for example, how many acres does it take to power one car? What's the total amount of fuel needed to grow the corn? The numbers eventually led to electricity as the best choice. It turned out to be cheaper, with less environmental impact, and it can be generated in many different ways, from clean sources like wind or solar to the traditional powerplant.
Where Tesla Motors really blazes a new frontier, however, is in building an electric car that's powerful, sexy looking, and fun. If people who can afford anything are driving Priuses, how much more attractive is a car that has no emissions at all and is thrilling too?
After arriving at this two-sided plan, the enormous work of developing a real car began. The company acquired enough venture capital to start development. Their first vehicle, the two-seat Roadster, is being developed with Lotus in Great Britain. As with Lotus vehicles, Tesla Motors' goal is to combine strength with light weight, so plenty of bonded, extruded aluminum resides in the chassis while the sensuous body is made of carbon fiber.
The heart of the Roadster is its electric motor. Weighing only about 70 pounds, it isn't all that different from the motor in your dryer. With just one moving part-the rotor-it is extremely simple and durable. With proper (and very infrequent) lubrication, it could outlast you. With all of its torque available from zero rpm through 13,000 rpm, it requires only two gears and no clutch to drive incredibly sportingly.
A special battery pack powers the engine, employing a grid of thousands of commercially available lithium ion batteries. Each battery runs independently, so if one fails, the thousands of others keep on working. As in hybrid cars, the car uses regenerative braking to help charge the battery, although you still need to plug it in at home. However, with up to 250 miles per charge, you can drive your Tesla during the day and charge it at night. If you are traveling far from home, take your traditional or hybrid sedan or SUV instead.
If you attach solar panels to your garage roof and generate your own electricity, you can have zero impact on the environment as you drive. That's a mighty appealing prospect.
Every single part of the Tesla Roadster, from engine to body to taillamps, has to be designed, tested, and built. Sometimes a "soft build" is used for a small, limited run of pieces for testing purposes. Later, prototype vehicles are made with durable tools, likely metal, which can later crank out the production model.
At Tesla Motors' offices in San Mateo, I stood looking at the triple-round taillamps on a beautiful black prototype. These beauties use LEDs, which consume less electricity and last much longer than conventional bulbs. The lenses are white, but the red shines through. However, the inside circle contains a red reflector. The designers wanted to put the reflectors below the lights, but it was too low to meet government standards. This is just one tiny decision out of thousands that must be made for any vehicle. Tesla, by starting at the beginning, has to consider every single one.
The Roadster is one gorgeous piece. Low slung, with voluptuous rear fenders and a tapered, louvered hood, it resembles a scaled down Ferrari. The cabin contains two slim buckets and graceful instruments. Gretchen Joyce, Tesla's Vice President Sales & Distribution, explained that the car can accommodate a fairly tall driver and passenger, but they had better be slim. She then demonstrated this using one of Tesla's brave customers. This gentleman, looking fit and sixtyish, explained that he was considering a Porsche now that the kids were grown, but when he heard about the Tesla he was hooked. He will be waiting a year for his car, but along with other early adopters of new technology, he will enjoy something remarkable when he motors silently away upon delivery.
The $92,000 price may seem a bit steep, but if you consider the new technology and the incredible performance, it's not really too much. Tesla Motors is working on plans for a four-passenger sedan in the $50,000 range in the near future to be built in New Mexico. After the initial Tesla Roadsters earn the company some money and a great reputation, these sedans will offer the same benefits to a larger pool of buyers. The company expects to produce around 1,000 Roadsters a year, but the sedans could add up to ten to 15,000 units a year.
With a Tesla, you can enjoy driving but take care of the environment and reduce dependency on foreign oil at the same time. It's a win-win-win situation.