Sustainably Sexy, Meet the Tesla Roadster
01 Sep, 2008
As fossil fuel consumption has come under heavy criticism due to the carbon load into our atmosphere, and as gasoline prices have soared beyond belief, vehicles that use little or even no fossil fuel have become all the rage. But since I come from a long-ago time in which low-mileage, high-powered performance classics such as the Corvette and the Mustang ruled the roads, I have watched with some trepidation as a number of these eco-friendly things started being snapped up and zipped around Los Angeles. It’s probably just my own outdated gas-guzzling taste, but after my first up-close viewing experience of a vehicle that was environmentally friendly yet had all the style and speed of every “sensible” car I’d ever shunned, I beat a hasty retreat to my Infiniti G35, mashed down the pedal and ripped away in an emotional confusion of total guilt and sheer pleasure. At some point later the thought crept into my mind, “Am I really going to be forced to drive one of those someday?”
You can imagine my surprise when my editor at Organic Connections fired me an e-mail telling me of a high-performance roadster being produced that was 100 percent electric and instructing me to check it out and see if it was worthy of a story. You have to understand, it’s happened before. Always on the lookout for interesting environmental subjects, I not long ago ran across the story of a hybrid that was being touted in much the same way. But a little investigation brought disappointment; while the car was available for purchase, it was years away from actual production and it was not being offered in the US even in advance. The more I investigated the Tesla Roadster, however, the happier I became. Could it be true?
Finding the Roadster
After locating Tesla Motors’ website, I made the discovery that, yes, this car does in fact exist. Not only that, it is indeed 100 percent electric, it goes from 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds, has a top speed of 125 mph, gets the equivalent of 256 miles per gallon (although it uses no such fuel), and is operated for less than 2 cents per mile. And seeing the picture of the car on the front of the site, I was impressed; this thing could neatly hold up next to a Lotus—who, as it turns out, is providing a lot of assistance in the Tesla Roadster’s manufacture. The car had been conceived by an engineer, entrepreneur and inventor named Martin Eberhard, who was convinced that if he could power an existing sports car chassis with laptop batteries, it would be feasible to build and he’d find plenty of buyers among the speed-loving, planet-conscious residents of California’s Silicon Valley and beyond. Because gasoline was cheap at the time he had his inspiration, however, venture capitalists were not quick to get behind him— until he approached Elon Musk.
The 37-year-old Musk had co-founded PayPal and was forced out of the onlinepayment company but cashed in when it was sold to eBay. This gave him the funding to launch SpaceX, a private rocket company with the goal of shuttling private citizens to the International Space Station by 2011. After a two-hour meeting in February 2004, Musk agreed to invest $6.3 million into Tesla. He would become the company’s chairman, while Eberhard would be CEO. A few short years and a great deal of engineering later, the car is nearly ready for delivery, with one thousand already sold.
“All right,” I thought, “this is all very intriguing. How easy would it really be to get my hands on one, if I were so inclined?” Clicking on a tab from the front of the website labeled “reserve,” I got an answer to that question. The Roadster has a base sticker price of $109,000, $5,000 of which would serve as a refundable reservation fee and lock in the price. There is a 12-month wait for delivery, and an additional $55,000 rendered would lock in a production slot and delivery time frame.
Then I made the discovery that really piqued my interest: If I wanted to take a little trip across town to West Los Angeles, I could actually put my hands on one of these babies and find out all about it. One of the very first (one of two) Tesla Motors showrooms was right over there, open for business!
With a grin, I called my editor and told him I’d be doing the story. The very next morning I fought 45 minutes of the busiest traffic in the world over to the stylin’ side of town.
Seeing the Real Deal
As I exited the freeway onto Santa Monica Boulevard, the Tesla Motors showroom made itself quite apparent: a very high-tech looking storefront with large windows and granite-gray walls that neatly highlighted the futuristic reddish Tesla Motors logo. I parked in the back and made my way in.
It was obvious the place was pretty new. The spotless showroom was empty save for two desks, a Tesla Roadster display model, a counter with literature and a cappuccino bar. Upon my entrance, a young kid in a Tshirt and jeans rose from behind one of the desks. Of course my thought was, “Okay, are they kidding?”
As soon as the young man had introduced himself and discovered my mission, he ushered us both out of the showroom and into the service area, and I found out that, no, they weren’t kidding. He is a college student named Alex who is very happily interning with Tesla, and he proved to be extremely knowledgeable about the car and the company. And it was fortunate for me that he was; both the general manager of the store and the only other sales rep were quite busy with an eager little crowd of people obviously anxious to see and hear all about the Roadster—a pretty amazing scenario for any car dealership on an early weekday afternoon, let alone one far out of the automotive mainstream.
It was in the service area that they kept their lone production model of the Roadster (the one in the showroom was a prototype). Seeing it up close, I was impressed: a dark, classy gray, it sleekly sat low to the ground, its two-seat cockpit a vision in black leather and chrome. The top was removed, both the hood and trunk lids were raised, and Alex immediately started listing out the details of this amazing piece of automotive technology. We began in the rear of the car. Alex gestured to a large black box that occupied the majority of what would normally be the trunk space. He explained that most of the computer workings were in there, along with the Energy Storage System (ESS) that powers the vehicle. The ESS is comprised of 6,831 lithium-ion batteries—the very same type that powers laptop computers.
I had to ask Alex why normal lead-acid car batteries could not be used. “They’re not nearly efficient enough to provide the performance we need,” he answered. “You basically have three different levels of battery: the lead-acid kind you find in your average car, the more efficient prismatic NiMH battery such as that found in the Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle, and the lithium-ion batteries we’re using. The lithium-ion battery is many times more efficient than the prismatic battery, its closest competitor.”
The battery pack is cooled by a system that utilizes the same coolant used in internal-combustion vehicles. The computer system continuously tracks battery history, performance and available energy.
Alex pointed a short distance away to the small wall-mounted charging unit that would be placed in the owner’s garage. The unit runs off a 220-volt home outlet and will charge the car up in three and a half hours. I asked if the Tesla could be charged at the hybrid stations that are now found along some major highways, and Alex replied, “No, and for that reason I do tell people that the Roadster isn’t for everyone. It will go 220 miles on a charge, so you don’t want to go further than 110 miles from home in one go.” He also said, however, that Tesla is planning to produce a converter in the future that will allow charging at hybrid stations.
Included in the rear-end black box is the Power Electronics Module (PEM). This module contains high-voltage electronics that control the motor and allow for integrated battery charging. The motor and PEM have been designed as a tightly integrated system that delivers up to 165 kilowatts of motor output.
Alex then indicated the service bays across the room. “Since the car is run by computer, I tell people that bringing the car in for service is a lot like taking your laptop for service,” he said. “Most of the ‘service’ is the installation of software updates.”
He also asked me to notice the spotlessly clean service bays (they were close to immaculate). This is because the car uses no oil or gasoline—hence, there is nothing to dirty up the place or spread fumes. That explained the conspicuous open door between the showroom and service area.
The last thing Alex showed me in the rear was the soft top for the car, folded neatly and stored. He said it could be put on in less than a minute. The high-performance AC electric motor is also hidden in the rear of the car, but that wasn’t something we could look at.
We next moved around the side, and Alex pointed out the high-performance Yokohama tires designed for high levels of traction, responsive handling and driving control in wet or dry conditions. He then slapped the Tesla’s side and told me it was made of carbon fiber—something reserved only for high-performance vehicles.
Since we were standing on the driver’s side, Alex motioned at the open door and asked, “You want to climb on in?” After a quick verification that he wasn’t kidding, I wasted no time in lowering myself into this driving wonder.
Although I poke fun at such things, I was immediately overwhelmed by midlife-crisistype fantasy. The car literally enveloped me in its soft leather from the backs of my knees all the way to the back of my head; my legs stretched nearly straight out, the contoured controls only a short reach away, and in no time at all I was mentally flying down the highway in near silence under a blazing blue sky, catching the eye of every envious driver I left behind in a blur.
Realizing how much of a fool I must have looked in front of all the people in the room, I quickly adopted a more serious look, managed with some effort to push myself up and out again, cleared my throat and asked, “Are you planning on releasing a sedan anytime in the near future?”
“Yes, we are,” Alex replied. The company is planning a five-passenger sedan, currently known as the “Tesla S,” to be released in 2011 and priced at around $60,000. Good news for older guys like me who are at least trying to appear sensible.
We then made our way to the open hood in the front, and where I would normally expect to see an engine I saw a few mechanical parts and two cooling fans. Alex informed me that the long, narrow yellow box I was seeing on top was a heater. “The engine generates no heat,” he said. “So when it’s cold, you need this.” Finished with the tour of the car, I then asked about production. “We’re starting slow, producing about 120 cars a month,” Alex said. That explained the 12-month wait for a car stated on the company’s website.
One hurdle that has caused the Roadster to be a bit late in its initial delivery has been the transmission. According to a recent article in Fortune magazine, Tesla chairman Elon Monk has all along insisted that the Roadster be equipped with a two-speed transmission, which would allow the promised performance. The company is still in the process of locating a supplier for that transmission; so, in order to get the car out the door, it is shipping with a single-speed transmission that will be replaced for car owners by the end of the year.
Nonetheless, I found it a pretty amazing story. There I was, standing before a fully functional, fully electric, sexy performance car, and it placed my faith firmly in a future in which people like me could satisfy their hunger for high performance, completely free of emission and fuel-consumption guilt.
For more information visit www.teslamotors.com.