Tesla Roadster: No Gasoline, Plenty of Juice

Will a fast-and-flashy electric car lead to the next great American car company?

ByVicki Mabrey and Ely Brown
November 26, 2008, 11:59 AM

May 14, 2007 — -- It goes zero to 60 in about four seconds. Its top speed is 130 miles per hour. And it doesn't use an ounce of gasoline.

It's the Tesla Roadster, a new car that's fueled entirely by electricity and could be hitting the lot just in time.

The Tesla Roadster is named after Nicola Tesla, the largely forgotten genius inventor of alternating current electricity, and it's the brainchild of Martin Eberhard, who said he designed it because he cares about the environment and because he wanted one for himself.

"It's time for us to do something about our dependence on foreign oil," Eberhard said. "It's time for us to do something about global warming. But I wasn't ready to go drive around some goofy little car. … Think of how electric cars look. All the ones you've ever thought of."

There haven't been many electric cars. Early automobiles ran on electricity, as did General Motor's ill-fated and quickly abandoned EV1, which debuted in the 1990s and died soon thereafter. Eberhard said there's "nothing beautiful" about the Prius, perhaps the best-known hybrid car. "It doesn't do anything for me," he said. "Think of it this way. A world of 100 percent hybrids is still 100 percent addicted to oil."

So Eberhard, who made his fortune with a couple of Internet companies, set out to build the car he wanted to drive, one that would change the image of the electric car forever. Eberhard said he wanted "to get people to think of electric cars as being actually hip and desirable and fun."

And that's only the beginning. Eberhard also wants to achieve something even he admits is audacious.

"Our ultimate goal is to be the next great American car company," he said, "to have a whole line of cars for every kind of driver and all of them not burning gasoline."

Eberhard teamed with another Internet millionaire, Elon Musk, the man who invented PayPal. The 35-year-old Musk is busy with another venture called Space X, which, among other projects, is contracted to design, build and operate NASA's replacement shuttle for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station. Musk said it took only five days for him to decide to invest in Tesla after meeting with Eberhard. He's put $37 million into the company so far.

"I am a big believer in Tesla, and I believe it's going to be a great success," Musk said.

Instead of starting with a mass market vehicle, Tesla's doing just the opposite: starting at the high end and working its way down.

"I really believe the right entry point in the market is a sports car," Musk said. "Because there, people are willing to pay a high unit cost. So you get that into the market, and you continue to innovate and optimize and go progressively higher volume and more affordable with each successive model."

In four months they had orders for all of their "signature" cars. The first 100, with a $100,000 price tag, sold to the likes of George Clooney, the founders of Google, Arnold Schwarzenegger and William of the Black Eyed Peas.

Going forward, they plan to make 1,000 Roadsters a year, with a sticker price of $92,000. That investment gets customers a two-seater that weighs in at a relatively light 2,600 pounds and is powered by lithium ion batteries, like the ones in your computer … exactly 6,381 of them.

"They are the exact same kind of cell that would power a lap top computer or a camcorder," explained David Vespremi, Tesla Motors' director of public relations, while showing us the car. "This is very different from a combustion engine."

So different, in fact, that it isn't an engine at all -- it's a motor.

"The motor [is] tiny by comparison to an engine in a typical combustion car. It weighs about 77 pounds, and you could literally put it in a backpack and walk out of the room with it if you chose to," Vespremi said, while showing us the car. "What it does is, it has one moving part. It's an AC motor, so it takes current straight from the battery and turns that into … the power that moves the car down the road."

Is there anything that a standard gasoline-powered car offers that the Tesla lacks?

"Well, you have all the belts and the hoses and the gaskets and the plugs and exhaust components. None of that exists with this car. The entire drive line consists of 12 moving parts," Eberhard said, as opposed to thousands in a regular car.

But there are drawbacks: The battery pack is warrantied for 100,000 miles, but after that, replacement could be costly -- in the thousands of dollars. Tesla argues that with battery technology improving every year, each successive year's models will be better. You're not completely off the grid because it does require electricity, and you can go only 200 miles between charges.

Vespremi said the charging station can be installed by "any competent electrician," and it allows you "to get that quick charging time of 3½ hours. Most people hook it up to the drier circuit. And then you just treat it like a gas pump."

The Roadster is still in test mode -- the company hopes to start actual production this fall. The car has gone for its first round of safety tests and, according to the company, has done extremely well.

Vespremi told us that part of the reason the car is so safe is because the chassis is made of extruded bonded aluminum, "the exact same kind of chassis that would be used in something like a Formula One car or an Indy car. This is what allows those drivers to wreck at a couple hundred miles per hour and walk away," he explained.

So far, those who've put down deposits can't even test drive the Roadster; they can only be driven in it. Bob Huntley and his wife, Marilyn Miller, flew to San Carlos, Calif., from Houston to see what they're getting.

"I like fast, obviously," Huntley said, "but more important to me is the smile I will have knowing that I am not putting $50 gas in every time I want to go 200 miles. It's perfect. And I get to pass everyone while I do it."

While they work to get the Roadster street ready, the engineers at Tesla are pushing ahead on two more models. The designs are under wraps, but they envision a family-size sedan and a smaller mass-market electric car in the next two to five years. But the real money may come in selling their technology.

"We are in negotiations with some fairly big auto companies, so we hope to make a really big difference in CO2 concentration in three ways," said Musk. "One is in the cars we make ourselves, two is the licensing the electric drive trains and accelerating the technology deployment in other car companies, and three is by serving as a good example to the rest of the auto industry and hoping that they follow our lead."

Musk says there is an element of altruism behind the company, but that the best way to serve their goal is to make Tesla a profitable company.

"There's a lot to be said for money and glory," said Musk. "I wouldn't say that those were unimportant. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money or have a glorious outcome. Those are good things. For me personally that's not the most important thing. But I still value those things. I'm not Mother Teresa."

Though design and testing takes place just south of San Francisco, the Tesla Roadsters will be built at the Lotus Elise plant in Hithel, England. And who gets the first car off the assembly line?

"Well, I get car No. 1," said Musk. "I guess there are some advantages to investing $37 million in a company."

Another advantage could be immortality. If Tesla works, it would be the first successful startup auto manufacturer in the United States in more than 50 years.

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