Can Tesla Revive the EV?

The quest for the electric vehicle may come from a promising startup in Silicon Valley, with an assist from a design and engineering center in Rochester Hills
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The Tesla Roadster can go from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds flat, and tops out at 150 mph. But the stunning sports car will set you back $100,000. Photo Courtesy of Tesla Motors

Who Killed the Electric Car?” The subject of that recent documentary is a matter of great debate. Was it General Motors Corp., as the producers contend? The auto industry as a whole? Or simply consumers unwilling to pay for vehicles with such limited application?

Perhaps the more urgent question is who’s going to bring back the battery car in an era when growing concerns about global warming — as well as record fuel prices — have everyone looking for alternatives to the fuel-gulping internal-combustion engine. Despite renewed interest by the mainstream auto industry, the real action is taking place in Silicon Valley, of all places, where a surprisingly well-funded startup is getting ready to roll out its first EV.

Tesla Motors has gotten so charged up over the prospects of battery power, that it recently established a design and engineering center in Rochester Hills. If the Tesla Roadster succeeds, we could see the maverick manufacturer introduce an array of electric vehicles, including crossovers and sedans, in the near future.

Tesla’s test, however, will come in the form of the high-tech Roadster, which will set you back $100,000. That’s a steep price tag, but for the money, it comes with a transverse-mounted electric motor making a peppy 240 horsepower. Mated to a two-speed transmission, it’s an aggressive, torquey package that can burn rubber and match the performance of more conventional sports cars, such as the Porsche Boxster. With its lightweight, carbon fiber-body, the Roadster will launch from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds flat and top out at 150 mph. Equally significant, the car will get up to 270 miles on a charge, more than double the range of earlier electric vehicles.

“These vehicles won’t compete on price,” says Tesla chairman Elon Musk. “They’ll compete on performance.” One of the founders of PayPal, Musk has put up much of the $60 million raised so far by Tesla Motors, which is based in the Silicon Valley town of San Carlos, Calif. Other investors include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the wealthy founders of Google. And Michael Dell, the mail-order computer mega-millionaire, is among Tesla’s many high-profile customers waiting to take delivery.

The Roadster is a marvel of automotive engineering. The body is made of the same, super-strong and ultra-light materials found in Formula One race cars. Under the skin, there’s a responsive double-wishbone suspension. And the Roadster includes a number of technical features one would expect of a car with such impressive performance numbers, including cross-drilled Brembo brakes readily visible behind its forged alloy wheels.

But Martin Eberhard says that 40 percent of the engineering work has gone into the battery pack. Tesla’s original CEO, Eberhard decided to hand that job over to a more seasoned business veteran and focus on his real passion, as president of technology. He’s got his work cut out for him, considering the complexities of the Tesla powertrain. The basics of electric propulsion are relatively simple, compared to the battery side of the Roadster equation. The two-seater relies on a pack of 6,831 individual lithium-ion cells, similar to what you’d find in a laptop computer.

Considering the problems with laptop fires, short circuits, and the simple lack of reliability and durability, that worries many observers, including GM’s car czar, Bob Lutz, though he admits he’s impressed by Tesla’s efforts.

Still, the sporty roadster has some challenges to overcome, including not only the battery, but the two-speed transmission which, insiders reveal, is having trouble handling the massive torque made by the Roadster’s high-revving motor. These setbacks have led to a series of delays, with the first production cars not likely to reach Tesla’s high-profile buyers until sometime in 2008, a year or more behind the original schedule.

But that hasn’t seemed to hurt the company’s prospects — at least not so far. Spokesman David Vespremi insists that Tesla has taken enough orders to get it through its first year of production and well into the second. The numbers are minuscule, as you might expect, considering the cost. The Roadster is a plaything for the rich and green-minded, like Michael Dell and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr.

Though still ramping up its staffing in Rochester Hills, Tesla has already begun work on a project code-named “White Star.” Due to arrive around 2009, it will be a five-seat sedan aimed at a much more mainstream market — more on the order of an Audi A4. Tesla is projecting volumes of 10,000 and up, and their goal is to cut the price to half that of the Roadster.

Going up against the established automotive order won’t be easy, especially among the large OEMs, but then again, the challenges posed by global warming and high-cost oil imports are challenging that established order as never before. So perhaps this is the little (electric) engine that could.

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