Tesla's Electric Dream Machine
By Bill Moore
"One of the most important things that we need to do to open up a market for all of our future cars is to fundamentally change the way people think about electric cars," Martin Eberhard asserted.
And there is little doubt -- other than among the few critics who balk at the $100,000US price tag, which applies only to the first 100 cars sold -- that Tesla Motors is about to do precisely that.
Designed and engineered by Lotus in Britain, powered by a 1000 lbs., liquid-cooled, lithium-ion ESS (energy storage system or battery pack) that is assembled in Thailand and driven by a 185kW (248 hp) motor fabricated at its own plant in Taiwan, the Tesla Roadster is a product of three Silicon Valley visionaries.
Martin Eberhard and Mark Tarpenning had worked together previously and three years ago decided to build the kind of electric car they would want to personally drive. In his words, "nice, fun, beautiful, quick, efficient."
They turned to Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX (http://www.spacex.com) who Eberhard credits with funding the program from day one. With $60 million raised in capital, the little San Carlos, California start-up now has the kind of funding that has eluded previous electric car builders, with the exception of the largest carmakers.
Musk "liked our business model, he liked our approach and has been deeply involved in the company since then."
Still, given the disappointing track record of virtually all previous electric car ventures, what’s different about Tesla Motor’s efforts, I asked?
"Outside of the big car companies, it’s not common to have adequate funding to do the job correctly," Eberhard explained. "There have been a lot of admirable efforts out there by many entrepreneurs that simply couldn’t raise the capital necessary for a real car, especially one that meets DOT safety requirements.
"But the other half of it is maybe the approach," he said. "I’ve always felt that so many people set off on the wrong foot with electric cars by trying to, as the first model, a low end car that’s affordable by everybody. No other successful consumer product ever started that way.
"Cellphones, refrigerators, color television sets, you name it. A new technology doesn’t start out at the low end of the market. It starts out in a market where it’s not competing on price… Technology advances based on value, not price initially. We decided to focus not on the cheapest possible car as our first model, but rather to develop the technology, to develop the experience, to develop the supply chain relationships, and of course, purchasing volumes based on performance and not price alone."
A Global Effort
Eberhard explained that the production of the Tesla Roadster is a global effort. The car is assembled at the Lotus factory in Britain with parts supplied from all around the world. The car’s lithium ion battery pack comes from Thailand, the innovative electric drive from Tesla’s own plant in Taiwan, the body panels from a supplier in the UK, the head lights from Italy.
I asked Eberhard why his team chose to build another two-seat sports car given the debate over GM’s EV1 a decade a earlier where people inside and outside the company questioned the limited appeal of a two-seater.
Eberhard replied, "It’s a perfectly reasonable argument for General Motors, because the number of cars that I need to sell to be profitable and to be a really good start for my company would be an absolute disaster for General Motors. It’s a different scale of company."
He added that GM does, every now and then, come out nice two-seaters and it’s been pretty successful with the two-seat Corvette over the decades. For Tesla Motors, the goal is to change people’s perception about what an electric car is and can do, hence the great-looking, hot-performing sports car strategy.
"We need to get people off this idea that they are slow and that they are a compromise and that you have to be some kind of a hero to drive one. But rather that they are quick and beautiful and if you really want to go fast, it’s actually better to go electric than gasoline."
He pointed out that past companies like Sebring, who developed a curious-looking little electric city car, were limited in what they could do because they simply didn’t have the buying power -- or technical resources -- of a company like GM.
"It was the wrong way to get into the market," he noted.
The Power Behind the Throne…Ah Driver’s Seat
What makes the Tesla Roadster feasible is the advent of lithium-ion batteries, in this case many, many 18650 size cells integrated into what Tesla calls its ESS (energy storage system).
"You can’t just take a bunch of 18650s and wire them up together and call them a battery pack," he asserted. It takes a lot more than that. You need it to be safe and reliable. It’s a major amount of engineering work and manufacturing effort to turn those small things into a manufacturable (sic) cell."
According to the Tesla Motor’s web site the battery pack weighs "in at about 1,000 pounds and delivers four to five times the energy-density stores of other batteries…
"The architecture provides excellent redundancy and tolerance against cell-to-cell manufacturing variations….
"The system addresses thermal balancing with a liquid cooling circuit. Multiple passive and active safety devices ensure safe operation over the wide range of driving environments and scenarios. An array of sensors and a dozen micro-controllers communicate with the vehicle to allow efficient use and management of the battery pack. Finally, the entire assembly is housed in a rugged enclosure, which protects the system from the harsh road environment while supporting the internal components."
As EV World premium subscribers will learn when we publish our recent interview with Menachem Anderman, the founder of the Advanced Automotive Battery Conference, there are reasons why Tesla has taken these precautions that has to do with the properties of lithium ion chemistry.
Tesla plans to offer a 100,000 mile, five year warranty on the pack, which starts to prorate after year one.
Unlike Venturi in Monaco, which builds a $400,000+ electric sports car, Tesla’s Eberhard is aiming to eventually reach a far larger market. He explained that Venturi specializes in hand-crafted, limited number, custom-made vehicles that appeal to a very select group of collectors and car enthusiasts. It’s a completely different market segment than the one Tesla plans to expand into.
"We expect to sell thousands of this car, and our next model car, we expect to sell a lot more than that."
He revealed that Tesla’s next car will be a four-seater sedan that will be "quick and beautiful, and once again electric and highly efficient."
Place Your Order Now
Eberhard told EV World that the company originally planned to start taking orders once the car had received its DOT FMVSS (federal motor vehicle safety standards) certification, a process that he says costs tens of millions of dollars and ends up destroying expensive hand-built prototypes. However, so many people were pressing to place their order, that the company decided to accept orders for the first 100 cars, which it hopes to begin delivering in about a year from now.
In his words, there are a "remarkable number of people" willing to put down money in advance.
So, why the delay? Crash testing for FMVSS certification is still underway in Germany, where the airbag manufacturer is located, and is about half-way through the process, Eberhard estimates. The company is also continuing to run performance and reliability tests on its six demonstrator models that it has in California.
Once the company does start delivering its electric Roadster, it will concentrate initially on sales in four primary markets, California, New Jersey, Chicago, Illinois and Miami, Florida. Roll-out into these areas and beyond, will require the careful development of a service infrastructure with knowledgeable maintenance personnel who understand the special handling needed with the car’s high voltage system.
On the subject of safety, I asked Eberhard what provisions the company has made in the event of a crash, especially in protecting both the car’s occupants and the emergency rescue personnel who respond. He emphasized that Tesla has taken special care to insure the system is safe at all times, including the incorporation of accelerometers in the ESS like those that activate airbags that automatically break the contacts in the battery pack housing. Sensors also look for excessive heat events, smoke, even water, and respond by cutting off all power to the vehicle.
Unlike some EV1s that were powered by the GM/Ovonics NiMH batteries, which had problems handling the heat of Arizona, Tesla Roadsters are designed to operate between -20 C and +50 C, in large part because of its active and passive battery temperature control system, which is liquid cooled.
"That’s the operating range of quite a few other sports cars out there. We actively control the temperature of the battery pack to optimize its life and drive-ability."
Eberhard was naturally evasive when asked at what point will he consider the company a success(1) .
"I have lofty goals. One day, I’ll acquire Ford Motor Company," he teased. "We will be successful if this car succeeds to actually get in the market and sell even a reasonable number of Tesla Roadsters and make a dent in the way people think about electric cars. Then the road is wide open for us for our follow-on car. If we put the Roadster into production and it is successful, we’ve won."
The complete interview with Eberhard is available in MP3 audio using either the Quicktime or Windows Media Player on this page or by downloading it to your computer hard drive for playback on your favorite MP3 device.
(1) Simple math answers the question. Figure an average price of $90,000 for the first 5,000 cars (which reflects somewhere around the total number of EVs leased during the California ZEV mandate/MOU period) and the investors get back their $60 million, plus a handsome profit and the company is on the way to being a half-billion dollar business. Aren't simply dreams wonderful?