By Bill Moore
I think I can safely assert that Tesla Motors -- named in honor of the great 19th century inventor -- has done more to revive interest in electric cars than just about anyone else in the business. Their hot little Roadster just seems to sizzle with excitement. Its curvaceous lines exude sensuality, while lurking under its carbon fiber skin is a pollution-free drive system that can launch its passengers from zero-to-sixty in four seconds and propel them 255 miles (the newly revised official company figure) before the car needs to recharged from any electrical outlet.
So, I could not visit the San Francisco Bay area without arranging to stop by the company for a tour -- and hopefully a ride.
Tesla Motors is located in San Carlos, just off the 101 south of San Francisco. I pulled into the company parking lot in the 2008 Escape Hybrid Ford had loaned me (review to come). The SUV's GPS navigation system helped me find the building, which is tucked away down a non-descript side street off Industrial Road.
Arriving around 1:30 pm, the lobby was empty except for another visitor who had stopped by to also see the car. The receptionist was no where to seen, so we both signed into the guest book and waited.
Eventually, an employee passing through on his way to another nearby building Tesla utilizes finally stopped to help; and a short time later, Zak Edson arrived, apologizing that Darryl Siry had been delayed. Zak would start the tour for me, while the other visitor linked up with his contact.
Wandering through the Dilbert-ish maze of cubicals -- what's a company like Tesla doing with cubicals, I would have expected a more open office environment -- we arrived on the fringe of the shop area where some half dozen prototype cars in a rainbow of colors -- red, silver, blue, green, yellow -- were undergoing various tests. Zak stopped first to show me the liquid-cooled battery box that houses the thousands of lithium ion batteries that power the car. It vaguely resembles a seed corn hopper. It is, in fact, the heart of the car. Without the cells inside and the electronics to manage them, we'd still be dreaming our electric dreams.
In the car, this aluminum box sits immediately behind the passenger seats, essentially where the gasoline engine would have gone in the Lotus Elise, on which the Roadster is based. (Coincidentally, there were a couple Elise sports cars parked just down the block, so this appears to be relatively popular platform in the Bay area). Just below it is where the AC electric motor and gear box goes. One of the cars inside the shop had its electric motor and gear box hanging from a hoist. Compared to a conventional IC engine that would be dripping oil and dangling all kinds of tubes, wires and piping, the Tesla drive is the epitome of simplicity and neatness. It's difficult to imagine the power it produces given its relatively small size, and all in near silence and without a whiff of hydrocarbon exhaust.
But as Edson droned on about the battery box, I kept hoping I would get to see an actual car. Finally, my lesson on the battery box complete, we walked into the shop and there sitting in front of me wasn't one, but two Tesla's: VP02 (the red one you see all over the Web) and VP 10 (silver), the latest "Validation Prototype" currently in the shop. The company has built 20 cars at Lotus in the UK. Some of them remained in Europe for testing there.
The cockpit of PV10, pictured above, represents the latest iteration of the car's cabin as the company continues the fine-tune what seems every aspect of the car. The glossy carbon fiber roll bar is a work of art and will cost you extra because it is so difficult to fabricate.
As we strolled through the shop, Edson explained to me that he is responsible for "member services" -- I think that's what he called it. Basically, it's his job to do what it takes to keep Tesla's customers -- all of whom has laid out serious cash and none of whom have yet received a car -- happy. Thankfully, his job is made a bit easier since most of the 600 pre-order "members" understand that this is cutting edge technology and everyone wants the job done right. Still, given the slippage of the delivery date from Summer '07 to Fall '07 to early '08, I would suspect some might be getting a bit nervous, but Edson assured me that their deposits are being kept in escrow and that if they want to reconsider, the company will refund their money. Apparently only a few have at this point.
Still, Edson continues to work to keep confidence high and expectations simmering. He explained to me as we surveyed the cars neatly tucked into their work bays, that he has started a program for his members who live in the Bay area to come out and drive the car. At the time of my visit, five had gotten behind the wheel and put it through its paces. [See Tesla's blog for driver reactions].
Meandering back to VP02, I finally got to sit in the car, wedging my aging frame under the wheel. It is a tight fit. This is not the car for the weight-challenged or the infirmed. You can probably tell from the gleam in my eyes and the smile on my face, that even sitting in the Roadster is a real confidence -- or should I say "ego" -- booster. This must be how it feels to wear a custom-made Armani suit instead of the one off the rack at J.C. Penney.
It was around this time that Darryl Siry, the company's VP for Sales, Marketing and Service arrived. Making his apologies for being delayed, he got right down to business and the reason I had come: It was time to take a ride.
Of course, I wouldn't be permitted to actually drive the car, he explained.
Could he see the disappointment in my eyes? Probably.
He explained that as company policy, no one in the press, regardless how lofty their station or powerful their rag, had been allowed to drive the car. That would come at the time the company began delivering vehicles to customers... ah, members. Okay, I felt bit better. Car & Driver hadn't gotten to take it for a spin either.
As Siry climbed down into the driver's seat and I slipped around to the passenger side, he showed me how to get into and out of the car, which only works when the top is off. You step into the car, face forward holding the top of the windshield and then slowly let yourself down. It's easier when there's no steering wheel to negotiate over, around or beneath.
The interesting thing about electric cars is that they can go as fast in reverse as forward, but I was a bit surprised when Siry put the car in reverse and it jerked. Okay, this is VP02 and I assume that issue has been dealt with by VP10. He apologized and more gracefully backed out of the shop and into the adjoining alley.
In short order we were out on the street and heading for a short romp down the 101, the sun on our faces and wind rushing through Siry's hair, if not mine. No doubt about it, this is a real testosterone-pumping machine. The only thing missing are its wings.
Remember that scene from the last Star Wars movie, Revenge of the Sith, where Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker are chasing the assassin through the city in flying cars? That's kind of what it felt like as we merged on to the 101 at breakneck speed -- not literally, of course.
I am sure Siry was explaining something about the car to me, but to be honest, I don't remember a thing; just the rush of excitement as the motor behind me wound up and the acceleration shoved me gently back into the seat. The last time I'd felt this was in AC Propulsion's t-Zero in Atlanta many years ago.
There is, in fact, a bit of the t-Zero in the Tesla; the motor technology behind us is licensed, I am told, from ACP -- as is the motor in the Venturi Fetish, which because it is built from the ground-up, instead of being based on an existing platform, costs roughly four times as much as the $98,000 Tesla.
I do recall Siry telling me as we completed our short flight, that maybe the next time I am out this way, he'll let me drive it, but of course, not until the company starts delivering its first 50 cars. Caveat, smaveat!
Okay, I'll wait... like everyone else.
Back in the shop, we talked business. How was the White Star project going and what about the criticisms being heard in Albuquerque, where the company has agreed to build a production plant?
Siry explained that the White Star design was coming along and that he hoped to be able to unveil it this Fall -- EVS 23 in early December would be a good choice or the LA Auto Show, Mr. Siry. As for the criticisms echoing from New Mexico, the company can't commit to building the plant until the design of the car is actually finished.
Why has it taken so long to complete the testing, I asked? Surely, since the car was based on an existing model, that should have helped speed things up. Yes, he replied, that's what we thought too, but because the car is heavier than the Elise, the company was required to do more tests, which cost Tesla time and, just as importantly, more money then they had originally anticipated.
And what about Martin Eberhard resigning as CEO? Siry countered that it had been a decision Tesla's co-founder had made because the company needed someone with more extensive manufacturing experience. He wanted to focus on the engineering as the President of Technology, so the board agreed to temporarily appoint one of its early investors, Michael Marks as CEO while it continues its search for a permanent successor. The decision was amicably reached, Siry assured me.
With Marks -- who formerly headed Flextronics -- now in charge, Tesla's pace of development has slowed somewhat as the new CEO gets comfortable with the company, its business plan and its product development cycle. The last thing anyone wants is for the company to rush product into the market and then have something disastrous happen like that battery box we looked at earlier catching fire. That would sound a death knell for Tesla and be a serious set back for our EV World.
So, maybe I am glad Tesla has pushed back that delivery date and I am even happier that their "members" have apparently remained patient and understanding. Let's hope they continue to do so. From what I saw and experienced, it will be worth the wait.
Darryl Siry (left), Zak Edson (right)
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