In June, Fresh Dialogues toured the Tesla Factory and last week we finally got behind the wheel of the finished product: a Model S Performance. It’s an impressive vehicle: sleek, stylish and powerful. Very powerful. The acceleration felt like a rocket. We took it 0-50 in about four seconds and thanks to its low center of gravity, it was easy to handle on the winding hill roads around Palo Alto. Going 60 plus on Highway 280 felt smooth and effortless. You gain speed so fast, it’s quite formidable, especially for this Toyota Prius driver. In the latest test drive, Motor Trends confirmed a 0-60 mph time of 3.9 seconds; faster than Tesla’s own specs of 4.4. That makes it the fastest American sedan.
I’d heard about the ‘sensitive’ accelerator pedal and wondered how it would be in the confined space of the Tesla HQ parking lot? But I found it easy to navigate and control both in forward and reverse gears. Backing into a parking space was a cinch thanks to the rear camera.
The massive 17-inch touch screen looked like it could be a major driving distraction, but having experienced its utility, I’m more appreciative. Glad to see that most functions can be controlled from the steering wheel, including the impressive sound system. Spinal Tap fans will be delighted to learn that the volume goes to eleven (really!); a spec no doubt dictated by Tesla product architect, Elon Musk with tongue firmly in cheek.
You can choose what appears on your dashboard: energy consumption, range, media, climate control, etc.
Tesla’s Christina Ra explained the energy charts and how the range is impacted by all that powerful acceleration.
The regenerative breaking was very noticeable (see green shading on graph). The second you take your foot off the accelerator, you feel it kicking in, giving you more control and increasing the range of the car. It’s rated 265 miles by the EPA, but the way we were driving, the projected range fell to 192. To get the maximum range, Tesla recommends an optimum speed of 55 mph, with the windows up and no A/C.
1. These snazzy door handles certainly look and act cool. Tesla Factory worker Charles Lambert said it best, they’re distinctive and sexy. According to reports, they’re not just eye candy, they actually improve the aerodynamics of the car. I understand they’re fitted with an anti-break-your-fingers release mechanism, but when I checked it out, the handle gave me a good finger squeeze – not in a good way. It stung. Maybe I’m extra sensitive, but I think Tesla should consider adjusting the specs, just a tad.
2. When you get in the car and sit down in the driver seat, the car switches on. Touch the foot break and the motor is on and ready to go. But when you stop, it feels disconcerting not to have an “off” button. Say you pull over to make a phone call… or enjoy the sunset? I’d be more comfortable knowing this super powerful motor is definitely off. And isn’t suddenly going to take off….
Overall though, a remarkable driving experience and a giant leap up from my beloved Toyota Prius. Made in Silicon Valley is definitely a plus.
Tesla Motors released its first batch of all electric Model S sedans today. The cars are actually built – not just assembled – at the Tesla Factory in high priced Silicon Valley. The company’s CEO, Elon Musk, says he’s creating “the greatest car company of the 21st Century,” yet despite the hoopla, Tesla is one of the most shorted stocks on the Nasdaq. Will this ambitious entrepreneur – who led the successful SpaceX mission to the international space station last month – prove detractors wrong again?
I visited the factory on June 14 and Gilbert Passin, VP of Manufacturing at Tesla gave me a fascinating two hour tour. He explained the process of making a Model S, from the stamping shop, where huge hydraulic press machines stamp sheets of aluminum into 3-dimensional fenders, hood panels, doors, and roofs; to the quality testing where the paint work is meticulously checked and recycled water is used to test each model’s watertightness.
At the stamping shop, Passin says, “These parts are extremely critical because it’s like the foundation of what makes a good car…See the robot is actually picking up the part in slow motion to make sure that everything works well…you don’t want anything to break.”
Shiny red robots and red T-shirt clad employees work hard at the factory: stamping, assembling, welding, painting and testing. The release of the first ten Model S Sedans is a big milestone for this innovative company. We talk to Charles James Lambert, who is a team leader working on the stylish and unique door handles Tesla manufactures at the factory. “I’m building a door handle that’s going on something fabulous to me: the model S…so sexy to me, the car, right?” he says. “That we have a door handle that responds. It’s pure elegance to me.”
Steve Jurvetson, a Tesla board member, snagged the very first prelaunch Model S (Elon Musk had to wait for number 2) and raves about it with the wide-eyed glee of a teenager describing his first set of wheels. “It’s kind of like driving in a hyper space portal to the future…” says Jurvetson.
Yet this futuristic car, that accelerates 0-60 in 4.4 seconds, does so in a whisper, not a roar. Jurvetson argues that silent is better. “It’s like saying I sleep better when there’s industrial noise going on outside my house, really?” he says and suggests that for drivers who miss the roar of an internal combustion engine, downloadable sounds might be the answer… “People can make it sound like whatever you want. You know, Harley Davidson: “huff pwuffpwuff pwuff.” Fine…just dial it up…blast your ears out…who cares?” he says.
Jurvetson, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, sincerely believes that all vehicles will be electric one day and Tesla will lead the way. “I love what it represents: emblem of the future and a symbolic step towards a oil-free economy.”
The Model S is phase two of Elon Musk’s masterplan to disrupt the car industry and create efficient sustainable transportation. In 2008, Tesla released the Roadster, a high-end electric sports car priced at over$100,000. With the Model S, Tesla has made a more affordable car, and a year or two after its Model X comes out in 2013, aims to produce a 3rd generation model for $30,000. An electric car “for the masses.” Tesla has already catalyzed an industry shift. Today most major car companies are releasing electric or hybrid models. “Even some of the biggest competitors – the gas burning giants of the past – have admitted that they kicked off their electric vehicle program because they saw what Tesla did,” says Jurvetson. “Management said: this little company in CA is doing it, why can’t we?”
Tesla may be a trailblazer, but it faces a bumpy road ahead. Those shorting the stock (betting that the stock will fall in value on the Nasdaq) have a bearish reaction to Tesla’s high debt levels, tough competition and uncertain prospects for mass-market adoption. But it’s more than just the scrappy startup -the Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)- against the Empire (GM, Ford et al). Damon Lavrinc, Transportation Editor for Wired Magazine explains, “The established players don’t like to be challenged on their own home surf.”
He argues that to succeed, Tesla must address both range anxiety and charging time challenges. Price is also an issue. The 150-mile range car may have a base price of $50,000 after federal rebates. But for the fully loaded 300-mile range model, you’ll pay closer to $100,000. California buyers also get a state rebate ($2500) plus those precious carpool stickers. “Once we can get that price of entry lower, once we can get that battery capacity larger, that’s when it’s really going to take off,” says Damon Lavrinc. So far, Tesla has 10,000 reservations for the Model S and will deliver about half this year, ramping up to 20,000 in 2013, if the orders continue to come.
Experts compare it to the BMW 5 Series, but Tesla’s VP of Manufacturing explains its edge. “We’ll change the world by bringing a product that’s extremely efficient, very clean for theplanet, extremely fast, extremely comfortable…extremely beautiful,” says Passin. But Tesla has to get it right the first time, there’s no room for error.
Back in the Tesla Factory, at the end of our tour, Passin explains, “The car has to be finished, has to be perfect, the people working here know this is the end of the line, so it has to be good.” Although these challenges seem formidable, Elon Musk is attacking them like a true tech superhero, channeling the wild ambition of Steve Jobs and his obsessive search for perfection. Musk reportedly works 80-90 hours a week, splitting his time between Tesla and his space exploration company, SpaceX. Elon Musk was reportedly the inspiration for the Iron Man movies. “He may have superpowers, I don’t know,” says Passin, chuckling.
Last month, Musk proved naysayers wrong with his historic SpaceX Mission to the international space station. Can he do the same for the Electric Vehicle market? So much depends upon the successful launch of the Model S sedan. Damon Lavrinc of Wired Magazine sums up what’s at stake: “It’s not just so much a make or break it for Tesla, it is very much a make or break it for the entire electric vehicle industry.”
On Monday, I checked out the very first Tesla Model S at Sandhill Road, Silicon Valley. Steve Jurvetson, a Tesla board member is the proud owner.
Hoping for a splendid drive along 280, I was disappointed when Jurvetson said he’d promised the Tesla team that there’d be no test drives until the official release on June 22nd. Not even a wee tour around the parking lot.
But I did get a detailed tour of the car’s interior and will be reporting more details soon about Jurvetson’s car and my fascinating two-hour tour of the Tesla Factory, here and on NPR’s KQED radio.
You’ll notice that there’s no tailpipe on the car. All electric, zero emissions.
Note the acceleration patterns. The Model S generates electricity when you take your foot off the gas pedal.
Here are some photos of our Tesla Factory tour on June 14, 2012 with VP of Manufacturing, Gilbert Passin.
Check back soon for more commentary…and my Tesla radio story on NPR’s KQED California Report. It includes some great sound from the Tesla factory and interviews with Tesla board member Steve Jurvetson, VP Manufacturing Gilbert Passin, Wired Magazine’s Damon Lavrinc and Charles Lambert, an enthusiastic Tesla factory worker who describes the door handles as “sexy.”