Electric sports car ready to challenge Porsche?

Silicon Valley all-stars line up behind start-up that claims its car can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in four seconds.

A Silicon Valley start-up is expected to show off an electric car this summer that it says can hang with Porsches and Ferraris and has attracted investments from the founders of Google and eBay.

Tesla Motors says its Tesla Roadster can accelerate, brake and handle like a high-end sports car. The company, in fact, claims the car can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in four seconds.

The big difference is that it runs completely on electricity. It plugs into the wall and is not a hybrid. The battery gives it a range of 250 miles.

"We have made a sports car that is really a sports car," said CEO Martin Eberhard. "It is first and fundamentally a driver's car."

A public unveiling of the car is slated for July 12 in Santa Monica, Calif., at which buyers will also be able to sign up to buy the first cars that come off the line.

The secretive start-up, founded in 2003, has also attracted some big-name investors. Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page have put money into the company, as have and Jeff Skoll of eBay fame, VantagePoint Ventures and Draper, Fisher Jurvetson. In all, Tesla has attracted $40 million in venture investing.

Alternative energy has become one of the hot markets for venture investors in the past two years. Brin and Page are also investors in , and Draper, Fisher Jurvetson has made several clean technology investments . The sale of hybrid cars and solar systems for homes have been rising and in many areas become status symbols.

The sports car won't be cheap, Eberhard conceded. Nonetheless, once the technology is established, it will lead to less-expensive cars for the ordinary driver.

The company will not likely license its intellectual property to other auto manufacturers. It's just not standard practice in the auto industry.

"When was the last time Porsche licensed an engine from someone else? They haven't," he said.

The company is named in honor of Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American who invented the rotating magnetic field and who obtained around 700 patents.

Electric motors rely often on the repulsion and attraction of magnets. Often, an electric motor consists of a stationary, permanent magnet attached to a hub and surrounded by pairs of electromagnets. Those magnets are embedded in a rotating cylinder attached to the wheel. Rapidly changing the polarity of the electromagnets from positive to negative causes the wheel to propel itself forward.

Tesla Motors has not given any technical information about the design of its motor.

Because the car runs entirely on electricity, however, it will likely create less pollution than even plug-in hybrids, which run mostly on electricity. Electric cars don't emit fumes, but since electrical power plants often rely on coal, greenhouse gases are created in charging these cars . In California, little coal is used, but it's big in Pennsylvania.

One thing the company doesn't appear to have is an overwhelming history in the automotive industry, at least among the executives. Before starting Tesla, Eberhard was CEO of NuvoMedia, which tried to market the RocketBook , an electronic book. Electronic books were astounding flops with consumers; however, Eberhard did manage to sell the company to Gemstar for $187 million.

Many of the other executives are also alumni of NuvoMedia.

The only executive listed on the company's Web site who worked at an automotive company is Malcolm Powell, vice president of vehicle integration. Before Tesla, he helped create the Lotus Elise.

Chief Technical Officer J.B. Staubel, however, has worked in the aircraft industry and retrofitted his own Porsche to run on an electric motor.

The San Carlos, Calif.-based Tesla Motors has 70 employees.

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About the author

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.

     

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