Electric sports car packs a punch, but will it sell?

Tesla's Roadster is quick and quiet off the line, but customers must weigh its price against the rising cost of gas.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
SANTA MONICA, Calif.--The Tesla Roadster has kick.

As soon as the driver hits the accelerator, you are thrown back against the seat. The car climbs from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about four seconds, as advertised. But unlike a Porsche or Ferrari, there are no fumes or gear changes and not much noise. Instead, this electric sports car emits a low-grade hum.

"It's a whole different mind-set. It's stealthy," said Malcolm Smith, vice president of vehicle engineering at Tesla Motors, which designed the car and plans to start shipping them to customers next year. "You can tell you are dealing with a lot of power."

But don't take it from me. Take it from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who showed up at the car's public unveiling in Santa Monica on Wednesday.

"It's terrific," the governor said, before speeding off with his two kids and a bodyguard in an SUV after test driving the car. Former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who sort of looks like Andre the Giant in a pullover sweater, showed up later. He didn't take a test drive. "I'm only checking it out," he said.

Tesla hopes to popularize the electric car, a goal that has eluded General Motors, Japanese hobbyists and others. The company has two things in its favor, said Elon Musk, PayPal founder and chairman of Tesla Motors. First, fears about global warming, combined with the popularity of hybrid cars and rising gas prices, indicate that consumers want cars with better gas mileage, or that don't use gas at all.

Second, the state of technology behind batteries, software and semiconductors has improved to where electric cars can perform as well, or better, than conventional cars, said Musk during an interview at the event.

Tesla Roadster

"Until today, all electric cars have sucked," said Musk, who was a Stanford Ph.D student studying high-density capacitors. "Electric cars play into the strength of Silicon Valley. A lot of the things inside the car are conventional automobile technology. The magic is the battery technology and the software and the controllers."

Asked about the EV1, a General Electric electric car that was summarily shut down, Musk said the car's short life wasn't likely the result of a conspiracy between car manufacturers and oil companies. Instead, he said, the car probably failed because of big-company inertia.

"Don't explain...by conspiracy what you can explain by incompetence," he said.

An easier recharge
In some ways, the Tesla Roadster is a battery on wheels. Much of the company's design work revolved around developing a lithium-ion battery pack to power the car. The battery cells come from a third-party provider, but Tesla has wrapped it into a battery pack that can deliver energy rapidly to the car's acceleration. Unlike GM's EV1, the Tesla Roadster doesn't require a unique external charger. It can be charged from conventional electronic outlets by using with a special cord.

Electric cars aren't pollution-free. In many parts of the country, the majority of electricity is produced by coal-fired electrical plants. Still, Musk claimed that the Tesla Roadster will produce half the carbon dioxide per mile of a hybrid car. Tesla is also working with solar panel companies to install panels at the homes of Tesla Roadster owners to help them power the car.

Electric cars were running neck and neck with gas-powered cars at the beginning of the 20th century, said Smith. But once makers of gas-powered vehicles developed the electric starter to get rid of the crank, the die was cast.

To avoid patent disputes, the company has licensed technology from AC Propulsion, which did much of the engineering work behind GM's EV1.

There are other design novelties, of course. The company designed the engine and commissioned a company that specializes in transmissions for Formula One cars. The car only has two gears: First goes up to about 65 miles an hour, and second takes off after that. (There is no reverse gear. The engine is just run backwards so that, theoretically, you could go top speed--130 miles an hour--in reverse.)

Selling direct
The car's manufacturing is a worldwide affair. Tesla's engineers, based in Palo Alto, Calif., designed the car and the engine. A site being set up in Taiwan will assemble the components and manufacture engines. The engine and drive train, along with other components, are sent to the U.K., where a carbon fiber shell--light but strong--is manufactured and the car is assembled.

The company won't sell through dealers, but direct to consumers instead, said Tesla board member Laurie Yoler.

At $90,000, the two-seat car is out of reach of most consumers. Musk, however, said the company hopes to come out with a four-seat, four-door sub-$50,000 model in about three years. After that, an even cheaper car will emerge.

"Every successive model will be cheaper and be in higher volumes," Musk said.

Tesla began around 2000 when Musk approached an electric-car company with the idea of creating an electric sports car. That company's owners weren't interested, but they introduced him to Martin Eberhard, who recently sold an e-book company and was touting a similar automotive idea.

So far, the company has produced two production models. However, it has secured commitments from around 30 people who want to buy one. Most are investor, such as Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and eBay's Jeff Skoll. The list, however, also includes Ben Rosen, who funded Compaq, as well as unnamed "private parties."

What do you get for $90,000? The car can redline at 13,500rpm, reach about 130mph, and has 240 horsepower. It also has a range of 250 miles per charge, but that will increase, the company claims.

The car's curvy exterior was intended to give it a traditional sports car feel, said Smith. However, Tesla said it doesn't want the vehicle to look old-fashioned, which explains why you can see the carbon fiber weave of the exterior shell.

Stuck in Barstow? You can unplug a soda machine and charge up in an ordinary electric socket--although it could take from five hours to a day, said an engineer at the company. To ameliorate that problem, the company will install chargers at the homes of owners. These chargers can cut the charging time down to about three hours. Tesla is also working with hotels and gas stations in California to set up high-energy fueling stations.

But will it sell? Tesla is hot on the idea, and so were many attendees, but the car's current 250-mile maximum distance kills the idea of extended road trips. Still, the company believes it has time and gas prices on its side.

"The Tesla Roadster costs a penny per mile to drive," said Tesla CEO Martin Eberhard. "The electric sports car will fundamentally change the way we drive."