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Tesla: Birth of an American car maker

Tesla Motors is the first new American car company to open a manufacturing plant in the U.S. in a long, long time.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read
Tesla's Model S is being built in California. Aluminum in one door, a Tesla S series out the other.
Tesla's Model S is being built in California. Aluminum in one door, a Tesla S series out the other. Tesla

Besides selling electric cars, Tesla Motors is doing something that hasn't been done in the U.S. in a long, long time: a new American car company is starting production at a new U.S. manufacturing plant.

That is indeed an extremely rare event in the U.S. these days, as a Tesla representative pointed out to me at CES. Especially in California which, for much of the last century, was a manufacturing base for General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. (See list of past U.S. auto factories.)

That Tesla factory, by the way, is the former NUMMI assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., which had been jointly owned by GM and Toyota.

"A roll of aluminum comes into the factory, a Model S drives out the other end," the Tesla rep told me. And that level of production is very different from the handful of Tesla Roadsters being assembled in Menlo Park and Hethel, U.K.

Though production numbers will be tiny this year--only 5,000 S models--this is partly due to the fact that the tooling of the factory is not completed yet, according to a second Tesla representative I spoke with at CES. Production will ramp up to 20,000 units in 2013.

And another first for an American car manufacturer: the address. It is headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif. Needless to say, the view from Silicon Valley is different from the view at GM's Renaissance Center in Detroit.

Remember GM's ill-fated EV1 electric car that glided down California highways in the mid-1990s? Who knows, maybe things would have been different if GM had been based in Silicon Valley.

And that address speaks volumes about the direction of Tesla. With roots in Silicon Valley it may have a better grasp of what consumer electronics technologies could work well in a car.

Which brings us to the demo at CES (see link to video at bottom). The Tesla Model S will feature a 17-inch display powered by an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor. This will undoubtedly appeal to techies. In short, it's a giant tablet built right into the dashboard.

And I expect we'll see more of this Silicon Valley-centric tech in future Tesla cars. And maybe one day something innovative enough that Tesla can do an end-run around larger car companies making electrics and hybrids.

The Tesla Model S being built in California includes a base model with a 40kWh battery pack and costs $49,900. The 60kWh model runs $59,900, and it's another $10,000 for the 85kWh model.

A top-of-the-line $79,900 performance model comes with the 85kWh pack and a 0-to-60-mph time of 4.4 seconds. All of those prices are after a federal tax credit of $7,500.

Those battery packs give the Model S an estimated range at 55 mph of 160 miles, 230 miles, and 300 miles respectively.

More about the Model S here.

See video of Tesla Model S demonstrated with Nvidia-based built-in tablet.

Also see a related story about the departure of two Tesla Model S senior engineers.

Note: my intention in this post is not to belittle the efforts of GM. The Chevrolet Volt required (and continues to require) a massive R&D and production effort by GM, one of the world's premier car manufacturers. And the Volt has features that are not offered by Tesla. Notably, a gasoline engine to provide an extended driving range beyond the 25 to 50 miles the Volt's battery provides.