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Electric Car Maker Aims for the Top with Sports Car

October 15, 2007

SAN CARLOS, CA – Tesla Motors is a car company that's both decades ahead of its time, and a year behind schedule, according to The Wall Street Journal online. Soon, it will become clear which is more important to Tesla's long-term future, and the future of the disruptive ideas the company represents.

For those who somehow missed the blizzard of publicity that has swirled around this company for the past 18 months or so, Tesla ( is a Silicon Valley start-up, bankrolled by some of the same people who brought you the Internet boom of the late 1990s. The company's stated ambition is to develop over the next several years a full array of electric cars. Tesla's fans — many of them influential leaders of Silicon Valley's "clean tech" green-technology movement — see Tesla as an icon of the broader effort to make big money by unshackling the U.S. economy from petroleum.

According to The Wall Street Journal online, Tesla's first model will be a $98,000 electric roadster, developed around the architecture of a Lotus Elise, that uses 6,831 lithium-ion batteries similar to those used in laptop computers, a patented electric-motor system, and a highly sophisticated package of controllers and software to deliver an exotically attractive car that zaps from standstill to 60 miles per hour in under four seconds and can travel up to 245 miles on a single charge.

Tesla isn't planning any traditional advertising, but if it did, one slogan could be: "You can't kill an electric car you can't catch."

Tesla and its approach to electrifying the automobile may well redefine the car industry. But first, Tesla needs to actually deliver the car. That was once supposed to have happened by early this year. Now, company co-founder Martin Eberhard says, the first Roadsters should come off the Lotus assembly line in Britain sometime during the first quarter of 2008.

"Our plan is to ramp up very gently," Eberhard says. The run of cars produced during the first quarter of 2008 could be only about 50 vehicles, with a goal of building a total of about 600 cars in the 2008 model year. Tesla recently told potential customers that it can no longer guarantee delivery of 2008 models.

Among the problems Tesla has encountered, according to The Wall Street Journal online: The car's body had to be redesigned because the door sills were so high that getting in and out of the vehicle required excessive acrobatics, especially for women in skirts.

A supplier for the car's original transmission failed, and a subsequent decision to move from a one-speed transmission to a two-speed proved more difficult to execute than expected. In August, the car flunked a 30 mile per hour side-impact crash test, necessitating more last-minute design changes.

Tesla's Big Idea was to start with an electric car that appeals to the id, not the superego. From the start, Mr. Eberhard says he wanted a car that could outrun a Porsche in a 0-60 trial, and would go 250 miles on a charge. He says the production Roadster will hit the under four-second target for the 0-60 dash, and will get very close to the original goal on range.

"Our ambition is, one step at a time, to become a real car company," Mr. Eberhard says. Tesla plans to develop more practical and more affordable electric vehicles, expanding its potential revenue. But the time frame for that is now 2010, not 2009 as once proposed.

Last May, Mr. Eberhard told a Senate committee that the company's second model would be a $50,000 sedan built in New Mexico, followed by an even more affordable car. Now, Mr. Eberhard is cagier about exactly what Tesla's "White Star" model line will be, and exactly when it will appear. "We are deep, deep into that," he says. "We are planning on building (cars) in Albuquerque. It's possible we might want to do something different."

Tesla is named for Nikola Tesla, the godfather of alternating current and radio who nonetheless died poor, in part because his weirdness wound up obscuring his genius. In recent years, Tesla has become a patron saint of Silicon Valley.

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