When Tesla, the upstart auto company based in Silicon Valley, unveiled its all-electric Roadster at a swank affair in Santa Monica last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped in for surprise visit. Recognition hung in the air. The man who became famous for playing one seriously aggressive electric appliance had come to pay his respects to another.
The event -- where Tesla was offering its first 100 "signature edition" cars for $100,000 apiece -- felt like automotive history, and I have the feeling that one day I'm going to be very glad I bothered to attend. The yare and sleek carbon-bodied sports car is, by my reckoning, the first plausible electric automobile of the 21st century. And, without electrics, the 22nd century is going to be very rocky indeed.
To appreciate the Tesla, it helps to compare it to the much-lamented EV1, GM's purpose-built electric car that was, in the mid-1990s, the most advanced vehicle of its kind. The Tesla Roadster has a range of 250 miles, says the company. The EV1, with the best nickel metal hydride batteries, could go about 150 miles under ideal conditions. A full charge of the EV1 could take eight hours. The Tesla's lithium-ion batteries can be raised from the dead to a full charge in 3 1/2 hours and, unlike the EV1, the Tesla will come with its own portable charging pack so it won't be range-tethered to its home charging station.
The Tesla is a toothsome sports car. The EV1, um, wasn't.
Perhaps most important and most unlike the EV1, the Tesla offers something beyond mere virtue as a reward to its buyers. Fun, in large, hair-raising voltages. The company claims 0 to 60 mph acceleration in four seconds and a top speed of 130 mph.
Big brakes, racy suspension, optional leather and navigation system, air conditioning, heated seats. There's even room for golf clubs. With the Tesla, the electric car seems poised to move past its groovy-granola beginnings.
"Most electric cars were designed for people who didn't even like cars," Tesla's founder and chief executive Martin Eberhard says. This approach -- this appeal to civic virtue instead of driving pleasure -- limited electric cars' appeal to a small albeit enthusiastic group of environmentalists. "I wanted to build a car that I wanted to drive," Eberhard says. "And I like fast cars."
Tesla isn't the only bolt of battery-powered lightning out there. A Monaco-based company called Venturi has a production-ready electric sports car, the Fetish, which is nearly identical to the Tesla in size, weight, power, range and performance. The big difference is price: Compared with the $600,000-plus Venturi, the production Tesla ( about $85,000, due on sale in late 2007) might as well be sold at Best Buy.
The Wrightspeed X1 prototype, the work of another Silicon Valley startup, is based on the lattice-frame, open-wheel Ariel Atom built in England. It's even quicker: 0 to 60 mph in three seconds, with a quarter-mile time of 11.5 seconds. There's also the Tango commuter car, an oddly shaped four-wheel electric car-cum-motorcycle (sold as a kit car) whose most famous owner certainly is actor George Clooney. With its two motors serving up more than 1,000 pound-feet of combined torque, the Tango's acceleration is "like getting shot out of a cannon," says Tango president Rick Woodbury.
During a summer when a popular documentary asks, "Who Killed the Electric Car?," the electric car seems to be contrarily alive and well and going like a bat out of hell. What's with all the speedy electrics?
"There's a big market for green," says Chris Paine, EV advocate and director of "Who Killed the Electric Car," "but not as big as the market for something more primal. Speed and power have always sold cars."
"We want to do something about global warming," says Elon Musk, Tesla chairman and its principal investor. "But you can't achieve your philanthropic objective unless the company works." Its sexy Roadster project, Musk says, will allow the company to sell a four-door sedan, to be built in the United States, with a price of less than $50,000, by 2008.
"Selling an electric sports car creates an opportunity to fundamentally change the way America drives," Musk says.
In terms of car culture, the Tesla is catching a larger wave, in which green technology -- previously considered the antidote to fun -- is being marketed as a performance enhancement. Just this month Lexus entered a GS450h sport sedan hybrid in the Tokachi 24-Hour Race in Japan. Audi's Le Mans-winning R10 diesel race program, say company execs, shows clean diesel can also deliver high performance.
Some environmentalists have been queasy about this trend -- accusing manufacturers of green washing -- while others see it as a necessary step in mainstreaming clean-car technologies.
"I don't know too much about the Tesla," says Roland Hwang, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, "but two-thirds less greenhouse gases and 0 to 60 in four seconds? Who could be against that?"
There are more variables than an algebra textbook and Tesla's success is far from a sure thing. GM, with all its technological prowess and financial depth, couldn't make a business case out of the EV1 -- and I submit that those who think otherwise don't understand the car business.
There's very little in the near-six-digit, two-seat, carbon-fiber Tesla Roadster that suggests an electric family sedan will be affordable, practical, or possible, anytime soon. And don't forget, the roads of automotive history are littered with defunct low-volume sports car companies. With all the hoopla, Tesla has managed to pre-sell only 34 of its Roadsters.
But the Tesla gives us reason to hope. And that hope could spark a revolution.