Tesla S: a model citizen

As I situate myself in the driver’s seat of Tesla’s Model S show car -- a working model of the future-chic, fast-backed electric sedan upon which the Silicon Valley automaker now depends -- I think of all the electric-car peaceniks who would gladly throttle me to take my place as the first person outside the company to drive the car. It’s a pleasant thought.

Yet their envy would be misplaced. This lovely, porpoise-sleek design study, unveiled to worldwide hoopla March 26, is just barely ambulatory -- more like a glorified golf cart than a harbinger of tomorrow tech. The windows are fixed in their frames. The power-steering motor groans. The seating position and outward visibility make a Lamborghini feel spacious. The car’s signature design flourish -- a 17-inch, touch-screen control panel with haptic feedback in the center console -- may not even make it to production, concedes Tesla designer Franz von Holzhausen. “The car is only about 90% there on the outside and about 40% there on the inside.”

Still, the gimpy, far-from-real fiberglass prototype is pivotal for the company. It was, Holzhausen says, a “huge morale boost” for employees last fall, after the company suffered a round of layoffs and closed its Michigan office. More crucially, the Model S took center stage in early April when Tesla officials traveled to Washington to appeal for $450 million in government loans.

Tonight, company Chief Executive Elon Musk and the car will appear on “Late Night With David Letterman” (Letterman owns one of Tesla’s Roadsters) as part of a cross-country barnstorming campaign to drum up public support for the car and the loans, with Tesla-hosted parties in Chicago, Miami and Seattle.


“People are interested in the Model S,” says Tesla spokesman Rachel Konrad, “but they get much more excited when they see the car in person.” The Tesla crew is hoping, she adds, that the parties will generate “a few qualified leads.”

Tesla could go on even without the government loans, Von Holzhausen says, “but it would go on a lot slower.”

Tesla’s first car, the Roadster -- a six-figure sports car built on a Lotus chassis, as exotic as it is impractical -- proved that a proper electric road car can be built, if you start with a great car and throw buckets of money and batteries at it. And still, it wasn’t easy. As of early April, only about 300 Roadsters had been delivered, with hundreds of deposit-paying customers still awaiting their cars. Musk has said he misjudged how difficult and expensive starting a car company would be.

The Model S, aimed to rival conventional mid-market sedans from BMW and Lexus, is a far more ambitious -- and some would say unlikely -- project.

A “clean screen” design, the Model S would be built in Tesla’s own assembly hall (in an undetermined facility in Southern California). It would offer a choice of three progressively costly battery packs with ranges of about 165 miles, 230 miles and 300 miles; it would accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and would have a top speed of 125 mph; the base price of the car would be $57,400 ($49,900 if you count the federal tax credit on all-electric cars); it would offer seven-passenger seating (which seems impossible, given the size and layout of the prototype and the increasingly stringent federal rear-crash standards) and optional all-wheel drive; it would provide for quick replacement of its floor-mounted battery pack, a daunting technical challenge that would require that the pack be a load-bearing part of the structure. Tesla expects to build 20,000 vehicles in the first full year of production.

And all of this, Musk has said, will take place 24 and 30 months after the company receives the federal loans, an audacious timeline that makes many in the car industry roll their eyes. Even people inside Tesla are leery.

“Elon likes to portray all this as extraordinarily easy,” says J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer. “But there is certainly a lot of hard work between now and launch.”

Tesla has already had to walk back a claim regarding the Model S’ recharge capacity. The car will not have the capacity to accept 440-volt current, which would allow it to be charged in 45 minutes. Such a recharge cycle would have made it theoretically possible to drive the car continuously cross-country, stopping only briefly to plug in the car while passengers take meal breaks.


As for the production vehicle, this is what is known:

* Tesla is committed to using the same battery strategy as in the Roadster -- using large, liquid-cooled packs assembled out of off-the-shelf lithium-ion batteries, the so-called 18650-sized batteries. The packs will be somehow sandwiched in the floor of the vehicle. The quick-replacement design is problematic, said Straubel and Kurt Kelty, the company’s director of energy storage systems, and is the subject of a lot of “deep thinking.” Regardless, Tesla has no plans to invest in battery-swap infrastructure as part of the Model S’ business plan.

* The body structure could be aluminum or steel or a combination, but the Model S will have lightweight aluminum body panels. Tesla expects to make its own “hard tooling,” which are expensive stamping molds for the body panels. Although Straubel and Kelty declined to speculate, one possibility is that Tesla could align with Alcoa, the aluminum company, which works with Ferrari and other exotic-car makers to produce aluminum-bodied cars.

* Tesla is aiming for a 0.25 coefficient of drag, which would make the car very efficient aerodynamically. Ideally, the bottom of the car would slope up gradually toward the rear at a 7-degree angle, but the battery packs might interfere with that.


Even with the unknowns, Straubel says, the Model S benefits from all that has been learned from the Roadster program.

“The general DNA of the electric powertrain is much more proven,” he says. Also, because of the cache of the Tesla brand, it has been much easier to get suppliers to work with the company in areas of testing and sourcing of materials.

“All of that stuff,” Straubel says, “is in place.”