Elon Musk puts on a show for Tesla fans at battery-swap demo

A Tesla Model S waited off to the side of the huge stage inside the carmaker's Hawthorne studios Thursday night, waiting for its debut as demo car for the new battery swap system.
(Catherine Green / Los Angeles Times)

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk threw a cocktail party in honor of a car battery Thursday night.

A debut for the new 90-second automated battery-swapping system for the automaker’s Model S electric sports sedan, the gathering provided a window into the sleek PR machine that’s helped turn Tesla into a darling of the media and Wall Street.

Inside a revamped hangar at the automaker’s design studio in Hawthorne -- next to Musk’s SpaceX rocket factory -- the electric-car guru seemed to channel Tony Stark, the fictional industrial tycoon of “Ironman” fame.


Attendees were greeted by a legion of valets, expense and gratuity covered by the host. Tesla staff members were dressed completely in black, with the exception of Musk, who sported blue jeans topped by his trademark black T-shirt and a black velvet sport coat with satin lapels.

PHOTOS: The Tesla Model S

At least 300 people filed inside once doors to the design studio opened, mostly Tesla enthusiasts who had driven their expensive electric cars to the event. They crowded the open bars in the massive hangar while pulsing remixes of Blondie, Lana Del Rey and Daft Punk flooding from a DJ booth set the tempo for the evening.

Musk pushed the green theme hard: Tiers leading toward a vast stage were carpeted in fake grass, and potted trees stood among clusters of white leather armchairs -- a plush upgrade for lawn furniture. Women in fitted black A-line dresses carried trays of hors d’oeuvres, weaving through the milling masses, flowers tucked behind their ears. They would later reappear with mini-molten lava cakes and raspberry cupcakes to sustain partygoers standing in the epic valet line after the event.

A white Model X SUV prototype sat parked on the garden patio, its side hatch doors open and reaching toward the sky. People leaned over velvet ropes to peer in at the three rows of white and black leather seats, a touch-screen tablet console up front -- but only before turning around to pose for photos taken by fellow guests.

Back inside, a giant video screen played muted classic car commercials and cartoons. A good half-hour after the scheduled 8 p.m. start time, Musk finally took the stage to the reworked chugging of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”

“You’re here for the title fight,” Musk said after a brief introduction by designer Franz Von Holzhausen. “It’s gonna be battery-powered cars versus gasoline -- the final showdown.”

With a touch of self-deprecation -- “This could go wrong,” Musk said with a smile -- a red Tesla drove to center stage and the battery-swapping demo began. A screen above showed video of a man filling his car with gas.

As tense electronic music provided the soundtrack and as stopwatches timed both the fill-up and battery swap, automated machinery latched onto the bottom of the Model S. The battery, which takes up most of the car’s underbelly, was detached and lowered into the automated pit. A new battery rose up to take its place, finishing the entire process in just over one minute and 30 seconds.

Meanwhile, the man in the video above continued to wait for gas to fill his tank.

“Looks like we’ve got some extra time,” Musk said. “Let’s do another one.”

A second Tesla pulled up, and its battery was replaced well before the car in the video was refueled, four minutes and nine seconds after the demonstration began.

Once the new method proliferates, Tesla drivers will be able to choose between “fast or free” -- pay the equivalent of 15 gallons of fuel in the region and have a full charge in 90 seconds, or wait 30 minutes for the no-cost Supercharger system Tesla rolled out in October last year.

“Hopefully,” Musk said, “this is what convinces people, finally, that electric cars are the future.”


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Twitter: @c_s_green