Supercharging the electric car
by Eric Tingwall
An 85-kWh battery puts the Model S's range on par with conventional cars, but recharging still can't match the speed and convenience of pumping gasoline. Despite that, Tesla intends to make long-distance, multi-charge road trips possible with a network of high-speed chargers that can inject 150 miles of range into the battery in thirty minutes. These Superchargers bypass the car's onboard equipment and feed 400 volts of direct-current electricity straight to the battery through a thick, vinelike cord. Interestingly, the hardware that transforms the electricity from alternating current to direct current is the same as what's carried in the car for 120- and 240-volt charging. The difference is that a Model S has one or two 10-kW chargers onboard, while the stationary Supercharger system uses a stack of twelve units that can produce a total of 120 kW.
Supercharger hardware comes standard on the 85-kWh Model S, and it's a $2000 option on 60-kWh models. Either way, owners are entitled to free electricity from the Superchargers for the life of their car.
Some Supercharger stations will be paired with solar-panel-clad carports supplied by SolarCity, another Musk outfit. This arrangement gives owners a clear conscience when it comes to the environmental impact of their electricity sources, as Tesla claims the photovoltaic panels will feed more electricity into the grid than the Superchargers will to cars. Today, there are just six Superchargers scattered throughout California, but Tesla claims that owners will be able to drive from San Diego to Vancouver, Miami to Montreal, and Los Angeles to New York, stopping at Superchargers along the way, by next year.
The long, (mostly) slow struggle.
//1830s The first rudimentary electric vehicles emerge, powered by one-use power-storage units. The four-stroke gasoline engine is still four decades away.
//1859 Rechargeable lead-acid storage batteries are invented in France.
//circa 1890 William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, produces the first American electric car. Powered by 24 batteries, it has 4 hp and can go 20 mph -- double the top speed of Karl Benz's gas-powered Patent-Motorwagen. Maximum range is 40 to 50 miles.
//1899 Belgian Camille Jenatzy hits 65.8 mph in La Jamais Contente, his missile-shaped electric car.
//1900 Electric cars account for more than a third of all sales in the fledgling U.S. auto market and prove especially popular in cities.
//1909 Thomas Edison perfects his nickel-iron battery and markets it to automakers.
//1912 Electric cars lose their most compelling advantage -- convenience -- when Cadillac introduces "the car that has no crank."
//1913 A Detroit Electric travels 211 miles on a single charge, setting a new record. Range of 80 miles is more typical. Prices start at about $2650, equivalent to $61,300 in today's dollars.
//by 1920 High cost, limited range, and cheap oil contribute to a sharp decline in electric-car sales.
//1940 Detroit Electric, which had shifted to commercial vehicles and outlasted all of its competitors, finally goes out of business.
//1974 The Florida-built CitiCar debuts and offers about 30 miles of range. It's relatively popular, finding more than 2000 buyers in its first two years. But the homely, plastic-bodied two-seater does nothing to improve the greater perception of electric cars.
//1996 General Motors begins leasing the EV1, the first modern electric car. Range starts at 70 to 100 miles. An upgraded version with nickel-metal-hydride batteries goes on sale three years later with 100 to 140 miles of range.
//2003 The California Air Resources Board ends its initiative to require zero-emissions vehicles. GM, along with Toyota and others, ceases production of electric vehicles soon thereafter. Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, Tesla is born.
//2008 Despite several fits and starts, the Lotus Elise-based, lithium-ion-battery-powered Tesla Roadster goes on sale. Then-chairman Elon Musk promises a scratchbuilt BMW 5-series competitor within three years.
//2009 Tesla, along with several other firms, receives millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. It uses the loan to develop the "Whitestar" (the Model S) and to acquire Toyota's shuttered plant in Fremont, California.
//2010 The Nissan Leaf brings the electric car to the mainstream. We name the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt the 2011 Automobile of the Year.
//2011 The Fisker Karma wins our 2012 Design of the Year.
//2012 The introductions of an electrified Honda Fit and Ford Focus, a Tesla-powered Toyota RAV4, and, of course, the Model S, make for the busiest year in electric cars since the early twentieth century.
Fifty years at Fremont
From Chevys to Toyotas to Teslas
by Ronald Ahrens
The factory in Fremont, California, where the Tesla Model S is built, has always been cutting-edge, with operations continually tinged by government involvement. Constructed near San Francisco Bay's backwaters in 1962, the "four-in-one" Fremont Assembly Plant represented General Motors' greatest effort to avoid monopoly prosecution. If GM made Chevrolets alongside Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs, how could the Justice Department carry out its threat to spin off Chevy as a separate company?
Two years after job one, GM head Frederic Donner came to Fremont, announcing a $2 billion worldwide manufacturing expansion. Governor Pat Brown also attended and delivered "quite a political talk and tossed out figures that were a great deal bigger," Chevy chief Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen wrote.
But GM proved a vulnerable monopoly. Fremont closed in 1982. Thanks to a GM/Toyota joint venture, it reopened in 1984 as New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. Toyota used NUMMI to evade import restrictions threatened by Congress. Meanwhile, GM learned lean manufacturing practices. The Toyota Corolla (rebadged as the Chevy Nova and the Geo Prizm), the Toyota Matrix, and the Pontiac Vibe were among roughly eight million vehicles produced before the partnership ended in 2009. Toyota subsequently struck a deal with Tesla that included factory space, California offered tax incentives, and Tesla landed a $465 million federal loan.
Tesla paid $42 million for the factory in May of 2010 and an additional $17 million for machine tools and spare parts.
"We had this megafactory, and we wanted to take full advantage of the infrastructure in order to manufacture at very low cost," said Gilbert Passin, Tesla's vice president of manufacturing. He noted that Tesla also salvaged tooling at bargain prices elsewhere in the distressed auto industry. While a new plant at a greenfield site typically represents an investment of at least $1 billion, Tesla probably has less than one-third that amount tied up in Fremont. Passin said 95 percent of all Model S parts are made in-house, an uncommonly high amount in an industry that relies heavily on outside suppliers.
Visiting last summer, we saw that only a portion of the five million square feet of floor space was in use. In an upstairs clean room, about 350 employees -- some of whom formerly worked for NUMMI -- put together battery packs and electric-drive components on two shifts, while another 450 workers sporadically assembled bodies and chassis on ground level. (Corporate headquarters lies across the Bay, in Palo Alto, and the design center is in Southern California.) The Tesla factory's innovative modular assembly process relies on so-called "smart carts" to carry the bodies through assembly, automatically raising or lowering as needed and periodically recharging while traversing the line. This method turns away from the traditional use of overhead conveyors, saving millions of dollars. Meanwhile, each newly purchased robot typically performs five different tasks, and advanced artificial intelligence allows one to install the Model S's panoramic roof by analyzing a digital image.
Tesla hoped to ramp up to eighty cars per shift by the end of 2012, but during our walk-through, it was quiet enough to hear a silver dollar drop.