All that Martin Eberhard really wanted was an electric car that was at least as practical and convenient as the succession of old, wretched $500 clunkers that he'd driven as a young electrical engineer, such paragons of automotive efficiency as the Lincoln Continental Mark III, the Chevrolet Caprice Classic, and even the Renault Le Car. Unfortunately, no one could build him one, although he dangled a substantial bit of the personal fortune he made as a Silicon Valley innovator in front of anyone who promised to do the job.
As a result, Eberhard and his team were forced to come up with a decent electric car by themselves. And that's how the Tesla Roadster drove into our lives, a $100,000, all-electric sports car that can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds, reach a top speed of 135 mph, cruise about 250 miles at a stretch, and fully recharge in a couple of hours for $2.50. It sounds too good to be true, like a combination of Silicon Valley vaporware and one of Leonardo Da Vinci's perpetual-motion machines, and yet we've driven the Tesla Roadster and it seems to be very real.
Since its first public showing in California at the end of July, the Tesla Roadster has inspired a firestorm of public interest. Tesla took preproduction deposits for its "Signature One Hundred" (the first 100 Roadsters to be built) and promised delivery next summer, selling out in a little more than two weeks. Each deposit amounted to the full price of the car, a $100,000 bet on an uncertain new concept.
The leap of imagination that Eberhard made to his new concept seems elegantly simple now, just like the one Steve Wozniak made when he tooka bunch of cheap, commonly available electronic components into Steve Jobs's garage and came up with the Apple personal computer. In this case, Eberhard seized on one of the most familiar items in Silicon Valley--the relatively cheap, relatively common lithium-ion battery. About the size of the AA battery in your pocket flashlight, lithium-ion batteries similar to those in the Tesla are found in every laptop computer. Eberhard figured out a way to combine lithium-ion cells into large battery packs, sustain them at a charge level that promotes long life, and then control their temperature with a combination of air-conditioning and the circulation of automotive coolant.
Once Eberhard had a power source, he needed a car. "I learned to drive in an old red Jeep on my uncle's farm in Kansas when I was thirteen," Eberhard says, "and I've loved cars ever since. I used to go to junkyards with my girlfriend to keep my clunkers running, and I was driving a BMW Z3 when we were designing the Tesla. But I had no idea about where to start when it came to designing a car." Fortunately, Eberhard was at the 2004 Los Angeles auto show when Roger Becker of Lotus--justifiably famous as one of the leading automotive development engineers in the world--introduced the long-awaited U.S. version of the Lotus Elise. Eberhard grabbed Becker and started talking about electric power with a messianic fervor, and the Lotus executive apparently was unable to resist.