The future of the automobile comes into sharp focus as I shiver on the shoulder of a damp road in Northern California, waiting for technical editor Don Sherman to make his first 0-to-60-mph pass in a Tesla Roadster - a preproduction version of the svelte, $100,000 electric two-seater powered by 6831 laptop-computer batteries and the collective enthusiasm of an intrepid band of Silicon Valley engineers and green dreamers the world over.
Sherman puts the car in gear and mashes both the brake and accelerator pedals. Unlike conventional reciprocating engines, electric motors make maximum torque at zero rpm. With 211 lb-ft straining against the firmly clamped brake rotors, the Tesla emits a weird mechanical groan, a cross between a mortally wounded ship sinking to the bottom of the ocean and the prefight keening of a kung fu master in a cheesy chop-socky flick.
When Sherman releases the brake, the gracefully rounded rear end of the Tesla squats and the fat rear tires spin on the slick pavement. The car leaves the line sideways, launching like an Indy car slithering out of the pits. Then I hear another unexpected sound - the puny squeal of the horn, which Sherman is squeezing inadvertently as he slaps on an armful of opposite lock. ("I was hanging on for dear life," he reported later.) Finally, the tires hook up, and Sherman rockets past 60 mph - and past 100 mph, for good measure. And as he dematerializes into the fog, I find myself thinking, "Sweet!"
The Tesla Roadster isn't going to save the planet. It's not going to redefine the automobile. The earth won't spin off its axis if and when the first cars come off the production line as scheduled later this year. I mean, we're talking about a projected 2008 model year run of 600 units. Toyota cranks out that many Corollas in a morning. So this isn't an electric Ford Model T. It's more like a glorified science project. A tree-hugger's wet dream. A geeky curiosity to display next to the solar-powered toothbrush and organic Twinkies, right?
Wrong. As wrong as a Toyota Prius on a Formula 1 grid. Or Ed Begley, Jr., channeling Steve McQueen in a remake of Le Mans.
Not only is the Tesla the first genuinely eco-friendly vehicle to deserve a spot in any self-respecting car guy's fantasy garage, but it's also the first car to make a plausible case for all-electric personal transportation in the not-too-distant future. Oh, sure, the haters will tell you that the Tesla Roadster is powered mostly by hype, that nothing with a top speed of 125 mph deserves to be called a supercar, that it's merely a high-voltage version of the Lotus Elise built by an underfunded start-up masquerading as a grown-up car company.
So here are a few things you ought to know about the Tesla: With the equivalent of 248 hp and 211 lb-ft of instantly available torque, the car we tested surged to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds - in damp conditions. Al-though it is, in fact, based on the Elise, the highly modified Tesla is more refined in every way. And despite the addition of the 1000-pound battery pack, the Roadster is everything a sports car ought to be - agile, responsive to driver inputs, and rewarding at speed.
But best of all, it's right here, right now. This isn't a piece of Silicon Valley vaporware or a show car made out of balsa wood and duct tape. Sherman and I flogged a pair of Teslas - prototypes 19 and 20 - around the twisty roads between San Jose and San Francisco for the better part of a day, and neither car missed a beat. The experience made a believer out of me. And I'm convinced that it'll do the same for any car enthusiast who gets a chance to drive one.
Does this mean you ought to start shorting stock in companies selling conventional cars? Hardly. The Tesla's range is limited to about 220 miles - less if you plan to play hooligan. The battery packs are outrageously expensive, and longevity is an open question. Starting at $98,950, the Roadster is obviously too pricey to change the world. And while Tesla is developing a sedan to compete with the BMW 5-series and the Mercedes-Benz E-class, the company isn't merely a minnow by automotive standards. It's an amoeba.
"Getting to this point has been a remarkable achievement," says auto analyst and consultant John Casesa. "But the viability of the company has a lot to do with economies of scale, brand development, and distribution networks. And assuming that their technology doesn't turn out to be completely proprietary, then they're going to come up against a lot of the traditional automobile companies. In addition to maintaining its intellectual and technological leadership, the company is going to face some large industrial challenges."
Electric cars have been coming off the drawing boards - and dying in the marketplace - for more than a century. In fact, most of the conference rooms in Tesla's offices in San Carlos are named after failed electric car companies. (Irony or hubris? You make the call.) In recent years, of course, the most notorious failure was General Motors' EV1, which was killed not, as filmmaker Chris Paine and conspiracy theorists maintain, by a greedy, shortsighted car company but by batteries - first lead-acid and then nickel-metal-hydride - that compromised its range. But the development of more potent lithium-ion batteries, commercially available since the early 1990s, offered new hope to electric car devotees.
Tesla Motors was founded in 2003 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. After striking out with venture capitalists, they found a sugar daddy in multi-millionaire Elon Musk, cofounder of PayPal and CEO of the space exploration firm SpaceX. (To date, he's provided $37 million of the $105 million raised by the company.) Their first major hire was chief technical officer JB Straubel, a young engineer who'd independently started developing an electric vehicle powered by thousands of lithium-ion laptop batteries.