In order to sell electric cars to the masses, they have to be more than just practical, reliable and affordable. They must be exciting. They must be sexy.
Look what people choose to drive: muscle cars, strong-shouldered SUVs, sleek luxury rides and machines they tune with their own hands. Cars are expressions of us, closely tied to self-esteem and personal image.
Few express themselves with an economical, efficient plug-in gadget.
Musk Kicks the Doors from the Hinges
Tesla could have tiptoed onto the scene and offered the public an entry-level electric car. If the consumers nibbled at the bait, the company could have taken the next step and built something more advanced.
Tesla did the opposite. In 2009, the Tesla Roadster thrust itself upon the world with a price tag of $109,000. Built on a Lotus Elise frame, the two-seater launches to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds. Its top speed is 125 miles per hour. Most importantly, it can travel around 245 miles on a single charge.
Unlike a gas engine, which has a sweet spot for horsepower and torque around the middle of the RPM range, an electric motor is at full power from the start and has only one gear. The Roadster Sport delivers 295 pound-feet of torque and 299 horsepower smoothly from zero to 14,000 RPMs.
Jason Cammisa of Automobile magazine, after his first moments in the Roadster, said, “It’s like driving a Lamborghini with a big V-12 revved over 6000 rpm at all times, waiting to pounce.”
Tesla had delivered not only an electric car. They had delivered a super-car that could run with the fastest machines on the planet.
Doubters were left agape.
How Musk Got Started
Elon Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1971. At 12 years old, he wrote his first video game (Blastar) and sold it for $500. He moved to Canada at the age of 17 and attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in economics and physics. He moved to Stanford University with the intention of earning a PhD in applied physics, but he dropped out after two days to pursue his business interests.
It was 1995 and the start of the internet revolution. Musk built Zip2, a company that, among other things, supplied internet city guides to The New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Compaq purchased the company, earning $22 million for Musk.
He went on to found X.com, an online banking service. The company merged with Confinity and eventually became PayPal, which was bought by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Musk’s share was $165 million.
Musk has always believed humans were meant to travel the stars. He is a member of the Mars Society and aims to build a greenhouse there. To achieve his dreams of space travel, he founded Space Exploration Technologies. In 2009, Space X became the first private company to launch a satellite into orbit.
Back on earth, Musk believes the giant old car companies lack the ambition and creativity to break away from gasoline. He and his partners will do it themselves. They are working to create the best batteries and motors for the purpose.
Beyond the Roadster
In 2012, Tesla introduced a slightly more practical vehicle: the Model S. The five-door luxury lift-back sold initially for $95,000. Rather than being a stripped-down speedster, it has all the comforts drivers expect from an expensive sedan. Nevertheless, it still has the zoom. 5.5 seconds from zero to 60 with a 265 mile range. It won 2013 World Green Car of the Year, Motor Trend Car of the Year and many other awards.
Also in 2012, Tesla discontinued the Roadster. It had built 2600 on the Lotus frames and wanted to design the new version upon a frame of their own design. The blueprint lays within the Model S. Rather than transform an existing gas car into an electric one; it is built from the beginning to house the batteries and motors.
The Model S and future Teslas are built in a “skateboard” fashion. The battery pack, which is a series of thousands of individual cells, is sandwiched between the layers of the car’s floor. The center of mass, therefore, is lower than an internal combustion car and more centrally balanced. When stripped down to its bones, a modern Tesla is simply a rectangular floor with a wheel, a motor and a suspension at each corner.
Next up for Tesla is the Model X: a full-size crossover utility vehicle based on the Model S frame. It will seat seven, have all-wheel drive and a slick set of vertically folding “falcon doors.” The big SUV-driving family will finally have an electric car, too. Tesla expects to release the Model X near the end of 2015.
After blowing minds for several years, Tesla finally plans to offer a car most can afford. The Model 3 should sell for not much more than $30,000. Including hefty federal and state tax refunds for electric vehicles, the final cost will be in the twenties. The Model 3 will be a scaled down version of the Model S. It will be a mid-sized car with a range of around 200 miles.
Most non-Tesla electric cars, while more affordable, struggle to travel more than 80 miles on a charge. At a 240-volt plug, most take at least 90 minutes to recharge. They are sufficient for getting around town, but not out of it.
Tesla is trying to assure owners they can have electric road trips by creating a network of Supercharger stations. Currently North America has 151, Europe has 122 and Asia has 59. The stations are located along major highways near shopping and dining. While grabbing a quick meal, Tesla owners can charge up for free in 20 to 30 minutes.
Cooperation and Inspiration
In an uncharacteristic move for a car company, Musk and Tesla openly offer to share their technology. If the world is filled with electric cars and some of them are Teslas, so be it. Tesla supplies batteries and motors to Daimler AG for the Smart Fortwo, Mercedes B Class and A Class. It provides the power for the Toyota RAV4 EV, also. Both companies have become long-term investors.
Audi prefers to do things itself and has been competing with the Roadster since the beginning. After releasing an electric R8 Concept in 2009 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, Audi has been working to develop an electric super-car. The project has been on and off again ever since. The battery range has been frustrating Audi engineers. Audi’s overall E-Tron project aspires to create electric versions of all its cars.
Whether joining with Musk and Tesla or working to out-do them, the world has woken up to the reality of electric cars. Every major automaker is working on its own series of projects. We will no longer be slaves to gasoline.
Don’t tell Elon Musk it cannot be done.
“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” – Elon Musk
- Tesla Motors: Supercharger
- AutomobileMag: 2009 Electric Tesla Roadster – The Electric Tesla Acid Test
- Biography.com: Biography of Elon Musk