Tesla Takes Big Step

It might not be the Ford Model T, but the Tesla Motors Model S might be the Model T of the electric car industry -- at least if Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has his way. Up till now, electric car manufacturers have dwelled on the ragged edge of the car industry. Their one-offs, conversions and sub-30-mph “city cars” have prompted derision and knowing smiles but not much in the way of sales volume. Musk, who bears the title “CEO, chairman and product architect,” has already begun to change that notion by producing the Tesla Roadster, which by all accounts is a proper motorcar. 

While not the most inventive in the product-naming department, Tesla Motors seems very inventive in the power train department. With its electric motor at full bore, the Roadster will travel from 0 mph to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, which is supercar territory. The car will also be much more energy-efficient than the typical gasoline-powered car. Range on a charge, the bane of electric vehicles, is a claimed 244 miles. Tesla says it has already delivered 300 Roadsters to customers and that it has 1,000 orders awaiting fulfillment from its U.K. factory.

But selling 1,300 cars is not what Musk has in mind. He envisions his company becoming much more mainstream, which is why it has introduced the Model S, its try for the big time. And “big time” might describe it well since the sedan is designed to carry seven passengers. Because of the floor-mounted power train, the sedan also offers substantial cargo room. With its hatchback configuration and fold-flat rear seats, the Model S can accommodate a 50-inch television, mountain bike and surfboard simultaneously, which is not only impressive but also proves that the car hails from California. As a bonus, the area under the front hood that is typically the engine compartment becomes a second trunk.

“Model S doesn’t compromise on performance, efficiency or utility -- it’s truly the only car you need,” Musk said. “Tesla is relentlessly driving down the cost of electric-vehicle technology, and this is just the first of many mainstream cars we’re developing.”

But will its electric drive system be practical, you ask. Tesla engineers have done all they can to address that. First, the Model S carries its battery charger onboard, and it can be recharged from any 120-, 240- or 480-volt outlet. Using that rare 480-volt outlet, the recharge takes only 45 minutes -- enough time for a nice lunch. And the engineers didn’t stop there. Remarkably, the battery pack can be replaced in less time than it takes to fill a gas tank, which allows for the possibility of battery-pack swap stations. And while that seems questionable, remember that 100 years ago, having outlets selling gasoline along every major highway and byway seemed questionable, too.

In its least expensive form, the Model S is expected to cost about 2 cents per mile to drive, which makes its cost-per-mile far lower than a conventional gasoline-powered car, even in these days of inexpensive fuel. Tesla Motors says that its “anticipated base price” for the Model S will be $57,400, but the company expects it to qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit. Want more range? The company will offer three battery pack choices with ranges of 160-, 230- or 300- miles per charge. You might also want to buy an extra battery pack and stash it halfway to your vacation home.

While the range issue is still a vexing one, the flip side is that the Model S, like the Tesla Roadster, is a zero-emission vehicle that can hold its head up in performance comparisons with conventional automobiles. We’re not saying Elon Musk is the Henry Ford of electric vehicles yet…but history might say that in the future.