Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tesla in the NY Times

Okay... this one isn't about New Mexico, but David Pogue, technology writer for the New York Times has a nice chat with the creative force behind the Tesla motorcar -- many of which will be built just west of Albuquerque...

Last week in this newsletter, I offered a transcript of an interview with Bob Lutz, the man behind Chevy's electric car, the Volt.

Several of you sent me outraged messages like this one: "How could you profile the Chevy Volt and ignore the Tesla electric roadster? You should stick to reviewing gadgets!"

Continue reading...


Ahem. Had these readers actually watched my "CBS News Sunday Morning" segment online (I posted the link), they'd realize that I actually gave the Tesla star billing. (Here's the link again.)

Nonetheless, here, to even the score, is a transcript excerpt from my Tesla interview, which I conducted with then-chief executive Martin Eberhard at Tesla's headquarters in Silicon Valley. (He's no longer the chief executive, having taken the post of president of technology. He claims he wasn't spending enough time on the engineering stuff he loves.)

In any case, enjoy this transcript, which is much more complete than what we could air on TV. (I'm confident that it will generate outraged reader mail that says, "How could you ignore the Chevy Volt? Do some reporting, you idiot!")

David Pogue: So give me the gist of the Tesla Roadster. Zero to 60 in...?

Martin Eberhard: This is zero to 60 in under four seconds.

DP: And the range of the battery is?

ME: It's over 200 miles. [DP note: This week, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded its testing of the Tesla. Its official measurement: 245 miles per charge.]

DP: And time to recharge the battery?

ME: From empty to full, about three and a half hours.

DP: O.K. And price of the car?

ME: This is a $98,000 base model.

DP: You say that as though, it's, you know, $3 for a gallon of gas. It's--

ME: Well, this is a high-end sports car. At this price, it compares comparably favorably with sports cars that have this kind of performance. It handles like a sports car, and it's quite fast. And I think this is the only sports car anywhere near this price with a carbon-fiber body.

DP: I notice there's no exhaust pipe.

ME: Oh, no. The maintenance for an electric car is much, much less than a gasoline car. There is no smog check. There's no oil changes. There's no oxygen centers and timing belts and filters... all the usual stuff that you have to get maintained regularly on the gasoline car, don't exist for this car.

DP: What's the difference in driving a Tesla compared with a gas car?

ME: You know how it is with an automatic transmission: You step on the gas, and the engine revs up, and you make lots of noise, and then the car gets hot. With this, it's instant response. You step on the gas and the car instantly goes. So it's a much more immediate, fun and sporty feeling than you get with any gasoline car.

DP: What happens if I've paid $100,00 for my car and it breaks down?

ME: Well, you come to us for service.

DP: I fly my car to California?

ME: Well, no, we're testing stores across the country. We'll start off initially here in California and then open up in the Midwest and on the East coast. Through the course of this year and next year, we'll probably have six or seven stores across the country open.

DP: O.K., because, I mean, I know it's not a car for the masses. But I'm thinking that if I get five buddies to go in with me, I might be able to afford one.

ME: Sure.

DP: Tell me about the batteries.

ME: Well, the world of car batteries hasn't moved very quickly. I mean, lead-acid batteries in cars today aren't that different from lead-acid batteries in cars a hundred years ago. There was some experimentation with nickel metal hydride batteries in the early part of this century. But they had drawbacks as well, and they are pretty much not used.

This was my realization that started Tesla Motors: that trying to use the same old batteries that have been used in electric cars over and over again was the wrong approach.

You should look where the battery technology has really advanced, where the pressure has been on to make the batteries last longer and carry more charge, year after year—and that's cellphones and laptops and camcorders. Your [CBS News] camera is running lithium-ion batteries, I'm sure.

[Indicating a huge black box] This is what the battery box looks like if you pulled it out of car. It's about the size of an engine and a gas tank, roughly. And what's exciting here is a system built around standard lithium-ion batteries. If you broke open the battery pack on your laptop computer, you'd find a set of these inside.

DP: How many?

ME: Approximately seven thousand. 6,831 of these.

DP: And the handy thing, I understand, is if your car goes dead, you can stop in at a drugstore and pick up a couple of double A's.

ME: You actually can't get these in a drugstore.

DP: Darn.

ME: Sorry. But the handy thing is that it's a highly redundant system. If one of these fails, the battery pack still works fine. You just lost one out of 6,831. It's a very tiny bit of your energy you've lost.

DP: And where are these batteries manufactured?

ME: Most lithium-ion batteries are manufactured, are made in Asia. There are some made in Europe. There's a teeny, tiny amount made here in the United States, but insignificant.

DP: But if these catch on, aren't we just substituting our dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East for dependence on foreign batteries from Asia?

ME: Maybe that's right, but there is a big difference. Oil comes from the Middle East because that's where it is in the ground. There's nothing inherent in the design of these that says these have to be made in Asia. If we as a nation decided to make energy storage a priority, we could build these batteries here in the United States.

ME: What happens when these batteries reach the end of the life?

ME: These batteries are designed to last 100,000 miles or more. Nearly the life of the car. They can be replaced at the end, and the old batteries are recyclable. We will have arranged recycling long before anybody's battery expires.

DP: Do you have any idea what the cost will be to replace them?

ME: It will be expensive. But then again, if it lasts, you know, 100,000 miles, that's what cars last anyways.

DP: How do you recharge the car? A standard outlet?

ME: You could if you want to, yes, but it's slower. We put a box in your garage when you buy the car, which charges more quickly.

DP: Oh, that comes with the $100,000?

ME: Yeah.

DP: That's handy. Now, you have bigger plans than this one model . . .

ME: Yeah. This is our first car. We come in at the top of the market, changing the way people think about electric cars fundamentally. Electric cars don't have to be goofy little golf carts; they can be something that we all want to own. Maybe we can't all afford one of these things, but we realize that electric cars can be hot cars. O.K.

It allows Tesla Motors to develop the brand, to develop the relationships we need with suppliers, to build and buy things at prices that allow us to make more affordable cars.

With that progress, then we consider the next car. We look for a car that's in the $50,000 range that can seat five adults as our next model. Still kind of expensive, but a step down, for sure, from the $100,000 roadster.

If we pull that off, then the next car should be higher-volume still and lower priced.

It's how you get into the market. If you try to come in from Day 1 and build a car that everyone can afford, it's a recipe for disaster—as all of the electric car companies in the last 30 or 40 years have proven.

DP: What degree of confidence do you have that this master plan is going to work?

ME: Well, I'm highly confident that we'll begin shipping Roadsters this year. [DP note: Last week, Tesla announced that the first Roadsters have been delayed until the first quarter of 2008.]

And I'm very confident that we will be successful selling it, because we've had a huge demand. We've pre-sold 570 cars already.

DP: What were the hard parts?

ME: The battery system was probably the hardest bit. How do you take nearly 7,000 cells and make a battery pack that will last the life of the car, will be safe, that'll be reasonably affordable, but can be mass produced? That required a lot of invention. It's where maybe half our patents are filed.

There are no motors on the market that have the kind of performance we need, either. We had to invent the motor, build the motor, and build a factory to make them.

And carbon fiber is notoriously difficult to build a body out of, because it's hard to get a good, smooth, paintable surface. At the same time, companies like Airbus were absorbing all of the world's capacity of carbon fiber. We had a problem just getting the stuff to build the cars.

You put all of this together, and what makes Tesla Motors difficult isn't any one of these individual things. It's that we have so many things we have to do at once. We're juggling a lot of balls—only they really aren't balls, they're knives and chainsaws and flaming things. And you drop any one them, you got a problem. You catch them wrong, it hurts. (LAUGHTER)

DP: I hear this question a lot: aren't you just shifting the pollution from the individual gas tail pipes to the coal-burning power plants?

ME: Well, of course, not all of electricity is made with coal. It's somewhere around half, and the rest of it is natural gas, nuclear, wind, solar.

But if you do the math, you'll find that an electric car, even if you use coal to make the electricity, produces less pollution per mile than the best gasoline-powered car.

And there's another aspect to this. The oil that we burn in our cars, a large chunk of it comes from the Middle East. And a lot of it comes from places that don't like us so well, either, places that are simply not good for national security, right?

Whereas, even if we're burning coal, where does that coal come from? America. It's our own energy. So from that perspective, even if it's a break-even on pollution, we're better off burning coal than burning oil.

DP: So, the name, Tesla Motors. Didn't Nicola Tesla turn out to be kind of a loony?

ME: He was a bit eccentric, yes. But on the other hand, he invented alternating current, as we use in the electric outlets around the world now. That was his idea.

Also, what we were taught in school is that Marconi invented the radio. But Marconi's patent was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of Tesla, because Tesla beat him to it. So he invented radio, too.

He also invented a remote-control boat in the 1800s, long before transistors.

DP: And, I understand, a carbon-fiber electric car?

ME: Yeah. Right. (LAUGHTER)

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