It’s tough to say what is most surprising about the Tesla Model S all-electric sedan – the radical design changes that ensue when an auto maker replaces the gas engine with state-of-the-art energy efficiency, or the fact that the vehicle isn’t confined to some Silicon Valley, Tom Swift future fantasy at all. A small but dedicated group of Tesla owners is quickly growing here in New Orleans, and Tesla Motors is in the process of creating a new infrastructure to support them across the oil-and-gas-loving Gulf Coast.
“The car really feels like the future,” said Matt Wisdom, the CEO of New Orleans-based technology company TurboSquid and one of the first Tesla owners in the area. “It’s not that they’ve built a relatively expensive car. It’s that they’ve figured out how it’s going to be. I have no question things are going to migrate this way.”
‘A better world’
Tesla’s all-electric vehicles are not hybrids; unlike many manufacturers, Tesla uses no gas tank at all, but is powered solely by a large rechargeable battery try underneath the floorboard with “thousands of slightly-bigger-than-AA batteries,” and a watermelon-sized inverter powering the rear wheels, Wisdom explained.
Tesla owners estimate they spend about $35 in electricity to drive 1,000 miles, compared to the $150 or $200 a gas car would consume in the same distance. But the absence of a large gasoline engine or gas tank affects every aspect of the vehicle.
“A lot of what they did is just throw away what you’re used to,” Wisdom said.
Perhaps the most surprising visual illustration of this point is what’s under the hood: nothing. That’s where the trunk goes, or as the company calls it, the “frunk,” the front trunk. Meanwhile, the back seat can comfortably seat three, and the hatchback style of the rear has room for two more rear-facing jumper seats – creating room for as many as five people and two children, with “frunk” space for the luggage.
For the driver, the acceleration on the Tesla is another surprising departure from a gas-powered vehicle. With no gears to shift, acceleration seems almost instantaneous. The car rushes from 0 to 60 mph in little over four seconds, a rate associated with many models of Porsche or even Ferrari and Lamborghini – and the only sound from the car, even on the interstate, is that of the wind outside.
“Because of the instant power, you can beat anybody off the line,” Wisdom said. “It’s so quick that it’s faster than anything else.”
The first question most people have about the Tesla is its range. A fully charged car has a range of 265 miles, but to extend the battery life, it usually only charges to roughly 90 percent. That 200 or miles or so is more than enough for anyone’s daily commute, bringing the owner back home to plug the car in for the next day, Wisdom said.
“Every day you’ve got a full tank,” Wisdom said. “It takes about five seconds to plug it in, so you quit worrying about whether or not you can make it somewhere during the day.”
Together, Wisdom said, the Tesla combines the performance of a sports car, the energy efficiency of a tiny hybrid, and the room of an SUV.
“The key was just saying, ‘we’re going to make it work for just all battery.’ That’s the innovation,” Wisdom said. “All of a sudden the cabin has all the room, you can fit all the people — you don’t have the worst of both worlds. You have a much better world.”
Other design changes
Meanwhile, design changes extend to the smallest details. The door handles are recessed into the door for aerodynamics, but automatically extend outward when the keyholder approaches.
The dashboard replaces standard audio and temperature controls with a single, tall touchscreen, similar in appearance to an oversized iPad, complete with both 3G and wireless Internet. From the panel, the driver can access engine and steering settings, real-time Google maps, satellite radio, temperature control, and even the seat positions. (It was programmed, however, to block video or games as a safety precaution, Wisdom says – and probably a mandatory precaution, he muses.)
“Old cars are like a remote control for your TV with a million buttons,” Wisdom said. “This is like the simplified Apple TV remote. You don’t have to have buttons everywhere.”
The instrument panel behind the steering wheel is also different. In addition to measuring speed, it also measures energy flow from the battery – and to it. The Tesla uses a technology called regenerative braking, which recaptures the heat energy as the car decelerates, so the dashboard shows the driver that the battery is recharging every time the vehicle slows.
In a car with an automatic transmission, when you put the car into a reverse and take your foot off the brake, the car will begin to move backward. But in the Tesla, the wheels only move when electricity is applied, so early owners of the car were surprised to start the car, put it in reverse, take their foot off the break, and have it sit motionless. In response, Tesla upgraded the software with a new feature called “Creep” – select the option, and the car will mimic a traditional reverse.
The Model S starts at $60,000 and can easily cost twice as much depending on the performance options the buyer chooses, such as a higher-capacity battery for more range or a faster inverter for more speed. Tesla, however, has much a vision that extends well beyond the luxury car market.
First the Roadster, then the Model S and Model X, each had a specific point to prove. The Roadster was designed to show off the performance an all-electric car is capable of, while the Model S and Model X are intended to demonstrate how it can be a practical family car – all while paying off the research and design costs with their high price points.
Next, Tesla is developing plans to create a car that costs the consumer half of what the Model S does, in the range of $30,000 to $35,000, in part by reducing the cost to produce the expensive batteries that power them. Given the passion that follows the cars among its devotees, current owners fully expect that effort to be successful as well.
Wisdom recalls driving the car to work his first day owning it, parking in the garage, but staying in the driver’s seat to take a conference call. While he was talking, a stranger walked up with his iPhone taking video of the car, even climbing in the front seat with Wisdom – he wanted to show his wife the car, he explained when Wisdom hung up.
“If this is the reaction the car is getting, they have done something beyond belief,” Wisdom said.
When someone wants to test drive Wisdom’s car, they’ll often offer him their own car as a temporary trade – meaning that Wisdom has driven some of the best cars in the world, a Porsche and an Astin Martin.
“All I could think of is, I want my Tesla back,” Wisdom said. “Those were amazing cars, but it really feels like driving a horse and buggy.”