Tesla’s Model S: Beginning of the End for the Big Three?

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Last week, electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors made headlines with the unveiling of its long-anticipated Model S sedan. The elegantly-styled four-door hatchback has some extremely impressive statistics. As a matter of fact, the stats are so good that it makes me wonder if this could be the beginning of the end for the Big Three. While Ford, GM ,and Chrysler are mired in government bailouts and don’t appear to be offering much in the way of real change, it looks like Tesla is about to prove that it can not only build a niche sports car for an elite few, but can build one that is much more mainstream.

The annoucement of the new Tesla sports sedan had pundits from across the interweb gushing abut its sleek styling, range, charging times, and cargo capacity. The car sports smooth, aerodynamic curves, with a look reminiscent of high-end BMWs or Mercedes.


According to the company’s technical specifications, the Model S boasts the following:
- 300 mile range: This may be the most impressive and important statistic, but it comes with a few caveats. The lowest-cost Model S will only include a 160-mile battery pack, with 230- and 300-mile packs available at higher cost. However, the company is touting the ability to swap battery packs (“5-minute battery swap”), and may be planning on leasing the packs to customers for longer trips, although details are sketchy. Even a 160 or 230 mile range would make the Model S perfect for all but the longest of daily trips, especially since most drivers will start each day with a fully-charged vehicle, and most trips are well below this range.
- 45 minute charging time: According to the press release: “The Model S, which carries its charger onboard, can be recharged from any 120V, 240V or 480V outlet, with the latter taking only 45 minutes. By recharging their car while they stop for a meal, drivers can go from LA to New York in approximately the same time as a gasoline car.” This is not exactly true, at least not in 2009. To achieve the 45-minute charging time, you need a 480V charging station, none of which are publicly available. At the slightly-more-accessible 240V, the charging speed is a more leisurely 4 hours. It seems that Tesla is counting on leasing the swappable battery packs as an interim solution, until public charging stations are as common as gas or diesel.
- Seats 7(!): Once again, not really. It’s more like a “5+2 really small ones”. There is space for 2 rear-facing child seats in the rear hatch. While this sounds a little odd, by todays standards, it reminds me of the jump seats in my parents station wagon, and I’m sure the kiddies will love it.
- 0 to 60 in “under 6 seconds”: While the Model S will probably not be winning any drag races, one still has to remember that electric motors produce all their torque right away, and the power band is continuous. This should make for quite a nice driving experience.
- Storage Space: Locating the drivetrain and battery pack in the floor frees up cargo space where a typical engine would be, and the Model S combines that with a hatchback design and 60/40 split fold down seats. I could not find specific measurements, but the company claims that the Model S can carry a “mountain bike, 50-inch flat-screen TV, full drum set or futon frame”, and has cargo space comparable to an SUV.

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The $49,000 (after a $7,500 government rebate) price tag may seem pretty high, but Tesla is highlighting the fact that greatly-reduced fuel costs and reduced maintenance costs bring the Model S more in line with vehicles in the $35,000 range.

Leading the Pack

There was another announcement this week that startup Detroit Electric (an ironic choice of names-the company is based in the U.K.) will be partnering with Malaysia-based Proton to deliver a much more basic all-electric car to the US by the end of 1999 and priced under $33,000. Detroit Electric has an aggressive sales projection of 270,000 cars by 2012, and, if it can meet that goal it would certainly be well ahead of the Tesla’s 2011 delivery date and 20,000 unit per year sales target. It would also be definitive proof that the mass-produced, highway-capable electric car is an accepted, mainstream product.

I think that the announcement by Detroit Electric will only help Tesla, and also helps solidify Tesla’s position as an industry leader. Tesla’s strategy has always been twofold: focus first on building cars for wealthy early-adopters, and build cars that capture the imagination of the public through styling and performance. The former helps pay for technology development, while the later builds Tesla’s brand image and creates a new perception of what an electric car can be. Both pave the way for Tesla, and other manufacturers, to be able to sell progressively lower-priced vehicles to a growing cadre of buyers.

Taking into account the bad news about the US auto industry, along with Tesla’s and Detroit Electric’s announcements, we may look back upon this as the week that the internal combustion engine finally “jumped the shark.

What do you think? Is this week’s news sounding the death knell of the internal combustion engine and the Big Three?

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Steve Puma is a technologist, sustainability consultant and strategist. He currently writes for bothTriplePundit and his personal blog,ThePumaBlog.com, about the intersection of sustainability, technology, innovation, and the future. Steve recently received his MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco, and holds a B.A. in Computer Science from Rutgers University.
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Steve Puma is a sustainable business consultant and writer.Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.