Test Driving the Tesla Roadster, and Glimpsing the Future of Electric Cars

9/26/08Follow @gthuang

The idea of electric vehicles is in the crisp Northwest air these days—and the vehicles are on the road. Earlier this week, we reported that Seattle-based V2Green, which makes software to manage the charging of plug-in electric vehicles, was acquired by Virginia-based GridPoint. V2Green is part of a pilot study being run by Seattle City Light to measure the behaviors of plug-in hybrid drivers, and help utility companies plan for the emergence of electric vehicles, as described by Alan Boyle at MSNBC. And with this week’s news that electric sportscar maker Tesla Motors, based in Silicon Valley, was bringing its prototype up to Seattle for a demonstration (as reported by Brier Dudley of the Seattle Times), well, I had to get in on the action.

So this morning I beat the rush hour over the I-90 bridge to Bellevue, WA, to an empty parking lot that used to serve a Kmart. There, I met Rachel Konrad and Zak Edson from Tesla, who set up a carefully controlled test drive for several journalists, including me and my “photographer” David Caffey, Xconomy’s VP and managing director of business development. (All photos courtesy of David.)

A “thunder gray” Tesla Roadster sat on the pavement waiting for us. It’s 100 percent electric, weighs 2700 pounds (900 of that is the battery), burns no oil, and is supposed to go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds and go 244 miles per full charge. Its top speed is 125 mph. Konrad, Tesla’s senior communications manager, said it’s the first “highway-capable,” purely electric vehicle in production. The car is already on order for a bunch of celebrities, including Paul Allen, the Google guys (who bought three), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Matt Damon, George Clooney, and Leonardo DiCaprio. So I’m in pretty good driving company. Besides, who can resist saving the environment for only $109,000?

Xconomy company carI got behind the wheel of the engineering prototype. Just one gear, no stick shift. Driving around the parking lot, the steering felt pretty good and tight to me (“Watch the bump,” said Edson). On the straightaway, I floored it and got up to 50 mph quickly before hitting the anti-lock brakes. The pickup was impressive. Not quite “back to the future” (88 mph), but enough to knock off my trusty New England Patriots cap.

Now, my driving experience is limited mostly to Saturns, Hondas, and the occasional Audi, so for more of a performance comparison, I had to defer to the expert. David, whose tastes run more towards Benzes, Porsches, and Ferraris, took a spin and noted a few things (if we must be critical): the handling actually felt a bit loose to him, the stability somewhat limited by the car’s tire width or light weight, and it was eerily quiet during acceleration—no satisfying roar of an internal combustion engine.

For Tesla, that’s the whole point, of course—to own the eco-friendly, electric-sportscar niche. The prototype is “pretty close to the finished product,” which will be available to local owners in June, said Konrad. “We’ve been doing a lot of intensive high-mileage validation…to see what happens when you drive for a long time…and when does the battery power start eroding.”

Tesla Roadster hoodTesla is privately financed and is currently in the middle of a Series E funding round, says Konrad. (Its investors include Elon Musk, VantagePoint Venture Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Jeff Skoll, Nick Pritzker, and the Google guys.) It is looking to open a showroom and service facility in the Seattle area by June. Meanwhile, the Tesla team is doing private demonstrations at Microsoft today, where there have been many early orders. Interestingly, it sounds like Bill Gates isn’t one of them. His recent backing of San Diego-based Sapphire Energy would suggest he’s betting on biofuels rather than electric vehicles.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • Frank Magazino

    Wouldn’t u rather be the henry ford type and make cars for the masses u know the ones that can afford them like for 30,000 instead of the 60,000 fancy one ur comming out with. you could go down in the history books but instead i guess ull go down in the New Yorker magazine what a waste

  • http://zapworld.com/electric-vehicles/electric-cars/zap-alias Alias

    @ Frank – I think that a car like the Alias would interest you then, because that is the one ZAP will be coming out with next year: it will cost about 30k or so, and have a range and speed of a hundred miles.

  • GreenCar Auto Show

    Either way it’s not a good choice. Tesla is for the high-end buyer. They are basically the first ‘aston martin’ company within the Electric Vehicle market. They’ll always be the exotic sports car for EV’s. 100,000 is too much for most people. On the other hand you have ZAP. 2 words for ZAP… ‘ZAP SUCKS’. I can’t fit my family into one of these, and for the price I should have much more space.

    The solution is a US based company called Goss132 which is somewhere in Florida.
    Goss132 has an EV that is the size of a traditional 4 door, and it’s around $22,000 and best of all it’s 100% EV, and it’s a plugin EV. Couldn’t tell it’s an EV by looking at it. I’ve heard nothing but good things, and from their FAQ page I already know they’ll have a good long future. Says you can have the batteries replaced by any shop you want, and can use any batteries that you want. So if battery technology improves you don’t have to get a whole new car; you can simply swap out your old ones for new ones. One more point according to the site one of their prime goals is keeping the COST down! What a great deal! Goss132 is A W E S O M E !!!!

  • Tom Saxton

    As Tesla Motor’s chairman, Elon Musk, says, Tesla Motors is not trying to solve a shortage of sports cars. They are NOT a sports car company, they are an electric vehicle company. It just happens that starting their product line with a high-end, low-production sports car is the best way to develop their technology and attract attention.

    With each new product, they plan to increase the production rate by a factor of ten and cut the price in half.

    In late 2010 they expect to start producing Model S, a $60,000 four-door, five-passenger sports sedan. By 2012, they plan to have a $30,000 (or so) family sedan.

    Lots of companies talk about producing EVs. Only one has passed crashed testing and started production. That’s Tesla Motors.