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

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 Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

Trending on Xconomy