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The Tesla Roadster taken for a spin; and its "gut-wrenching" VC roadshow

Matt Nauman of the Mercury News is the first newspaper reporter to test the sexy Tesla Roadster, the Silicon Valley all-electric vehicle .

He took the $100,000-priced Tesla for a spin at the Pebble Beach Concourse Tour yesterday, a comfy but ambling drive through the Montery Peninsula down to Big Sur -- all just south of Silicon Valley.

Here is his review -- and he likes it -- even if he didn't get to put the pedal to the metal. It felt like sailboat.

A lot of stories about Tesla have come from technology beat reporters, and not auto reporters like Matt, who are accustomed to giving grueling product reviews. Even Matt didn't get to take it for a real spin. Some have said this is equivalent to a computer company introducing a new product and not inviting technology reporters. So, aided with some questions supplied us by experts, we decided to ask a couple more tough auto-centric/performance questions of the Tesla spokesman Mike Harrigan. He answered them pretty well.

SiliconBeat: You report an exceptional four-second 0-60 mph performance time. Fine, but this a battery car. How does the car perform during the second or third time you try 0-60?

Harrigan: When it is fully charged, it will keep doing it in four seconds. When the battery is down a little bit, it becomes a problem, but only when it is half way down. Something like the 40th or 50th time -- and that may not be a big enough number.

SiliconBeat: How do cold or extreme climates affect battery performance?

Harrigan: In extreme cold, as in below zero, the battery needs to heat before you use it. It has a built-in system that let's you do that. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes. In extreme hot weather, we have a way to chill it. There's a loop that cools the battery while you're driving it -- for optimum battery life.

SiliconBeat: What are the car experts saying about the Tesla?

Harrigan: We're starting to get credibility with people. They're looking under the hood, and they're saying it's real. [At Tesla], we have people with backgrounds in the auto industry working alongside Silicon Valley engineers. We took the car down to Santa Monica. There was an event, arranged with the Petersen Museum, which has one of the biggest car collections in the world. The executive director, Dick Messer, came by and said he wants to buy on.

SIliconBeat: How do popular accessories (air conditioning, electric seats/windows/navigation systems, etc.) affect battery performance?

Harrigan: Our mileage statistics include all of those...If you leave the lights on by accident, the battery would run down in three months. There's manual adjustment for seats. There's cruise-control, power breaks and optional navigation system. It can't run without air-conditioning, otherwise it will get too hot.

SiliconBeat: How long will a battery pack last? How does its performance curve decrease over its useful life? What is the battery pack's replacement cost?

Harrigan: The expected battery life is 5 years or 100,000 miles. We consider the battery's end of life is when it reaches 80 percent of original capacity when recharged. The batteries are quite expensive. Today they cost $20,000. Over the next four or five years, we expect prices to come down substantially -- to the $12,000 range. They're coming down 8 percent a year recently. The cells we use in the battery packet are used in lots of different things, like laptops and power tools.

SiliconBeat: What has changed in battery technology that would make them viable in a volume market today?

Harrigan: Until lithium ion came to market, the power-to-weight ratio of older batteries was not high enough. Our pack weighs 900 pounds. With old nickel metal hydride batteries, you'd be talking about 3,000 pounds of batteries. Lithium ion batteries get 250 miles, and that exceeds their daily requirements. Previous electric vehicles sometimes went as few as 40 miles.

SiliconBeat: Electric vehicles are often touted for their environmental friendliness. However, studies often show high amounts of energy used to create many of the driveline (and battery) components, and the difficulty in disposal and recycling...

Harrigan: In the energy used, there's certainly a net win. Sure, you can ask, "Are these batteries polluting when you throw it away?" They are made of lithium ion, and you can throw them away in a land-fill. But there's lot's of recovery material, too. They're built to be recycled. That's been built into the cost of car. They'll be recycled. You can ask: "Isn't recharging batteries taking electricity generated from dirty coal power plants?" They're more efficient than gasoline, where only 18 percent of the thermal energy is actually converted to power, with the rest thrown into atmosphere in the form of heat. The worst coal plants have a 45 percent conversion rate.

SiliconBeat: Any added danger due to the materials in the battery packs?

Harrigan: With a battery pack with 50 kilowatt hours of energy into it, there's a lot you want to do to ensure a safe situation. The battery pack sits inside of metal closure that's sealed. They have a computer that does nothing other than monitors safety conditions. If you're in car, and something happens -- you get submerged in water, or there's an impact -- the battery gets disconnected. It's like a big circuit-breaker, that would shut off in an earthquake or flood. The computer monitors flooding, fire, smoke, crashes, upside-down.....

SiliconBeat: How does the Tesla perform in government crash tests (front-, side- and offset impact)?

Harrigan: We're in the process of performing them right now. Six of them will be crashed, two of them durability tested. We've only done one of them so far. It passed fine.

SiliconBeat: Does the Tesla have front and side air bags?

Harrigan: Yes. The company just had $50 million of venture capital poured into it, a lot of it to ensure we have these systems and that the car could pass safety inspections.

SiliconBeat: In addition to driveline expertise, does your company have mechanical engineering and mass production expertise?

Harrigan: The company has 60 to 70 engineers. (It has 80 total employees in San Carlos, 20 in the UK.) Of our engineering organization, probably half of them are mechanical engineers. And of those, half of them directly out of the auto indsutry.

SiliconBeat: How did venture capitalists treat you when you were looking for cash?

Harrigan: It was a pretty gut-wrenching round. There were a lot of firms we talked with, a lot of different terms. One prominent firm wanted to do deal, but wouldn't give us the valuation we wanted. We weren't benefiting from all this good publicity lately. With the product being launched, and the positive response we've gotten, it would be a lot easier for us to raise venture capital right now.

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the Los Angeles Times
Pulitzer prize winning auto writer.reviewer, Dan neil did a eview several weeks ago. Neil is one of the best writers in the country today.

Jim Forbes

jim forbes on August 18, 2006 3:28 PM
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Fair enough, I will have to look for the link. I was taking Matt Nauman's word on this, though I know he was referring specifically to being first newspaper guy to "test" the car, which is distinct from simply "reviewing" it. Also, I'd been waiting myself several weeks for Matt's test drive (I knew it was coming) before publishing this interview, so yes, there may have been a few more reviews since then.

Matt Marshall on August 19, 2006 10:09 AM
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Dan Neil is one of two reviewers/writers at the LA Times. The other is a woman who covers motorcyles.
Neil is phenomenal and a real joy to read. His Pulitzer was a first for an auto writer/reviewer and was well deserved.
jim Forbes

Jim Forbes on August 19, 2006 12:24 PM
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Note, the SNS newsletter covered this car and their CEO two months ago, well before the mainstream press took a look at it!

Looks like another scoop by Mark Anderson! It was a good article by Matt, but personally I like that I knew about this car long before this article came out. Great job Mark.

Mike Rogero
Beijing, China

Mike Rogero on August 20, 2006 9:46 PM
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Mike, Matt:

Nice interview. Excellent, relevant quesitons. Well done indeed.


rsd on August 21, 2006 8:20 AM
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Its great that you are covering inventions that are inspired by the great Nikola Tesla.

I wanted to draw readers attention to a company that is carrying out research into Tesla Technology and its applications.

Alternative technology pioneers Life Technology˙ have reverse engineered Nikola Tesla's famous Teslascope and have produced a minature version known as The Hyperdimensional Oscillator˙

The Hyperdimensional Oscillator˙ is a transducer, capable of converting the high frequency of cosmic rays to an energy field which can interface with the human mind.

teslafan on August 23, 2006 9:58 AM
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In the "let's not get too careless with our facts" department -- Harrigan says: "'Isn't recharging batteries taking electricity generated from dirty coal power plants?' They're more efficient than gasoline, where only 18 percent of the thermal energy is actually converted to power, with the rest thrown into atmosphere in the form of heat. The worst coal plants have a 45 percent conversion rate."

If Harrigan can get coal-fired electric plants to 45% efficiency, he'll make many times the fortune promised by his car venture. According to DOE (http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/page/co2_report/co2report.html) "In a typical power plant, about one-third of the energy contained in the fuel is converted into electricity, while the remainder is emitted as waste heat....The average thermal efficiency of coal-fired plants went from 33.15 percent to 33.54 percent in 1999. "

Regarding automobiles, a Feb. 2005 DOE release (http://www.energy.gov/news/1581.htm) says "The projects selected support the Bush Administration's goal of improving efficiency of internal combustion engines from 30 percent (2004 baseline) to 45 percent by 2012 for passenger vehicles and from 40 percent (2002 baseline) to 55 percent by 2013 for commercial vehicles, while meeting cost, durability, and emissions constraints." (In general, diesels are much more thermally efficient than gasoline-powered engines.)

It isn't quite so obvious that there's a huge thermal efficiency advantage for electric vehicles. (But let the debate rage about how inclusive the numbers are, when you consider the fuel required to tanker the gasoline to the local station, or the transmission loss associated with getting electricity from the power plant to the electrical outlet in your garage, as well as all sorts of other nuances.)

David Frankel on August 23, 2006 1:43 PM
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