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Friday, March 4, 2011

Renaissance Man: Electric Vehicles and Elon Musk


The other day, I had a thought about the Doomsday Clock. Initially created in 1947 to address our world's fate under the ever ominous threat of nuclear destruction with every minute the arm moves closer to midnight, the clock has since been refashioned to reflect critical climate changes and also address the quickly accelerating developments in science, nanotechnology, and the sort that may, however harmless it may seem now, cause irrevocable damage in the future.

Well then, I thought to myself, I suppose it's be perfectly logical to believe that midnight strikes when we can no longer access our main source of energy-- fossil fuel.

But it seems like the Atomic Scientists of the University of Chicago and I aren't the only ones giving the Doomsday Clock a thought. According to Wednesday's Autocar, Gayu Eusegi, the head of global product development for Mitsubishi, admitted that even though the Lancer Evolution is their most successful franchise, it may now be time to close the curtains. Mitsubishi's reactionary denials aside, I've been told to take the truth with a grain of salt and that false rumors can be under-lied with truths of a different form.

Now could it be that a Mitsubishi Evo is exactly what the Atomic Scientists had in mind when they were thinking of accelerating developments in science, nanotechnology and the sort that drives our world to destruction?

In its place, Mitsubishi is venturing into a road of mixed results. Toyota predicted than within a decade, 1 out of 7 cars sold will be a hybrid vehicle. Significant sure, but let's admit it's not exactly 6 out of 7. Perhaps Eusegi didn't receive the memo; he is determined to lead the company's focus to a line of products concentrating in electric vehicle technology, intent to rise as market leaders of said niche.

I'm a car guy and I'd like to think that I know a lot, but really I probably know as much about product development as penguins understand the mechanics of flight. So then, I'm sure Eusegi must be onto something big here and that brings me to my point in all of this.

EVs. In the grand scheme of things-- the economy, political trends, lifestyle changes, technology, natural resources, environment, and my quality of life-- how important is it for companies to strategically engage all this?

I turn to Elon Musk. Back in October, Elon Musk and his Tesla S sedan landed the cover of WIRED magazine. After one satisfying session on the throne, I couldn't help but appreciate the drive behind his vision. 

Allow me to spoon feed my condensed soup version of WIRED magazine's great article. Before Musk was even a blip in the automotive radar, he was also the co-founder of PayPal, and used $6.3M of the money he had earned from his e-commerce company to inject an initial investment to get Tesla up and running.

Tesla's game plan is fundamentally straightforward. First, the company will create a high performance sports car to prove that an EV can be exciting and market prepared. The second vehicle will be a luxury sedan to compete against German offerings (Audi, Bimmer, Benz). The third vehicle will, the reputation of the former two models allowing, be an effective low cost EV ready for the hundreds of thousands of future middle-class electric car enthusiasts.

If we think about it, in the EV market that now suffers from growing pains of infancy, Elon Musk possesses incredible foresight. I, on the other hand, have trouble deciding what I'll have for lunch tomorrow.

And yet, it's so much more than that. Tesla has created a lot of proprietary tech including high density battery arrays, heaters and coolants for the electricals, and a lightweight electric motor no more than 120 pounds. When the Tesla Roadster was due for production in September of 2007, it cost the company more money to make than the price it was sold. Just as quickly, the industry began to take notice of the little company and the next thing you know, cars like the Chevy Volt were making their way to rotating pedestals as well. 

Short on capital and personnel, Musk had to constantly juggle his limited resources to keep the ship afloat. Moreover, talk about bad timing; with the economic fallout of 2008, it could have been the straw that broke the camel's back. Tesla was bleeding. Innovations in parts manufacturing allowed the car to be less costly and Musk hoped it'll relieve the strain but by year end, Tesla had no more than $500,000 in the bank.

Elon was down to the last couple of million of his personal fortunes as well but threw it all into Tesla anyway. His younger brother, Kimbal, also came to his aid with some more capital that is so desperately needed. But what Elon really needed was for the stars to align. The Roadster had to be profitable, the talks on the Smart ForTwo EV had to close, revenue had to hold long enough for a government loan. 

The stars more than aligned. Not only did all those things come true, but last year Elon Musk met with Akio Toyoda to discuss business opportunities leading to his acquisition of Toyota's NUMMI plant, a 5.5 million square feet automotive facility. In Elon's words, "We could have 250,000 cars coming out of here in 5 years."

A visionary, a pioneer, an idealist with the biggest balls of steel I've ever seen, last week I decided to see Tesla for myself. During precious moments of relief during lunch, I googled for a Tesla dealership in New York. West 511 25th Street, I headed straight for the address after work.

I was honestly a bit unsure of myself. I'm not exactly walking into a Honda dealer. Those are a dime a dozen and the service is no different from what I'd receive from GAP. Tesla is different. You don't take Tesla into "consideration" when you're car shopping. You don't cross shop Tesla with other $100k bracket sports cars. No, a customer of Tesla walks in with his heart set and there can be no substitute.

So I figured maybe I'll just walk by with a passing glance to scope the place out for now and who knows, I might even have to call for an appointment reservation first.

Perhaps that won't be necessary.

This wasn't what I expected at all. Tesla was no easier to find than a hole in the wall. Next to a body shop under an underpass, along a pockmarked street, stood a condominium that's no different from most dental offices in Flushing or Elmhurst. Inside this complex, lies one of only a dozen Tesla stores in the United States and of only three in the Northeast.

It all made sense though. Tesla doesn't operate around drawing crowds that walk by its window. Kristie, the receptionist at Tesla, asked where I was from. Apparently a curious few from around the world have paid visits.

Here are the pictures I've taken during my visit:
The second door into Tesla
Because Tesla is all-electric, Kristie explained, there
wasn't a need to create a separate servicing facility
as exhaust ventilation will never be an issue.
Unfortunately, all cars available belonged to customers,
otherwise I would have had a chance to take a seat inside.
The Power Electronics Module (PEM) regulates
power delivery from the battery
Motor and transaxle weighs 115 pounds,
delivers 0-60 in 3.7 seconds, red lines at 14000
Battery pack contains 6,831 lithium-ion cells, fully charges
in 3.5 hours at up to a range of 200 miles per charge
Clients enjoy a selection of teas
When you finally find the store, you'd be surprised to know transparency is unparalleled. The ceiling to floor windows helped create an airy feel and Kristie, the receptionist, explained that since Tesla vehicles are full electric, it isn't necessary for the servicing facility to be located elsewhere as issues concerning CO2 exhaust ventilation do not apply. Part dealer with a boutique feel, part World's Fair, Tesla displays their innovations on pedestals for visitors to study up close.

I have a slight regret for walking in unprepared, somehow convinced that I'd make an arrangement to come in a second time. The only question I remembered asking was how many Tesla owners are in the area. According to Kristie, there are approximately 10 Tesla owners serviced at this particular location.

Perhaps a reason some car enthusiasts, as well as the car buying public, aren't especially receptive to EVs is because of how foreign it all feels from the cars we know and love. No transmission, no internal combustion engine, no exhaust note. And after all these years of self education on the innards of an engine, we realize that our knowledge is potentially obsolete in the near future and causes us a great deal of frustration.

Seeing the Tesla Roadster up close allowed me to appreciate it. I'm glad I made the visit and left with a very positive impression of their cars, their service, and especially their genius and fighter behind the company, Mr. Elon Musk. I also look forward to returning to the Tesla showroom for 2012 in anticipation to the upcoming Model S.

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