My Take on the Tesla Tiff

By now, you are all probably well aware of the firestorm that has erupted between Tesla’s (TSLA) Elon Musk and the New York Times.

It started when the groundbreaking California car maker loaned out a high performance Model S for testing of its East Coast supercharger network to the Times’ auto correspondent, John Broder, for a drive from Washington DC to Boston. Broder posted a story that spoke of range anxiety, confused instructions from Tesla, and ended with a picture of a drained S-1 being loaded on to a flatbed truck for return to the company.

Tesla

Tesla has been down this road before. Two years ago, it lent its Roadster model to Top Gear magazine for a similar test in England. In the lawsuit that followed it was discovered that the correspondents faked a flat battery on camera by pushing a car down the road that actually had sufficient charge. It turns out that headlines shouting disaster sell more car magazines than success.

Once burned, twice forewarned. Every succeeding car loaned by Tesla to a journalist came equipped with a hidden digital data recorder, much like an aircraft “black box”. In the Times story it showed that Bradford took unreported detours, didn’t fully charge his battery, and frequently enjoyed power draining jackrabbit starts. Musk counter attacked with a blistering blog post that outlined the driver’s, and not the car’s shortfalls (http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/most-peculiar-test-drive).

Since I am a pilot, former scientist, an occasional writer for the New York Times, and have a Tesla S-1 performance parked in my garage, I feel uniquely qualified to render an opinion here. The New York Times has it all wrong, and could well have another Jason Blaire scandal on its hands.

Tesla Plant

When the rest of the media smelled a rat, they duplicated the experiment with great success. For them, it was a rare opportunity to heap mud on the reputation of the competing New York Times. CNBC took the extra step of broadcasting its drive to Boston by reporter Phil LeBeau on live TV.

I have to admit that after sitting on a waiting list for a year, it was with some excitement that I drove to the factory in Fremont, CA to pick up my S-1. The tour was like a trip to the future, with an army of highly animated German made robots precisely assembling the vehicles.

Much of the facility was built from the wreckage of the 2008 auto industry crash. It bought the old GM Corolla factory for a bargain $50 million in stock provided by Toyota. A giant sheet metal press was salvaged from Detroit for scrap metal value of about five cents on the dollar. Today, it employs 2,500, down from the 50,000 GM once needed.

Every car on the assembly line is spoken for. As soon as they are tested they are delivered to beaming new owners in the adjacent show room at the rate of three an hour. There is no inventory. There is virtually no media advertising. It is a business model that any other carmaker would kill for.

Tesla Factory

The Tesla S-1 is unlike any car that I have ever driven. It is a real beast of a machine, taking five passengers up to a hair raising 130 mph. You can feel the G-forces. The operating manual should include a warning in big bold red letters not to kill yourself on the first day. It is basically a street legal Formula One racecar.

When you approach, flush chrome handles pop out from the doors. There is no key or ignition. Sitting in the driver’s seat activates the power, and the digital instruments panel flashes on. It also instantly synchs with your iPhone 5, displaying your entire iTunes library and address book on an impressive 18-inch screen. Talk about “wow”!

Tesla Dashboard

It is linked to the Internet 24/7. So you can instantly call up the top Yelp rated Japanese restaurant in your area and have Google Maps direct you there, all while driving. The car also upgrades itself. So one morning you sit down and the screen displays 20 new applications that have been updated.

Driving for the first time is a surreal experience. The high performance model gives you instant acceleration to 60 mph in four seconds. There is no delay while one waits for gasoline to course through to the fuel injectors, as one suffers with conventional engines. And you get the same acceleration from 60 to 90 as you do from 0 to 60. Zipping in and out of traffic, it drives more like a video game than a car. This is a pink slip racer’s dream.

You can see that Tesla has completely rethought the automotive experience from the ground up with the intention of maximizing the “cool” factor. The ordering process is entirely online. There is no more haggling with dealers. Manufacturing has been completely reimagined to cut costs. The vehicle has less than half the number of parts of traditional cars. The motor, alone, shrinks from over 500 parts to a few dozen. All of the components are made at this single plant. There is no waiting for transmissions from Japan, as there is no transmission. There is no heat to manage. It strangely and silently runs at room temperature, so there is no need for a radiator or engine cooling. The aluminum body greatly eliminates weight.

Amazingly, the car has more storage space than my Toyota Highlander SUV. Pop the hood, and you get another trunk, which Tesla dubs a “frunk”. This titillates friends to no end.

Then there is the notorious range issue. Musk, himself, prepared the speed versus range graph below. Any pilot will instantly recognize this, as we have to memorize one of these for each aircraft type rating. To get the advertised 300 miles you have to use every range extending technique, like slow acceleration, keeping the speed at 55 mph on the flat, and not using heat or air conditioning. If you drive like you are in the Indianapolis 500, as I do, with jump to warp speed starts up to 80 mph, that range drops by half. As it should.

Range vs Speed

Actually, the car can go 455 miles if you only drive 20 miles per hour. Tesla has offered a prize for the first driver who can document this. What happens in rush hour traffic? The range extends, as it did for me driving back from Lake Tahoe in that awful Presidents Day jam.

What about cost, you may ask? You know me. I bought the most expensive high performance model, with an 85 kWh battery, a 300-mile range, and every option maxed out, including the $3,750 tech package, a $1,500 panoramic sunroof, and the $950 sound studio. That set me back $109,770, with state taxes and fees.

If you are not a highly successful hedge fund Master of the Universe, like John Thomas, then there is a cheaper way to do this. You can buy the stripped down 40 kWh, 160-mile range version for $59,900, which less the $7,500 federal tax credit, comes to $52,400.

Now you need to learn a new form of automotive math. At the special night charging rate of 4.7 cents per kilowatt offered by my local utility, 160 miles costs $1.88. This is the equivalent of buying gas for 30 cents a gallon, the prevailing price when I first learned to drive. Charging at public stations is free. So 20,000 miles a year would run $235.

There are no tune-ups or maintenance, since there is no engine. You only change tires every 60,000 miles since the car is so light, and brake pads every 100,000 since the regenerative power system does most of the slowing.

This compares to $3,200 for 800 gallons of gas, and $1,000 in tune ups for my Highlander hybrid, giving me a net savings of  $3,965 a year. Prorate this out over the guaranteed eight-year life of the 1,000-pound lithium ion battery, and you get $31,720. This brings your true cost, net of fuel and operating costs, down to $20,680. This is not bad for an ultra luxury, head turning, babe magnet of a racecar. You just effectively pay for all the fuel and maintenance for the life of the car up front.

Some 95% of all drivers travel less than 160 miles a day, so that makes a pretty big target market. Also, Tesla is building a nationwide network of fast charging stations for long distance trips that can get you fully juiced up in 45 minutes. This will include corridors that can get you from LA to New York, or Chicago to Houston, and so on. They are located in shopping malls, so the idea is to catch a quick lunch or dinner while getting refueled.

It is really easy to see how the whole Times incident happened. A young underpaid, right-brained journalism major dude is suddenly handed a $110,000 studmobile with a revolutionary new technology, not bothering to read the manual first. I see a Fast and Furious replay punctuated by a nooner in Manhattan and a car that only makes it three quarters of the way there. What did you say the difference between volts and amps was? Then it’s his little red notebook against Elon’s computer log. No contest.

I have to mention another issue here. The entire car establishment absolutely hates this car. This includes the Detroit automakers, their politicians, the automotive press, and the oil industry with fellow travelers. Of course, the foaming right considers it a giant government subsidized liberal conspiracy. Such is always the case when change comes in quantum leaps.

When gasoline powered cars were first introduced in England, Parliament passed a law stating they must at all times be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag. The repeal of that law in 1905 is still celebrated by an annual race, the Brighton Run. Only cars built before that year are allowed to participate, and I have run it many times (fewer than half finish the 100 miles course).

Check out the jobs section on Craig’s List for New York. I see the Times is looking for a new automotive correspondent.

TSLA 2-19-13

Tesla Cost

Girls in trunk

 

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