Tesla CEO Elon Musk confident about return of electric cars


Drives Model S into Dell World. Says production can’t keep up with demand due to constraints in battery supply; produces 600 cars a week as sales graph soars

elon-musk-model-s-entrance-dell-world-2013-300x165Apart from Michael Dell, the star speaker at Dell World, Austin, Texas (Dec 11 – 13, 2013) was the Elon Musk, who is CEO of two companies (Tesla Motors and SpaceX) and chairman of SolarCity. But what really got everybody’s attention was an electric car, specifically, the Model S, from Tesla Motors. Musk, who is a visionary and also Fortune magazine’s Business Person of the Year, 2013, rode in a red Model S along a widened aisle in the conference hall, that dropped him at the foot of the stage — with the Beatles song Baby you can drive my car playing in the background. The audience and press went wild with excitement. So electric cars, with sleek sporty designs are cool again, but the moot question is: Are electric cars back for good?  Musk is more than convinced; his company produces 600 of them a week, and can’t keep up with demand.

Car-full-1Later, as we toured the solutions expo floor at Dell World, we got to ogle an electric blue Model S, docked to its charging station. We’ll discuss the unique features of this car in a moment.

Back to Dell World: As Musk walks up on stage, he is warmly welcomed by Michael Dell, the Founder  and CEO of Dell Inc. There’s another surprise passenger who hitched a ride: David Kirk Patrick, Founder, host, and CEO of Techonomy. Kirkpatrick is a journalist, technology commentator and author, and he’s here to conduct a live interview on stage. You can watch the video of what we just described (and the interview) here:

When asked what made him pursue electric cars and start Tesla Motors, Musk chooses his words carefully and replies, “There was a need for acceleration of electric vehicles. It became clear to me that, if it was simply left to the big car companies, we wouldn’t see compelling electric cars, not for a long time. It would be some time before we would see sustainable transport. That became very clear in the movie, Who killed the electric car?

The 2006 documentary film shows how GM created, produced and then killed the EV1 electric car in the mid-1990s. The film portrays the challenges posed to, and the eventual dismissal of the EV1 project by the Government of California, consumers, and component manufacturers.

And the film motivated Musk to pursue manufacturing of electric cars, seven years ago. The original car was called Tesla Roadster. Since then the car has been through several iterative changes and the project experienced multiple problems. But Musk and his team weren’t ready to throw in the towel, yet.

“I have been a proponent of electric cars ever since my college days, when I studied Physics. It seemed obvious that electric cars were the future. I feel that (eventually) all vehicles, with the exception of rockets, will go electric,” said Musk.

Musk also alluded to the impact of carbon on the earth’s atmosphere and said it would take a while for the world to accept that, and then transition to electric vehicles. “That’s why it is important to start early,” he said.

When the Model S was launched in the market last year, the response was overwhelming. Sales were up more than 12 times in the first three quarters of 2013. In fact Tesla could not keep up with demand – not because it lacked manufacturing capacity – but because Panasonic, its main battery supplier could not produce batteries fast enough.

Musk said Tesla currently produces 600 cars a week, though initial projections were about 400 a week. He remains optimistic that the cell supply constraints will be solved by the middle of 2014, or in the second quarter.

The Tesla Motors manufacturing facility in Fremont, California has capacity to build 500,000 cars annually.

“In order to make electric cars sell again we had to work super hard to make them as compelling as possible. That’s the reason why the car (Model S) ended up being a great car. And we have a really dedicated team,” said Musk.

Apart from cell shortages, the project has also suffered due to problems like battery fires. But the breakthrough was Lithium-ion battery technology (which incidentally, also led to slimmer and lighter cell phones).

Front-bonnet-4

Look Ma, no engine!

Rear-boot-1FEATURES

Let’s take a quick look at some of the features that make reviewers say “Wow!” when they test-drive this car. The first thing you’ll notice is that there’s no engine under the front hood or in the rear boot (see photos). That means you can carry a lot of baggage in this car. The powertrain is fitted snugly between the rear wheels. And there is a lightweight front and rear suspension, and smart air suspension. The car’s chassis is all aluminium and has a remarkably low centre of gravity, important for reducing drag. The array of batteries is fitted under the cabin floor. And when you step on the accelerator you will be flung back into your seat, as you are propelled from 0 – 60 in 5.4 seconds!

Dash-3Another striking feature is a large LCD screen that’s integrated with the dash, and positioned between the two front-seats. From this touch screen you can

access the digital instruments, steering wheel controls, entertainment, navigation/maps, Web, communications, cabin controls and vehicle data.

A charging cable is included, that plugs into a US-standard 240 volt wall outlet. Model S owners say that it charges quickly like a cell phone. The manufacturer recommends  that it is charged overnight.

charge

Elon Musk personally supervised the design and manufacture of the prototype. With an eye for detail, he insisted on the highest standards and unprecedented features that posed engineering challenges. For instance, the door handles on the car automatically extend when the driver approaches, and retract once the car begins to move. This feature goes a long way in making the car more aerodynamic to the airflow around it.

CHALLENGES

A couple of issues need to be sorted out for electric cars to really hit the high road again. Apart from a good supply of batteries, there will be pressing demand for more charging stations. So all the gas stations will need to upgrade. And battery technology (which hasn’t kept up with the rapid advancements of other technologies), needs to improve and become cheaper. Apart from these technical issues, there will need to be greater awareness and buy-in for sustainable and clean energy.  Governments will need to do their bit here. Electric cars, now prohibitively expensive, must become more affordable.

Notwithstanding these challenges, if we do see more electric cars on our roads this year, someone might as well make a sequel to the film and call it, Who revived the electric car?

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