Named for physicist and pioneering electrical engineer Nikola Tesla—the man who is also credited with inventing alternating current—Tesla Motors is acknowledged as being the first automotive company to successfully introduce a series production electric car capable of traveling more than 200 miles between charges. Its three founders, Martin Eberhard, Marc Tarpenning, and Elon Musk all came from the computing industry.
Before Tesla, Eberhard and Tarpenning co-founded NuvoMedia, an electronic book company, pioneering the legal and technological framework for the digital distribution of eBooks. TV Guide acquired both the company and its Rocket eBook reader in 2000. In 2003, Eberhard and Tarpenning paired up again to co-found Tesla Motors. In 2004, Elon Musk joined the company as the chair of its board of directors, after leading the Series A round of investment in the fledgling enterprise by investing $7.5 million of his personal fortune.
Prior to Tesla, Musk had founded PayPal, a global e-commerce business enabling payments and money transfers to take place over the Internet. The online auction company eBay bought PayPal in October of 2002 for $1.5 billion, and in the process, thrust Elon Musk onto the world stage.
Having taught himself to program computers, Musk sold his first bit of software at the age of 12—a space-based computer game called Blastar—for roughly $500. In 1995, Musk started a company called Zip2, which provided online content publishing software for news organizations. Compaq Computers bought the company four years later for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock options. Musk started the forerunner to PayPal—X.com—that same year.
As the face of Tesla Motors, Musk’s philosophies guide the company’s efforts. It has been said Musk's primary goal from the start was to commercialize electric vehicles all the way to mass market, starting with a premium sports car aimed at early adopters and then moving as rapidly as possible into more mainstream vehicles, including sedans and affordable compacts.
To that end, Tesla Motors first production vehicle was the Tesla Roadster.
Based on the Lotus Elise, the Tesla Roadster was the first highway capable all-electric vehicle to go into serial production for sale in the United States in contemporary times. When Tesla announced plans for the car, many in the Detroit establishment scoffed at the idea. However, the culture of Silicon Valley was perfectly suited to an endeavor of this nature.
Some of the finest electrical engineers the world has ever known reside in the area. Further, Stanford University, arguably the hub around which the wheel that is Silicon Valley revolves, is a veritable incubator of entrepreneurial talent. Additionally, the nature of business in the Valley is to take on totally new concepts and fast track them into production. The computer industry evolves at an extremely rapid pace, and those that don’t get out in front of it are doomed to failure.
Thus, when Tesla announced it was going to use the same lithium-ion battery technology found in laptop computers (a first for an automotive application), suddenly the idea seemed very plausible. And it worked—huge. The Tesla Roadster ultimately demonstrated a 200+ mile range between recharges, making it the first battery electric vehicle to do so. It could also be fully recharged in about two hours, and was capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds.
The $109,000 base price meant it was far from being a mainstream vehicle, but as proof of concept, the Tesla Roadster drew a great deal of attention to its manufacturer. Thing is, developing a car like this is a very cash-intensive process. At one point, Tesla was on the ropes, about to be knocked out—when Musk got the idea to license the battery technology to traditional manufacturers.
One of his earliest successes in this regard was developing the battery pack for Daimler-Benz to use in the electric version of the Smart Fortwo in 2007. Tesla also helped develop the electric powertrain components for the Mercedes-Benz A-Class E-Cell automobile. The company also supplies battery packs for Freightliner Trucks' Custom Chassis Electric Van.
The 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV used a lithium metal-oxide battery as well as other powertrain components supplied by Tesla Motors. In fact, the RAV4 EV’s battery pack, electronics, and powertrain components are very similar to those in Tesla’s follow-up to the Roadster, the Tesla Model S.
The Toyota connection also helped Tesla secure its manufacturing facility for the Model S. The former New United Motors Manufacturing Incorporated (NUMMI) factory in Fremont, Calif. had been vacant since GM and Toyota dissolved their partnership to build vehicles there together. The facility reopened on October 27, 2010 as the Tesla factory.
Deliveries of the more mainstream (though still rather expensive) Tesla Model S began in June of 2012. The Tesla automobile debuted to considerable acclaim, with a number of automotive publications declaring it their “Car of The Year”. The Model S seats five comfortably, has a spacious trunk, luxurious appointments and true luxury car presence. It is also capable of traveling up to 265 miles between charges. A high performance sport sedan, the Tesla Model S automobile, in its most potent form, boasts 416 horsepower and 443 ft-lbs of torque. The base model features a 362 horsepower electric motor with 325 ft-lbs of torque.
The Model S was designed to make changing its battery packs a very simple process. Further, Tesla Motors is (as this is being written in July of 2013) in the process of rolling out a nationwide network of “Supercharging” stations. These locations tout the capability of imbuing the Model S with a charge good for about 150 miles of range in about 30 minutes—or completely swapping out the battery pack for a fully recharged one in about two minutes.
So much for range anxiety…
According to Musk, the Supercharger network will be complete by the end of 2013, and further, Tesla owners will never have to pay to use it. Battery swaps on the other hand are expected to cost between $60 and $80, or about what it costs to fill up the average luxury sedan with premium fuel—at current rates.