This is good news

The New York Times reports that the Chinese are going after the electric car market. Should that worry us?

It’s time to say it. Harden the fuck up, America. Stop whinging and whining about the economic transition. Get with it and start competing. A new race is being defined.

There’s been recent hand wringing over the innovation gap. Some think Silicon Valley has lost its mojo. I don’t think so. The Japanese threw down the gauntlet with hybrids (and a few plug ins too). The Chinese are coming on with mass manufacture, and the Indians can have a game changer with an electric Nano. Interesting times.

The US responded with Tesla, an early adopter’s wet dream. The Chevy Volt (God, I wish I had my ’63 Nova) is what GM is dishing up. And Ford’s hybrids seem to do nothing but add a few MPG and increase the cost of maintenance. Competition should up our game and breed innovation. That’s how it works in Silicon Valley…let’s hope Detroit can catch on.

I don’t like to point out problems without offering a solution. In this case the solution may very well be to sell off the GM brands (if possible) and form new business alliances with global partners. Crysler-Fiat?  Where’s Lee Iacocca right now? He’s not just making olive oil, is he? Interesting times indeed.

New Motor City, Part II

Ariel Atom

You can argue that Tesla Motors does not have true automotive heritage. Their CEO previously ran a company that built e-book hardware. In the new world of automotive engineering, that might not matter. The Wrightspeed X1 is a 100% electric vehicle that sports a proven chassis design from England. The coachwork is based on the Ariel Atom, a two seater that advertises itself as having no doors, no windscreen and no roof. The only problem is that the X1 is for “proof of concept” only. It is not a production model. And that’s a good thing since it’s unlikely to pass US DOT certification without a windshield.

The X1 prototype is just the beginning. It meets its design specs of 0-60 in 3 seconds, 170 mpg equivalent; and at 1536 lbs, is only 36 lbs over the design target of 1500. It really does raise the performance driving experience to a new level, even for racing drivers. No clutch, no shifting, precise and immediate control of torque in drive and braking, perfect traction control…first gear takes you to 112mph…

In recent track testing, on street tires, it achieved the following performance:
0-30 mph: 1.35 sec
0-60 mph: 3.07 sec in 117 ft
0-100 mph: 6.87 sec
0-100-0 mph 11.2 sec
Lateral g: 1.3
Braking g: 1.2

With performance like this, an electric racing league is not an unreasonable idea. Daytona races for 500 miles. That’s a distance that Martin Eberhard says is in Tesla’s future. The 24 hours of Le Mans might be more difficult to do, but it’s an admirable goal. In the short term, I’d love to see the Tesla Roadster burn rubber with the Atom Ariel (gas or electric) in the quarter mile. A few laps around the oval might be fun, too.

Tesla’s CEO isn’t going to invest in racing just yet, but he admitted to encouraging a Tesla “skunkworks” project that aimed to make a race-worthy ride. He said that electric race cars are “inevitable.” Start your engines…

New Motor City

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it” Alan Kay

Martin Eberhard

MIT/Stanford’s VLAB project had an interesting panel last Tuesday. The focus of attention was my hometown favorite, Tesla Motors. No, I don’t live in Detroit, I live in San Carlos, at the northern end of Silicon Valley.

Tesla is producing a limited quantity of high performance sports cars that will be available this Fall. The Tesla Roadster is a 100% electric two seater that’s faster than a Ferarri from 0 – 60 mph. No word how it does around corners, but the low center of gravity provided by the lithium ion batteries should be an advantage.

The batteries are the same ones used in most laptops. This was Tesla’s out of the box moment. Unlike other attempts at building a 100% electric car, they decided to use commodity laptop cells. They’ve engineered an optical network for battery management and a cooling system to prolong the battery life. Tesla warrants the battery pack for 100,000 miles.

Tesla doesn’t differentiate itself on technology alone. Their business model is based on a direct relationship with the consumer. They will not franchise dealerships. The value of the customer relationship is too great according to Martin Eberhard, Tesla’s CEO. He lamented that some states had laws that protected car dealership’s position in the automotive sales and distribution network and prevented a manufacturer from selling directly to the consumer. That’s why Tesla won’t sell product in Texas.

The Tesla Roadster will be remembered as a limited production, hand built, two seater in the Lotus tradition. In fact, Lotus is assembling the final product in the UK with motors from Taiwan and batteries from Thailand. I’m sure the end result will be quite collectable.

To build the nextgen, Tesla closed a deal to construct a manufacturing plant in New Mexico. That plant will build “Project Whitestone“, a 4 or 5 passenger sedan that will get the equivalent to 110 miles per gallon with a 500 mile range. They expect to sell 10,000 of them by 2009. That many Whitestones will take 7 million Li batteries. That’s more than Dell used in 2006 for all of their laptop production. The era of “cheap batteries” is ending.