Tesla Motors founder Martin Eberhard thinks that in the coming years the electric car just might zoom into the spotlight. By Edit Staff
In 2003, engineers Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla Motors. Their mission? To revive the electric car. It seemed like an awfully lofty goal back then, but three years later, the Tesla Roadster is on the market—and there’s reason to believe that despite the high price tag (about $100,000), it’s catching on. Word has it that George Clooney will soon be spotted taking his new Roadster for a spin.
On Monday, Plenty picked Martin Eberhard’s brain about his vision for the company, the future of the electric car, and Tesla’s mainstream (read: cheaper) model that’s set to hit the market in 2009.
Plenty: Will electric cars ever become cheap enough, or have the battery life, to compete in the mainstream auto market?
Eberhard: They already have the battery life, and it’ll only get better with time. And yes, they will become cheap enough, gradually.
Plenty: We hear that you’re going to introduce your four-door sedan model and that that’s going to be significantly cheaper. How much cheaper can we expect it to be, and how are you going to keep the costs down?
Eberhard: We hope to come out with a second car in around 2009, and the base amount will be half the price of the Roadster. We’re aiming for an under $50,000 entry level price for that car, which is very difficult for us to achieve as a start-up company. Making cars is expensive. But the way we’re getting the price down largely has to do with building our own factory rather than paying somebody else to assemble the car. And then also taking advantage of everything we’ve learned making the Roadster and applying that to the new car.
Plenty: Will the sedan, like the Roadster, be able to do 0-60 in 4 seconds?
Eberhard: It won’t be 4 seconds, but it’ll still be pretty darn quick. We think we can do under 6 seconds, probably, for 0 to 60. It’s a bigger car.
Plenty: Could you tell us a bit about the solar power option you’re offering?
Eberhard: There’s a magic synergy between solar generation and electric cars. When you buy an electric car you wonder about where the electricity comes from: Is it burning coal? Is it any better than the gasoline-powered car? The answer actually is yes, it is still better than the gasoline-powered car because there’s less pollution produced. But you can skirt the whole argument if, at the same time that you buy your car, you also buy solar generation that offsets what your car consumes. When you buy the Roadster, we will be offering an option to buy solar generation and have it attached on the roof of your house. During the daytime that will generate electricity, spin your meter backwards, dump electricity into the grid. At nighttime, when your car is charging, it spins the meter forward and charges up your car.
Plenty: Electric cars have failed before, most recently in the 1990s. How are you going to be different?
Eberhard: Compared to the cars that existed in the nineties, the real difference is the approach we’ve taken. We’re not trying to make, as our first car, an ultra low-cost people mover. We’re trying to make the best car we can. With that mentality we have a whole range of technologies available to us that wouldn’t have been otherwise: lithium ion batteries, for example; designing our own custom super high-performance motor; our own highly efficient electronics to convert the energy from the batteries and put it into the motor. All of those kinds of things you couldn’t do if you were making a cheap car. What we’ve produced is a car that doesn’t ask the buyer, the driver, to compromise. It’s a beautiful, fun, quick car with a very long driving range that is appealing in its own right as a car, which is not what electric cars did in the past. You had to be kind of a hero to drive one before.
Plenty: Three years ago, when everyone was driving SUVs, what made you decide to build an electric car?
Eberhard: Maybe it’s just arrogance or something. I assume I wasn’t the only one in the world that wanted a car that was a great sports car and also efficient. As an electrical engineer, I know that you can make an electric car that rocks if you want to. I looked around said “Isn’t somebody making that car?” And the answer was really no. I know that you’re writing about some of the other electric car companies in your magazine, but as far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t manage to buy a car from any of them. Nobody else was making cars that one could actually buy. Or else I would’ve just bought one and I would’ve been a happy customer. But since it didn’t exist, I said, “Can I start that company?” I know how to start companies; I’ve done it before, successfully, a couple times now. And I thought, well, if I can figure out how to take Silicon Valley know-how about how to fund a company, and apply that to this problem, then we have something.
Plenty: Is this the beginning of the end of the gas car?
Eberhard: I think so. I’m not sure if we’re the beginning of the end, or if running out of oil is the beginning of the end, or global warming is the beginning of the end. But this is certainly part of the same constellation of issues. It’s time for us to find a different solution than burning gasoline.
Plenty: Does this mean that the Big Three is going to have to start switching over to electric cars, sooner rather than later?
Eberhard: I think so, or else I’ll have to buy them out later when I’m bigger than they are.
Plenty: Are you profitable already?
Eberhard: Heavens no. First of all, this car is not the answer. We expect to make more cars to reach more people, and eventually make a big dent in the amount of oil consumed in this country. But you have to start someplace. It’s one step at a time. You have to make a product that you can actually get on the road, to sell and make money, and that allows you to make another model and a more ambitious company. We hope down the road to have cars that we can all drive. It’s not going to be next year or the year after that. Our next model car will be a lot lower priced and much more accessible, and the one after that will be lower priced and useful in other ways. I’m not sure what that one will be. Is it a smaller car? Is a bit more of a people mover? I don’t know, I haven’t decided yet. The goal is to become a real car company and sell lots of cars.
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