If I had to describe this factory – that builds all-electric cars – in 1 sentence, it would be a 20th century factory shell with 21st century manufacturing methods and a 21st century product.
Like a lot of amazing Silicon Valley start up companies, Tesla started in the proverbial garage, like Apple and Hewlett Packard. A year or so ago while visiting the Filoli Mansion in Woodside, we learned that Google was incubated at Buck’s Restaurant, in Woodside.
In the space of a short 10 years – ancient history in the Valley, Tesla went from a garage to a former GM plant of 5 million square feet, building an amazing product, the Tesla Model S. It is one of the biggest sellers in Norway.
The Model S is the first mass produced model – with about 21,000 currently planned on being built during the year. The Model X, an SUV derivative, is due shortly with a related chassis. Their first product, the roadster with the body that was sourced from Lotus, was a hand-built “proof of concept” car. About 2,300 were built.
The factory was originally a GM plant built in the 1960s. In a later joint agreement with Toyota both Toyotas and Pontiacs were built here until recently.
Tesla bought it for $42,000,000 – and it has an estimated replacement cost of $2 billion. It has 5 million square feet of which at the present only about 15-20% is being used. Tesla has spent more than the purchase price in buying new robots.
One of the most interesting parts of the visit was a tour of the factory floor. In the interests of industrial security Tesla asked us to refrain from taking pictures there.
But I can give you my impressions – summarized in the first sentence above.
Some of these 21st century ideas were a group of IKEA (cheap but functional) desks – about 150 of them – in about a 100 meter wide area in the middle of the production floor. There were not even cubical walls separating them – all together – different departments – groups of engineers – even one for co-founder Elon Musk. Walls – even cubicles – hinder communication.
Decisions can be made quickly because all who are responsible are right literally in the middle of production. From the co-founder on down.
I couldn’t help but think of one legendary Detroit legacy automaker hamstrung by layers of bureaucracy scattered all over the town – even the world.
We learned how the Model S is built.
Virtually all – save for a few switches sourced from Daimler – is built at Fremont. A Tesla starts as a massive roll of aluminum – the car is 95% aluminum – and various massive presses change these sheets into body panels.
A small army of robots assembles these panels into a recognizable body.
Looking at the bare aluminum body it looked a bit like the Porsche Panamera.
But that is where any similarity ends.
The Model S weighs about 4,700 lbs – of which all of the associated hardware that propels it – about 2,000 lbs – batteries and motor, sits under the seats. This gives the car a low center of gravity the guide compared to a Lamborghini.
The car drives like nothing you have ever experienced. Since an electric motor develops its full torque – the measure of power and acceleration – from standstill there is no “lag time” feeling the car accelerate. A gasoline engine requires about 4,000-5,000 RPM before its full torque is developed.
Because of this there is no need for a transmission – there is simply a 10:1 reduction gear – the motor turns 10 times for the wheel’s one turn. Acceleration is linear and so quiet that one has to look at the speedometer to believe how fast you are really going.
Without sensory queues like a roaring engine or shift changes it is very surprising. It is so surprising that for their demonstration cars Tesla limited the top speed to 80 MPH. All we heard was the tire noise and – at a certain range – a small hum of the motor.
You can order the car with a choice of 2 levels of power. And to get the higher performance level one would think you would get a bigger motor. At Tesla it is the same motor, the faster one simply has a higher capacity inverter with more battery capacity. Someone said to think of the inverter as a fuel pump if you want an analogy.
And that torque is huge – about 460 lb-ft – like a modern high performance V8 engine.
The car is amazing in its simplicity – about 27 moving parts in the actual drive train. Service and maintenance requirements are virtually eliminated. Tesla recommends that owners have the car inspected once a year. The motor bearings should be replaced every 100,000 miles.
The batteries, about 7,000 lithium-ion, have been tested to 200,000 miles. At that point they are still about 70% effective although Tesla recommends that they be replaced at that point. The actual motor, they say, has an estimated life of 500,000 miles. It has no brushes – one thing that would wear out.
Software is updated using a cellular 3G network. It contains everything from the basic functionality of the car to the nearest “supercharge” station that Tesla has been building all over the country. These are constantly being added and the car can be recharged to an 80% level in 20 minutes – or less. The reason the 80% level is given is that the more a battery is charged the slower it takes to recharge the remainder. To recharge to 100% from the same state would take about an hour using a “supercharger”.
If you recharge it at home and use a 240 volt line – the kind a clothes drier uses, recharge time from empty is 8-10 hours. Of course “topping it off” is considerably shorter.
Speaking of the software defining functionality one funny thing came to mind. The car as originally delivered would remain stopped without the brake being depressed and in “Drive”. Owners accustomed to conventional cars with automatic transmissions were used to the car “creeping” with the brake off. So Tesla changed the software adding the option of having a “creep mode”.
And, by the way, converting energy used versus gasoline – works out to about 60 cents per “gallon” using electricity. The Tesla is a lot more efficient than even a hybrid.
I told our guide that having driven this Model S my whole stereotype of electric cars has changed. I thought they would be suited only for urban driving with “sedate” performance, but the range, coupled with a growing infrastructure of quick charge stations, makes them nearly as versatile as their gasoline and diesel counterparts. At a much lower operating costs.
I would like to thank Tesla for opening their factory to us, and Steve of the SFBA Section of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America for arranging this trip.
cross-posted at mbca.org
This is the “frunk” – the front trunk – since all of the running gear and associated components are under the car the Model S has lots of space both in the front and the back…
One of the 7,000 batteries the Model S uses
This was the first product – the Roadster – a proof-of-concept product. Body was sourced from Lotus – a Lotus Elise. About 2,300 were made – this is one of the prototypes.
A Model S bare chassis – all aluminum. Motor in back, a/c compressor, ABS unit, air suspension pump are in the front.
Note the motor in the back – easily dropped down like an old VW Bug for servicing
The front of the chassis
The Model S won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 2013