A Visit To The Tesla Factory in Fremont, CA

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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.

Take a virtual 15 minute drive with me on YouTube….

cross-posted at mbca.org

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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…

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One of the 7,000 batteries the Model S uses

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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.

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A Model S bare chassis – all aluminum. Motor in back, a/c compressor, ABS unit, air suspension pump are in the front.

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Note the motor in the back – easily dropped down like an old VW Bug for servicing

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The front of the chassis

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The Model S won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 2013

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7 Comments

Filed under Car Pr0n

7 responses to “A Visit To The Tesla Factory in Fremont, CA

  1. John Blackshoe

    Yeah, those coal powered cars are pretty interesting.

    What’s the price tag to buy one- both to the retail buyer and the taxpayer if there are any subsidies, tax breaks, etc?
    How does the total cost of ownership work out on a per mile basis compared to a comparable size Toyota gas guzzler?

    • Bill Brandt

      John – it comes with a variety of options (which isn’t a new concept 😉 )
      The basic powered one starts at $71K – the “high performance” version at – if I remember right – $131K. Another interesting option was a 3rd row of seats – like an SUV – they fold right into the floor. However these weren’t an “add-on” – the entire chassis is different – they couldn’t be added later.

      There is a tax break but I forget what that is.

      They told me that compared to a gas-powered car the cost works out to 61 cents per gallon.

      Someone asked them what the battery replacement cost was and they didn’t have a ready answer – but that would be at least 200,000 miles down the road.

      Yesterday it was like getting a drink of water from a fire hose – and my old gray cells aren’t what they used to be!

      I did get a kick out of billionaire Elon Musk’s desk – an inexpensive IKEA just like everyone else’s – he must divide his time between here and the Hawthorn facility (a Los Angeles suburb) for SpaceX.

      If you saw the video my comment on the AMG-built V8 was wrong – they generate over 500 ft-lbs of torque.

      And, a question for the Lexicans – the guide in the car said that this Tesla would beat the AMG to 100mph (due to the fact that an electric motor generates full torque from the start).

      But while this car will go 0-60 in a shade over 6 seconds, an AMG-E-Class will do it in – I think 4.5-5 seconds. So I think the 500 hp AMG would beat the Tesla at the drags but it would be interesting.

  2. Gloria Loventhal

    The State Rebate is $2500. The Federal Rebate which is a deduction on your Federal Income Tax is $7500 for a total of $10,000 in rebates.

  3. Buck

    Interesting, more for the manufacturing bits than the end product. I’m “of an age” where I believe cars should have big-ass V8s that burn finely-aged dinosaurs and make noises that are pleasing to my ear.

    Hopefully I’ll be dead before these whirring, humming abominations take over our roads.

    • Bill Brandt

      Buck – the most different feeling in driving that car I can convey is the total lack of sensation – other than visual – of speed. But, I have told people – that sensation is changing in conventional cars, too.

      Take any high performance car from the 60s – American Muscle Car, big-block Corvette, Ferrari Daytona – and floor it – you know that thing is moving.

      Fast forward to today an even cars we’d consider pedestrian – – say, a turbocharged 4 cylinder Beetle – are capable of what was supercar performance 40 years ago.

      And the strange thing is – while doing it – you aren’t nearly as aware of the speed.

      40 years ago super car territory was a 0-60 time of 6 seconds. That is why the 427 Cobra was so legendary – for decades – beating that (forget the fact that those involved with the Cobra racing said the smaller block 289 was what won most of the races – the 427 was just too heavy in front) –
      Today you can get a 4 cylinder economy car that can post a 6 second time.

      Three seconds – and even lower – is the new supercar benchmark.

      The manufacturing part to me was to me – like your opinion – the most interesting part. Since they didn’t want any photos of the factory floor I couldn’t show you a picture of those ~150 desks – even billionaire Elon Musk had a $150 IKEA desk – all together – no walls to hinder communication – and right in the middle of the production floor.

  4. And the strange thing is – while doing it – you aren’t nearly as aware of the speed…………….. Hence the need for all these safety devices?

    • Bill Brandt

      The Tesla fellow in the car mentioned one of his scariest moments was going with a driver on a rain-soaked road into a cloverleaf – way too fast. All you really hear is the noise from the tires and at certain ranges a faint hum from the engine.

      The body itself has received the highest ratings for crash worthiness – but you really have to check the speedometer – there are no other sensory cues other than visual.

      I was watching on YouTube a drag race between a Tesla and a Dodge Viper – a massive 500+ hp V10 – and the Tesla won.

      It is a different age coming – coming to a motorcycle near you 😉

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