This article explains the Tesla philosophy – what the cars are, why they are like that, and why their drivers like them so much.
What’s Tesla all about?
Tesla is a new company (by the standards of the industry), founded specifically to create desirable electric cars.
The founders believed that the future of motoring is electric, but that other manufacturers had been going about it in the wrong way – designing down to a price or simply putting in minimal design effort – and as a result ending up with ‘punishment cars’ that you would only buy if you really, really, wanted an electric car and would put up with many compromises.
Tesla’s approach was to build the best cars they possibly could, maximising the inherent benefits of an electric powertrain, and designing to minimise the disadvantages. The result would be expensive due to building in small volumes, but actually no more expensive than other small-volume cars of similar performance: A car that you would choose on its own merits. They believed that there was a viable business in selling high-priced electric sports cars with performance to match and that, having thus obtained a toe-hold in the industry, they could gradually expand the range to higher volume, more mainstream cars.
The first step was the Tesla Roadster, a two seater sports car which drew heavily on Lotus technology for the non-electric elements of the car, and also subcontracted much of the assembly work to Lotus. Approximately 2,500 were sold between 2008-2012.
The critical success of the Roadster allowed Tesla to establish their own assembly factory and expertise in all aspects of design, culminating in the 2012 launch of their breakthrough product: The Model S. The Model S has already sold in much greater numbers than the Roadster. It offers better value, being much more car for (typically) less money, but it is still quite expensive.
The Model X is a derivitive of the Model S, with a larger ‘Crossover SUV’ body syle built on the same chassis. The first deliveries are expected in 2015.
Tesla is also planning a cheaper, even higher volume car – the Model 3. This is expected sometime around 2017 and, although not many details have yet been released, it is expected to be comparable in size and price to a BMW 3-series (in the way that Model S is comparable to BMW’s 5- and 7-series).
Why do people buy a Tesla?
There’s a wide spectrum of people buying Tesla vehicles – some with a specific concern or interest and others just seeing it as a ‘better car’. Most will be influenced by several of the items on this list.
Almost all the EVs on the market from other manufacturers have very similar capacity – something around 100 miles theoretical best-case range, meaning 70 miles or so in typical real-world driving. By the time you’ve allowed a margin for contingencies, that leaves maybe 50 miles of range to plan on using; so these cars are great as city/commuter cars but not for much more. Sure, some enthusiasts can and do drive them across the country, stopping every 50 miles to charge and praying that all the public chargepoints are in working order, but for most people they just aren’t practical as a main/only car.
The Tesla Model S is a completely different proposition. The combination of much greater range in the first place and the Supercharger network for long distance trips means the Model S can be a genuine replacement for all the uses of a normal car.
If your typical day’s driving is under 200 miles then you just don’t need to think about charging. Like your cellphone, you plug it in overnight and it’s ready to go in the morning so you just drive as you feel like it. This turns the common perception of electric cars on its head – charging a Model S is, on average, less trouble than fueling an ICE (internal combustion engine) car.
For long trips, the Supercharger network lets you drive right across the continent if you choose, combining charging stops for the car with rest/coffee/meal stops for the driver on a cycle of roughly 30 minutes charging for every 3 hours driving.
Many 2-car families have bought a Model S thinking they will keep an ICE car for things the Model S can’t do, but then end up enjoying the electric driving experience so much that they sell the ICE and buy another EV – either another Model S if they can afford it, or a cheap commuter EV with the Model S as their main car.
Performance and handling
It’s an inherent advantage of all EVs that once you have a battery big enough to give a useful range, it’s also big enough to give plenty of power for acceleration. With their larger batteries, Tesla have this advantage to an even greater extent and have fully exploited it in the design of the cars.
While the performance specifications on paper already look pretty good (0-60mph times of 3.2 seconds in the top P85D model, and 5.9 seconds in the base 60kWH model), this doesn’t tell the whole story. ICE cars that have comparable specifications can only achieve them by a skilled driver revving the engine, dropping the clutch and managing the gearchanges (or using a – possibly warranty-voiding – electronic launch control system). The Tesla delivers full performance simply by pressing the pedal; at a moment’s notice and without any noise or fuss. Similarly, for overtaking there’s no need for gearchanges, turbos to spin up or anything like that: One moment you are idling along in traffic, and the next moment you press the pedal and are launched into the gap.
Electric driving offers performance that is not just a matter of quantity but is a different kind of experience: A ‘personal roller-coaster’ is one term used to describe it. Tesla’s implementation offers both quantity and quality.
Handling is another area where Tesla have taken one of the intrinsic characteristics of an EV and extracted the maximum benefit. With an ICE, most of the weight is in the engine/transmission and there are limited options for where to put it. In an EV, the weight is in the battery, and Tesla have chosen to spread the battery in a thin layer under the floor. This gives an even split of the weight front:rear and – more importantly – puts the weight very low down, thus eliminating the tendency to roll.
No type of car is truly friendly to the environment – to achieve this you should walk, cycle or take a bus. But if you are going to use a car then electric cars offer the best overall compromise because they are inherently more efficient than an internal-combustion engine.
Environmental concerns cover many issues. Electric cars are a clear winner in terms of reducing air pollution in cities, producing no emissions at the point of use. On overall emissions, the ‘long tailpipe’ argument – that an EV’s emissions are simply transferred to the power station producing the power – has some truth to it, but the electric powertrain is so efficient in comparison to an ICE that any reasonable comparison shows the EV coming out ahead when you take into account the full ‘well to wheels’ comparison. If you can charge the EV from renewable power – solar on your roof-top, for example – then it gets better still.
It is true that an EV takes somewhat more resources to build it than a comparable size ICE, but it turns out that this is very quickly wiped out by the energy savings in driving it. In the specific case of Tesla, the use of AC induction motors means that no ‘rare earth’ elements are needed (unlike some other types of motor). Batteries are readily recyclable at the end of their life, and the automotive industry already has a long history of doing so: With a recycling rate of 99% car batteries are one of the most recycled products in the world..
In the longer term, large-battery EVs – with the ability to charge when the power happens to be available – are likely to be key to allowing the electricity grid to accept a larger proportion of intermittent renewables such as wind and solar.
Sources of oil are concentrated in a small number of places, many with unfriendly or unstable political masters. Electric cars give flexibiility: You can use whatever energy source is available locally, whether renewable or fossil. For some EV drivers, avoiding the need to go to war over oil supplies is a significant motivation.
One of the major safety issues with a conventional car is that in a collision the solid lump of engine/gearbox is inevitably forced back into the passenger compartment. With an electric car, the motor is much smaller and there is no big ‘lump’ to cause this problem – both front and rear can act as crumple zones to absorb energy.
In the case of the Model S, the motor is placed over the rear axle and the battery under the floor acts to strengthen the passenger cell, maximising this advantage. Model S has scored extremely highly in all of the official crash tests, and can claim to be one of the safest cars on the road.
Styling is always a subjective matter, but many other manufacturers have styled their electric models to be deliberately eccentric, or have simply based them on very utilitarian ICE models.
Tesla have put a lot of effort into their styling and have sought a classically beautiful shape rather than one that shouts “I’m electric!”. The fact that passers-by often ask “is that a Maserati?” when seeing the Model S for the first time shows that they have succeeded in creating a desirable-looking car.
Model S is a large car- it can carry much more than comparable ICE cars, and especially much more than hybrids (which have to find space for both an ICE and an electric powertrain).
With the battery and motor under the floor, there is a large front luggage compartment (the ‘frunk’) where you would expect to find the engine in the majority of ICE cars. There is no transmission tunnel down the centre of the floor, making the centre rear seat more usable, and there is room for the option of two additional child seats in the rear – allowing the car to carry up to 7 people. You can even fold the seats flat and put a mattress in the back to sleep on, if you feel so inclined.
Will a Model S fit my lifestyle?
Model S performance and handling are exceptional so, unless you were really looking for a high-end 2-seater sports car, you are unlikely to be disappointed. Since it also has plenty of space for passengers and luggage, and is very comfortable for driving long distances, it makes an ideal family car. The only real negative is that it is a large car: If you’ve been used to something smaller you may find it hard to park, or that it won’t fit in your garage.
Most prospective buyers are concerned about ‘range anxiety’- the fear of being stranded by the side of the road with a flat battery. If you talk to actual owners, they almost never suffer from range anxiety, but they may on occasion have ‘inconvenience anxiety’: This where they are quite comfortable that they will reach their destination but are unhappy about the time it will take if they have to rely on slow public chargepoints rather than Superchargers.
If your normal daily commute is under 200 miles, and you are able to install a chargepoint at home, you will almost certainly be very comfortable with a Model S. If not, or if you have more of a ‘travelling salesman’ driving pattern, then you will need to do some research into the charging facilities along the routes that you take and the places you stop. Perhaps you will be okay, or perhaps you will need to wait for further expansion of the Supercharger network before taking the plunge.
There’s no getting away from the fact that a Model S is an expensive car. It offers good value when you compare it to cars of similar size and performance – if you were otherwise thinking of buying one of the larger BMWs or Mercedes, or perhaps a Porsche Panamera, then a comparably equipped Model S should fit your budget – but it’s a big step up if you were previously more of a Prius buyer.
Many places offer some form of tax incentive or subsidy for ‘green’ vehicles that can make a difference. If you price up a car on the Tesla website then the main ones are already shown, but there can be additional local incentives or ones for which only apply to some people. For example, in the UK the tax treatment is vastly more favourable for EVs as company cars than for private purchases. However, in most places this is merely a nice bonus rather than a major impact on the affordability of the car (Norway perhaps being the exception to this).
If you do a high annual mileage, then the savings in fuel cost can make the total cost of ownership quite competitive with cars from a cheaper class.
Do bear in mind that it is still a large, luxurious car and the incidental costs of ownership are higher than those for a small car: large tyres cost more than small ones, and Tesla’s service/maintenance facilities aim to give the sort of experience the buyer of an expensive car will expect, rather than minimal cost.
If you feel that the Model S is a nice car but just too expensive for you, then you may want to wait for the Model 3 in a few years time.