Roadster powers to NW on techie buzz
Tesla Motors, the audacious Silicon Valley startup building eco-friendly electric supercars, is finally coming north to Seattle. The company is bringing...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Charged to goMade by a high-profile Silicon Valley startup, the Tesla has won attention of car buffs with an environmental bent.
Price: $109,000 base, including a $55,000 deposit to secure production slot.
Dimensions: 155 inches long, 73.7 inches wide, 44.4 inches high.
Battery: Custom, microprocessor-controlled lithium ion battery pack with useful life in excess of 100,000 miles.
Transmission: Single speed.
Body and chassis: Carbon fiber over bonded extruded aluminum monocoque chassis.
Acceleration: 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds.
Charging time: As little as 3.5 hours for complete cycle.
Plugs: 70-amp power connector, 120-volt mobile connector.
Source: Tesla Motors
Tesla Motors, the audacious Silicon Valley startup building eco-friendly electric supercars, is finally coming north to Seattle.
The company is bringing at least one of its Roadsters to Seattle for the first time this weekend for private events with several dozen buyers, many of whom paid huge deposits years ago to help the company get rolling and secure the earliest cars.
They'll still have to wait months or more to take delivery of the $109,000 cars, which only began regular production in March.
Also scheduled is a private demonstration on the campus of Microsoft, where there's especially high interest in Tesla's exotic machines.
That's just the beginning. Tesla representatives are also scouting locations for a showroom and regional service facility they want to open here by June.
Among the first Tesla buyers was Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who could receive his within a few months.
Others include current and former Microsoft employees, some of whom want the zero-emission vehicles, which accelerate from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds, to demonstrate their concerns about overdependence on fossil fuels.
Dave Denhart, a longtime developer of Microsoft's "Flight Simulator" game, paid a deposit in October 2006 on a Roadster he expects to receive in January.
Denhart ordered it in yellow, like the suit he now wears when commuting from rural Redmond on an electric Vectrix motorscooter. He hopes the flamboyant color will engage people in conversation about the promise of electric cars and the need to reduce oil consumption.
"I'm out of my comfort zone — I usually work as a mild-mannered software developer," he said, explaining the color choice.
"The car is small enough that I want people to see me in traffic," he said. "But the other thing is, I want people to notice the car. I'm not making a statement — 'Look at me, I'm driving around a $100,000 car' — that's not the point. I want people to notice, 'Wow, that's a different car, that's an electric car.' I want people to come up and talk to me."
There had to be some extra motivation to put down $50,000 to $75,000 on cars that were still in development and, until the Seattle store opens, will have to be serviced in California.
"I just feel this is exciting technology with the promise to make a big difference," said Tom Burt, Microsoft vice president and deputy general counsel, who hopes to receive his electric-blue Roadster early next year.
Burt loves sports cars and owns two hybrids, a Porsche and a single-seat racer. Yet he's also concerned about the effect fuel-powered vehicles are having on the environment.
"I thought this is a way to bring together two of my interests — can we change what we do every day to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels on one hand, and on the other hand, it's a really cool sports car," he said.
Besides, "the car itself was beautiful and even the prototypes were just phenomenal in their performance."
Tom Saxton, a Sammamish software consultant who was an early Microsoft employee, is excited about helping a company that can "make a real difference to the environment."
But he was also blown away by the Roadster's torque when he test-drove prototypes in California.
"You put the pedal on the floor in the car and it's like you're in the sweet spot in first gear, where you're getting tons of acceleration and it just keeps going until you chicken out," he said.
Tesla is one of the boldest startups in years — an entirely new car company started in 2003 with an engineering focus and a mission to change perceptions of electric cars.
Politics aside, it's similar to boutique car companies such as Bugatti, which pushed the envelope of automotive technology with thrilling cars in the gilded 1920s.
Initial backing came largely from Elon Musk, the South African-born co-founder of PayPal who is also funding the SpaceX space-travel company and a solar-energy business. Other investors include the co-founders of Google and venture capitalists.
Tesla had a few hiccups, including management shuffles and problems with a two-speed transmission that was dropped in favor of a one-speed, but it's apparently found its stride.
Last week, the company broke ground on a $250 million headquarters factory in San Jose, Calif., that will have 1,000 employees. It's going to produce an electric luxury sedan that's expected to start about $60,000 and go on sale in 2010.
"Now we are on the main road, so to speak," said Chief Executive Ze'ev Drori, who previously ran semiconductor and automotive-security companies in the Bay Area.
Roadsters will continue to be built mostly at the Lotus factory in England — they're based on the Lotus Elise — and flown to California for final assembly.
Altogether Tesla aims to produce 30,000 vehicles per year. Five years from now, "we are going to be a major car company," Drori said.
So far the company has delivered about 30 Roadsters and has about 1,200 deposits.
The company didn't say how many have been ordered in the Northwest, but it ranks fourth among the major cities receiving the cars, just ahead of Miami, according to Darryl Siry, senior vice president of sales.
Showrooms are now open in Los Angeles and Menlo Park, Calif., and Siry is scouting locations in the other cities as well as Seattle.
Instead of a traditional dealership, Tesla showrooms are in the spirit of an Apple store.
Seattle moved up in Tesla's plans early this summer, after a big response from customers.
"When the company started, they were envisioning the Bay Area and L.A. and New York and Chicago would be our key markets," Siry said. "But Seattle was interesting because it developed into a larger market. In hindsight it seems obvious — Seattle isn't a huge sports-car market, but it's a huge technology-influenced market."
Who can afford it?
There are also a lot of people here who can afford the car.
Denhart said Teslas appeal to people with engineering and technical backgrounds.
For one thing, they can accept that it's still not a perfect solution.
Battery life is limited — they can go about 240 miles on a charge — and it's unclear what will happen when the batteries stop taking charges in about five to seven years, he said.
There's also the question of whether Tesla Motors will even be around in seven years.
But technical people also have faith in the progress that the cars embody.
"I think there's a lot of people in this industry, at Microsoft, who are used to technology and change — that's the other thing we have going for us as a group of people, we deal with change every day," Denhart said. "If you don't, you're dead."
More than a car
Ordering a Tesla was a philosophical jump for Eric Brechner, Microsoft's director of engineering, learning and development. He's never been into fancy cars, but he wants to help change the perception of electric cars.
"From my standpoint, I feel like I'm contributing to a cause that means a lot to me, and I am driving around a billboard that says, 'Hey, this is what an electric vehicle could be. It doesn't need to be some weird cheesy thing that doesn't really look for feel like a car,' " he said.
"If that wasn't enough, I get a car, a pretty nice one, so it's quite the deal."
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or email@example.com.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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