How the Tesla Model S Works

The Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S
(Courtesy of Tesla Motors, Inc.)

Tesla Motors is a California based car company that's making waves for making practical, fully electric cars that also happen to be rather nice. But it wasn't always that way, especially considering the company's brief history (founded in 2003). Tesla's first car was the Roadster, which was a Lotus Elise body fitted with an electric motor. So in other words, instead of a $50,000 gasoline-powered Elise, Tesla buyers got a $100,000 modified electric Elise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tesla sold just a couple thousand Roadsters. The Model S, Tesla's latest all-electric sedan, is a fresh design and is hand assembled piece by piece, which is only two of the reasons it's getting so much attention -- a lot of people didn't think Elon Musk, the company's charismatic co-founder, could pull it off.

Even though Musk has a long history of accomplishments in the tech and engineering industries, as well as some impressive financial savvy, auto industry insiders were pretty skeptical he'd be able to build a car, and it seemed that more than a few of them were hoping his boasts would come back to bite him [source: Mueller]. And even though Tesla Motors was founded by a group of like-minded tech-forward entrepreneurs, Elon Musk always seems to be the one out in front taking (and making) the shots. The truth is, it's better for almost everyone if Musk and his cohorts succeed. It's better for the U.S. domestic auto industry's overall reputation, even if the big automakers don't like the competition. It's also better for the technology industry, and it's better for future energy policy, too. Who knows? It might even help Detroit shake some cobwebs loose.

As of August 2013, Tesla outsold Porsche, Volvo, Lincoln, Land Rover and Jaguar in the California market [source: Mlot]. California is an important benchmark because of its relatively high median income and its push toward environmentally friendly vehicles (and it also happens to be home to Tesla's headquarters). California's car sales are thus rarely indicative of nationwide trends, but this statistic is seen as important nonetheless, due in part to the state's heavy investment in electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

The Model S was made possible thanks to a hefty loan from the Department of Energy. Apparently, $465 million will finance a lot of research. And Elon Musk is no stranger to such things -- he has a solid history of assembling the best talent to carry out his detailed objectives. Though the Roadster's been retired, the Model S sedan hit the streets in June 2012 (and the Model X SUV is forthcoming). All three cars are designed to take advantage of the efficiency of the AC (alternating current) induction electric motor designed by engineer and physicist Nikola Tesla back in the 1880s. Success of the Model S means big things for this relatively small company -- and for domestic energy policy and even for the future of cars in general.

The Best Car ... Ever?

The Tesla Model S is the only all-electric car on the market that was designed from the ground up.
The Tesla Model S is the only all-electric car on the market that was designed from the ground up.
(Courtesy of Tesla Motors, Inc.)

Some journalists think the Model S might be one of the best cars ever built. More objective measures indicate it's one of the safest. We already know what Elon Musk thinks.

Tesla claims to have achieved the highest safety rating of any car in history. Or, in other words, the occupants of a Tesla Model S are more likely to survive a crash than the occupants of any other vehicle on the road. In a press release written by Elon Musk himself, the company all but claimed that the car is so good, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests were inadequate to judge its capabilities [source: Vance]. Not only that, during the procedure that measures the crush rating of the roof, the machine that attempts to press in the roof (and always succeeds, to some degree) broke.

The Model S is built in a factory in Fremont, Calif., which was originally a General Motors (GM) facility. It closed in the early 1980s, and then reopened when GM and Toyota formed a partnership to produce vehicles on shared platforms. When GM killed off some of its lower performing brands, this production facility was no longer needed, and Tesla acquired the property in 2010. The deal included some machinery as well as the production space, and was sold to Tesla Motors for just about 15 percent of the amount of the federal loan. Tesla also acquired tooling from other closed factories at a fraction of the price, and 95 percent of Model S parts (including the crucial battery packs and drivetrain components) are manufactured on-site.

Even buying a Model S is a different experience -- rather than cultivating a network of franchise dealerships, Tesla controls the entire process. The company owns small boutique-like showrooms (sometimes compared to Apple stores) where cars are tested and orders are placed. Tesla says it's simply too small to follow the traditional dealership model, and that their system is better anyway because it provides a more intimate experience for shoppers -- one that the company can control completely. (By early 2013, only 250 Model S customers had received their orders; however, another 13,000 or so buyers were still waiting. There's no reason to follow a distribution model that favors high turnover when meeting volume is the weakest link in the system.)

The Tesla Model S is the only all-electric car on the market that was designed from the ground up. (Nissan's LEAF, by comparison, is widely recognized as a groundbreaking fully electric vehicle; but it was designed and built using a lot of pre-existing Nissan parts.) And though it's based on Nikola Tesla's innovations, which are well over a century old, it's shining a light on the future of the automobile, especially when paired with Tesla's high-tech batteries. The Model S trim lines are known by their battery specs -- buyers can choose from a 60 kWh battery, an 85 kWh battery or an 85 kWh battery with extra performance features. The 60 kWh battery is rated to achieve 208 miles (334.7 kilometers) per charge and has a top speed of 120 miles per hour (193.1 kilometers per hour). The upgraded battery provides 285 miles (458.7 kilometers) on a charge, and can achieve speeds of 125 or 130 miles per hour (201.2 or 209.2 kilometers per hour). Oh yeah, and the whole package is totally emissions free.

The Signature Performance trim line produces 416 horsepower, achieving 60 miles per hour (96.6 kilometers per hour) in just 4.3 seconds. That speed is made even more fun by the instant torque, 443 lb-ft, which blows away other electric cars. Even the specs that some people would consider a limitation are a vast improvement over previous incarnations of the technology. It's also rear-wheel drive -- because it's efficient (the motor is mounted at the rear wheels), so no power is wasted traveling down the line. Rear-wheel drive also contributes mightily to the Model S performance car personality. Tesla's brake system is regenerative, which is a system in which the process of slowing or stopping the car actually collects energy and feeds it back to the battery. This isn't really any kind of all-new electric vehicle innovation -- regenerative braking became a common feature on hybrids within the last decade or so. If the Model S didn't feature such a system, it would probably be considered a massive oversight. And the Model S is silent, too, which is reportedly a little surreal at higher speeds [source: Mueller].

It isn't just the feel-good cutting-edge stuff that's helped Tesla rack up award after award. Automobile Magazine's editors were shocked by its performance and ultimately named the Model S the 2013 Automobile of the Year. (Reportedly, it initially wasn't even perceived to be a true contender.) And other auto magazines have followed suit. So what else is so great about a new car based on 130+-year-old technology?

The Namesake -- And a Whole Lot More

A 17-inch touchscreen provides console controls for the Model S.
A 17-inch touchscreen provides console controls for the Model S.
(Courtesy of Tesla Motors, Inc.)

What's the secret to making the Model S so safe, and why can't other car manufacturers replicate it? Well, that's what makes the Model S so exclusive and noteworthy in the first place. Since the Model S doesn't have a traditional gasoline engine under the hood, the safety benefits are twofold. The front area is used for storage like a regular sedan's trunk, which means, basically, it's a large crumple zone, which will absorb most of the impact of a front end collision. And since there's no fuel on-board, there's no fuel to catch fire. The Model S electric motor is relatively small and mounted near the rear axle, which means it's not likely to be in the path of damage during an impact. The Model S also has a very low risk for rollover. So low, in fact, that it resisted flipping during normal testing procedures. That's thanks to a low center of gravity, with the battery and motor locations chosen for optimum balance. Aluminum construction means the body is very light and very strong, since it's reinforced with steel.

The Model S is attractive package, but not so much that it'll cause a double take. The most noteworthy thing about the exterior might be the flush mounted, pop-out door handles, because you don't even notice them until you approach the car, reach toward the door and the handle simply appears. Robert Cumberford, Automobile Magazine's resident design expert, explained that the subtlety of the exterior gracefully disguises a very aerodynamic profile. The interior is rather plain, but enclosed by lots of glass highlighting carefully chosen touches of luxury -- a 17-inch touchscreen in the dash serves as the console controls. Wood and leather trims complement a minimalist vibe. Calm and relaxing, perhaps, but some Model S owners would actually prefer a storage cubby here and there [source: Noland]. (There's also a drop-in console as an available option.) The back seat is comfortable, and larger families have the option of ordering a Model S with a rear-facing, two-seat, third row. The panoramic glass roof can block up to 98 percent of visible light and 81 percent of the heat beating down on the car, and it's controlled by a swipe of the center console touchscreen.

The Model S can be recharged at home or at work with charging stations. The hardware (called a Supercharger) comes standard on high-end models and is a $2,000 option on lower models. If the Model S needs to be juiced-up mid-trip, a network of Tesla-specific Supercharger stations will be operated by solar technology, managed by SolarCity (which is another Elon Musk project), providing free unlimited charging to Tesla owners. About 20 minutes on a Supercharger will gain about 75 miles (120.7 kilometers) of driving range [source: Noland]. The network is expected to be in place by 2014, and will actually help the general population along with Tesla owners. That's because the solar panels will generate more power than people will need to recharge their cars, and what's left will be fed back into the grid as clean, available power. The Model S gets the equivalent of 89 miles per gallon (37.8 kilometers per liter), giving it a range of 200 to 265 miles (321.9 to 426.5 kilometers), depending on the battery option. Most subcompact EVs can only go about half that distance on a single charge. Supercharger stations also plan to offer a battery swap service. Model S owners can swap a drained battery for a full one in less than two minutes (for an additional fee, of course), but they'll also have to collect their original battery on the return trip.

So much is made of the Supercharger network that it might sound as if it's the only option for recharging. Not so. The Tesla Supercharger is just an extra convenience feature (and it's totally free for owners of 85 kWh models and accessible by 60kWh owners for an additional fee). The Model S comes with everything necessary to power up at a public EV charging station, a 240v home charging station, or, if you prefer, a plain old 120v wall outlet in your garage -- although it'll be just a bit slower. Charging times can be scheduled via the car's touchscreen controls or a smartphone app.

The Model S isn't flawless, and its biggest problem seems to be power retention. Owners report what they call "vampire" power losses -- noticeable drains on the battery while the car is parked. The problem is fixable with a software update; kind of like downloading an operating system update on your cell phone (the Model S downloads it via WiFi). Tesla says there's a fix in the works but it's not ready for release yet [source: Noland]. It's well known that batteries don't function as well at low temperatures, so it's acknowledged that the Model S (along with hybrids and other EVs) would suffer the same fate. Green Car Reports says that over a few months of winter driving, the test car's range suffered by approximately 20 percent [source: Noland]. This will be less of an issue as EV infrastructure continues to develop and people become accustomed to it. Not only that, but battery technology continues to improve, too.

A couple decades ago, conventional wisdom said that, once hybrids arrived, they wouldn't be for everybody. The same went for the first few EVs. They were small, uncomfortable-looking and rather inconvenient -- suitable for short trips only. But the true success of the Model S is that it appears to be changing that perception, and Tesla seems determined to make EV ownership a possibility for everyone who drives.

Author's Note: How the Tesla Model S Works

There's something about Nikola Tesla that makes everyone think they knew him. Or at least, talk like they knew him. And the same can be said, I guess, for his modern day counterpart, Elon Musk. And that sets Tesla up for a lot of criticism, much like reaction to Apple. It would have been easy to spend this entire article talking about Tesla's namesake technology, or the corporate culture for which it's quickly becoming infamous. Contrarians want to prove that Tesla (the company, not the man) is not infallible. For example, Tesla lists their prices as if government incentives have already been factored in, assuming buyers will qualify for them, even if they don't [source: Ireson], which is fodder for critique. Tesla also includes preorders in sales figures, even if such an order doesn't officially qualify as a sold car. But Musk and Tesla have enough fans to weather the storm, even if, similar to Apple, a lot of adoration comes from fans who can't quite yet afford the products they covet.

One night while I was writing this article, I happened to be at a tiny dive bar that also happens to have a stage. I was there because a musician friend of one of my East Coast cousins happened to be performing. Aside from the actual performance, I was annoyed with the evening; it was a college bar and the college crowd was irritating me. One guy, in particular, was sitting front and center, enthusiastically lecturing his companion about Elon Musk and his high-speed rail initiative. Annoying, but admittedly, a little impressive. He wouldn't be going home with the cutest girl in the bar, for sure, but he did have an inkling about what the future holds. His future looks a lot brighter than mine did at that age, and he (unlike the rest of his schoolmates at the bar that night) at least has the insight to realize it (well, to the extent he thought about it while enjoying a beer, anyway). So here's to Elon Musk, for inspiring good bar discourse -- even at the expense of good music.

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  • Cumberford, Robert. "By Design: Tesla Model S." Automobile Magazine. Nov. 2012. (Aug. 29, 2013)
  • Ireson, Nelson. "Tesla Model S Isn't a Luxury Car, So Stop Comparing It To Them." Motor Authority. Aug. 23, 2013. (Aug. 27, 2013)
  • Lott, Melissa C. "Is the Tesla Model S the safest car ever made?" Scientific American. Aug. 26, 2013. (Aug. 27, 2013)
  • Mlot, Stephanie. "Tesla Model S Outselling Porsche, Jaguar in California." Aug. 26, 2013. (Aug. 27, 2013),2817,2423614,00.asp
  • Mueller, A.J. "2013 Automobile of the Year: Tesla Model S." Automobile Magazine. January 2013. (Aug. 27, 2013)
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