Auto Show Happenings

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been away from the blog for a while. I’ve been a bit busy lately, but I knew you would enjoy reading other perspectives from the Tesla Motors staff.

Tesla Motors is definitely a cast of characters – passionate about our mission, strong opinions, interesting backgrounds. I have never before worked with such an amazing team. I hope you enjoyed meeting a few of them – you will meet more in later blogs.

As you know, we showed the Tesla Roadster in Yokohama’s booth at the L.A. Auto Show. We did not bring the car to the Detroit Auto Show, though several of us attended.

Alternative fueled vehicles were definitely the hot topic at both the L.A. Auto Show and the Detroit Auto Show. Every major manufacturer was bragging about their newest direction for alternative fueled vehicles, and the governors of both California and Michigan already knew all about Tesla Motors when I met them.

Ford's 'fuel cell hybrid' platform

Lithium Ion Everywhere
Interestingly, Ford showed a “fuel cell hybrid” concept platform in Detroit. (Not really a car – just a frame with some components attached to it.) This was a typical hydrogen fuel cell layout, but with an additional Lithium ion (Li-ion) battery pack providing boost to make up for the anemic fuel cell stack. No plug-in capabilities evident on this one.

General Motors, of course, did a complete about face with their Li-ion powered concept car – more later.

Most of the other car companies showed some sort of plans for Li-ion cells in hybrid cars. I guess the word is out. I find it quite amusing to see so many car companies now embracing Li-ion batteries, when only last July most said that Li-ion was not the way to go for cars.

From Horses to Horsepower
People accused me of writing GM CEO Rick Wagoner’s speech at the opening of the L.A. Auto Show, when he explained that “at the end of the day, the transformation from mechanical automobiles to vehicles that run on electricity will be as important as the transition from horses to horsepower.” He went on to announce a very modest plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn VUE hybrid, which he said will have an electric range of something like 4 miles.

GM's Volt

Then at the Detroit Auto Show, GM showed off a new plug-in hybrid concept car called the Volt (not to be confused with the 2005 Toyota hybrid concept car called the Volta). This car will allegedly be able to drive 40 miles on plug-in electric power and has a little turbo-charged 3-cylinder gasoline engine driving a generator that can charge its Li-ion batteries while you drive. It featured typical auto show concept-car styling and hand-built, show-car construction.

Significantly, GM has abandoned the inductive “paddle charger” of yore, instead featuring a conductive interface that allows charging from standard electrical outlets. What a great idea!

I was a little surprised by the motor on the prototype they showed. It was a permanent magnet “brushless DC” type motor, maybe 50 percent larger than our motor and rated for only 160 horsepower. (The Tesla Roadster’s motor delivers about 250 horsepower.) The reason I was surprised is that GM had a pretty good AC induction motor and matching inverter in the EV-1. (See Wally’s recent blog for a discussion of these motor types.) The GM guy at the booth explained that this is the motor used on their fuel cell vehicles. My guess is that all the bright minds behind the EV-1 don’t work at GM anymore.

Volt motor

I bumped into my friends Chris Paine and Bob and Chelsea Sexton at the Volt stand. I congratulated Chris on his David versus Goliath success, getting GM to come around again to electric cars. Wagoner recently conceded that “axing the EV1 electric car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids was the biggest mistake of my tenure at GM.” It is a concession I am sure had something to do with Chris’s Who Killed the Electric Car.

Chris and Chelsea were, of course, delighted with GM’s new direction. They are willing to put their full endorsement behind the Volt, should it ever become a real car. So how real is it? (Chelsea seemed a bit miffed that GM wouldn’t hire her as the Volt’s spokesperson. But, then again, GM might just have an ax to grind with her. :) )

Right now, the Volt is only a concept car and even its EV-ness is a little unclear. GM claims this is a flexible platform (“eFlex”), which can be set up as a plug-in hybrid car, a hydrogen fuel cell car, or even a “clean diesel” car. None the less, GM spokespeople insist that this is a high priority for GM and they intend to bring it to market as soon as the kinks in the technology are worked out – for an aggressive $30,000 price point.

GM's totally tricked out truck

GM seems to be trapped in the same thinking that hobbled so many EV ventures in the past: If they can’t see the way to make an inexpensive electric car as their first model, they can’t see the business case for EVs at all. Why don’t they think this way about the Corvette? Or the Escalade, for that matter? Elsewhere in their booth, they showed a totally tricked out truck that cost $95,000 and gets something like 8 mpg – go figure.

Specifically, GM cites the Volt’s Li-ion batteries as problematic, even while acknowledging that Li-ion is the best available formulation. They recently awarded two parallel development contracts for the Volt’s battery system: one to Cobasys (together with A123) and the other to Johnson Controls/Saft. Through the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC, comprising GM, Ford, and Chrysler), they also recently funneled $15 million into A123.

Cobasys, you might remember, is what Ovonic became after Texaco acquired it from GM. (Ovonic was Stan Ovshinsky’s company that made the NiMH batteries for the Gen 2 EV-1.) Hmm. Johnson Controls is tight with GM, making all sorts of components for GM (and others), especially car interiors. Johnson Controls bought battery maker Saft in 2005, I think. Conspiracy theories abound.

Is GM Right?
At first blush, one would think that a plug-in hybrid with a short driving range requires less battery technology than a pure electric car with a decent driving range – the hybrid is a stepping stone to the ultimate pure-electric car. But this is the opposite of the truth. Here is why.

Consider the perspective of just one cell (of arbitrary size) within a battery pack. Such a cell is rated for a certain number of charge/discharge cycles. (For better quality cells, 2 half-charge cycles or 4 quarter-charge cycles age the cell the same – or slightly less – than 1 full-charge cycle. See my battery blog for more on this subject.)

Let’s say the cell is rated for 500 cycles. Now let’s pack enough of these into a battery pack so that the car can go 250 miles on a charge. Simple math gives us the lifetime range of this battery pack: 500 X 250 = 125,000 miles.

Okay so far… Now, let’s make a smaller, 40-mile pack. The lifetime range of this pack is only 500 X 40 = 20,000 miles! To get the same lifetime range, a Chevy Volt with a 40-mile driving range would need batteries that are roughly six times as good (3,000 cycles) as those in the Tesla Roadster. Not coincidentally, the GM spokespeople say that they will launch the Volt when they can get 3,000 to 4,000 cycles out of their battery system.

So, strange as it may seem, battery technology that is good enough for the Tesla Roadster is, in fact, not good enough for the Chevy Volt. Not even close.

Dan in the Hallway
On the way out of the show, my bud Dan Neil of the LA Times cornered me to get my unvarnished opinion of the Chevy Volt. Those of you who read Dan know that he’s been pretty positive about Tesla Motors. But he is a reporter – a pretty good reporter – and he has succeeded in the past in prying more info and opinions out of me than I wanted to let on. :) Naturally, I said that I thought GM’s move validates our market, etc., etc. I also expressed some skepticism as to whether this would ever become a real car.

But I was pretty down on GM’s recent request to Congress for $500 million to fund battery development. GM is apparently pitching this as a national security issue, and, in a way, I agree.

However, the private sector, including the top-tier Silicon Valley VCs, are already pumping money into companies with promising new battery chemistries. And Tesla Motors (as well as others, I am sure) is already developing good large-format battery systems that are independent of any particular cell chemistry.

The only place I could see a national security argument that is worthy of my tax dollars is actual fabrication – a factory here in the United States that manufactures competitive commodity cells of the latest chemistry.

Battery fabrication is a bit like IC fabrication: the year-by-year improvements in capacity and quality come largely from relentless manufacturing "tweakmanship" (if I might coin a word). Look at Intel, for example. They make some of the finest silicon in the world, and do so right here in Silicon Valley. Any company that outsources its manufacturing to become a “fabless IC company” has stepped off the escalator, and will find it very difficult to get back on. Unfortunately, every single U.S. battery company stepped off the Li-ion escalator. (A123 opaquely says that “A123 operates a combination of wholly owned, state-of-the-art, tier one manufacturing plants and subcontractor facilities in China, Korea, U.S., and Taiwan.”)

Maybe an investment from Uncle Sam could create a U.S. manufacturer so that we can have a little more control of our destiny as more of our transportation moves to electric power.

We’ll see what Dan writes…

Our 'Motor City' office

Other News
And while I was in Detroit, we opened our new Motor City engineering office in Rochester Hills, Mich., with a WhiteStar (our planned four door sports sedan) design review. We already have a dozen employees there, busily working on WhiteStar. We plan to continue hiring in Detroit, aiming for around 50 people there by the end of 2007.

I remarked in the press recently that since the big car companies there were letting quite a few good people go, it made sense for us to be there – hiring. Word got back to me that none of our new Motor City staff was laid off – it was a point of pride that they chose to leave their past jobs to come and join Tesla Motors. Either way, I know great people sometimes get laid off. We wouldn't be hiring in Detroit otherwise. (Sometimes I can get my whole foot into my mouth.)

Our first Motor City design review was quite impressive – the team is definitely hot. I am honored that top talent believe in what we are doing enough to join us. And I am increasingly optimistic about the future of American car companies. Or at least one of them. ;)


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