I had one of the greatest indulgent pleasures of my life the other day. For one day, Tesla Motors gave me a Tesla Roadster to do with what I wish. This was a 2008 prototype model in red.
From simply setting up a blog about the Volt concept two years ago, unbelievably I was now being handed the keys to one of the most remarkable vehicles in the history of the industry, because I it turns out, have become a voice for the advocacy of electrification of the automobile. Below is my account of the experience, and DON'T MISS my video at the bottom of the post.
It was a beautiful crisp and cold Winter morning when I drove down to a midtown Manhattan parking garage that seemed like any other. I took along a friend of mine, a fellow doctor with a deep knowledge of automotive engineering and who happens to be a surgeon with very good hands.
After dropping off my car and giving the attendant the secret password, within minutes a shiny red Tesla Roadster was the feast before my eyes.
At first sight the car seemed strikingly smaller than I imagined it to be, and not surprisingly looked a lot like a Lotus Elise. This should not be too surprising as Lotus designed the $109,000 Tesla’s body. Here before me was the car that by most accounts and in most experts opinions represent the turning point in automotive history. The vehicle is the link I think it shall one day be known as between the ancient gas powered automobiles and the future electric fleets to come.
Getting into the car required a little gymnastics as it is small and extremely low to the ground. Once inside though it was like being in another world. It had a raw yet exclusive feel, and gave one the impression of being inside a race car. I sat very snugly in my seat and in that narrow space found myself quite thrilled.
The steering wheel struck me because of its very narrow radius and hearty grips, again what one would expect for a performance car. There was no power steering, so steering the car a low speeds required a bit of effort.
The displays were also unlike anything you’d see in a typical car. To the left was a battery silhouette- shaped LCD meter that displayed how much charge remained, on the left it told you how far you could drive if you kept driving at the level of aggressiveness of the previous mile, to the right was how far you could drive if you followed the EPA schedule. For me, I started at around 100 miles EPA. You see the car wasn’t fully charged, as full capacity is 244 miles. Tesla had only days before gotten it into New York from California, and did not yet have 220v access nor a 110v charger. My ride north to my suburban town would be about 50 miles.
Controls were found along a thin center console along the floor which included the shifter and parking brake, as well as climate controls. The housing was a raw carbon fiber mat. The leather seats were comfortable and taught. Turning to look back and there was the rear windshield; neither back seat nor semblance of storage space could be found. There was no glovebox either but a short receded shelf was available on the passenger side, adequate for some storage. Though I didn't notice it, there is a cupholder which swings out from the driver's side of the center console.
Turning the key lit up the displays and triggered the emission of a light chime indicating the car was ready for driving. Then the fun began.
Stepping on that accelerator on that certain Saturday in February was something I’ll never forget. The tremendous powerhouse of electric tension pent up in that gigantic lithium battery pack seemed at my most immediate disposal. I was afraid the car would be uncontrollable, remembering some Internet photo of a Tesla front end crumpled into the car ahead of it. But fortunately that wasn’t the case. The acceleration was easily controlled with light effort on the throttle. A throttle I might add that was delightfully responsive.
Once I got out of the parking garage and onto a wide open street, my moment had finally arrived.
With the gusto of ten decades of oil burning cars behind me I slammed that accelerator down.
One word describes the result…unworldly.
The little race car literally exploded though space with a mid-tone throaty electrical whine that sounded more like a spaceship than any car I’d ever heard.
The profound acceleration pinned me back into the seat and made me want to yell like you would on a rollercoaster. Surely I had the Tesla grin.
Letting off the accelerator was unique as well. You see you could feel the intense regenerative drag which caused the vehicle to quickly slow, and would continue to the point of stopping even without hitting the brakes. Braking itself was effective and not overly intense.
The car handled like a performance vehicle. The tight manual steering enabled precision and brisk turns and the car hugged the road well. The double wishbone suspension allowed for great handling but also caused you to feel every pothole and bump in the road and produced quite a few loud pavement slams.
I took the car through the streets of Manhattan and stopped for a few photo ops in Times Square and by the Met Life building on Park Ave.
I drove it up the highways towards upstate New York. The acceleration continued to marvel and thrill me. The car could accelerate well even starting out at 50 to 60 mph. Top speed is 125 mph, something I didn’t try to achieve.
Another very unworldly feeling from driving the car was the lack of a transmission and gears, one of the hallmarks of electric cars that comes as a bonus in addition to the instantaneous torque. You see the motor's redline is 13000 RPMs, not the usual 6000 or so of conventional cars. Your mind tells you to expect to shift, but it doesn’t happen, you can just keep going faster and faster. This is something that takes a while for the brain’s circuits to adjust to.
The car was fascinatingly quiet at slow speeds though at high velocities wind noise was very audible due to the removable top. The car was entirely made of hand-crafted ultralight carbon fiber, which made closing the hood and trunk a little challenging as they had nearly no weight. With the massive 53 kwh battery pack in its center, the car weighed in just under 2700 pounds including the battery pack.
After about two hours of driving fun I arrived back at my house with 16 miles of estimated range and 25 miles of EPA range. There was no way I was getting back to the city to drop the car off! And there was the three-headed, or should I say three-pronged monster that I’d only heard of, staring me right in the face…Range Anxiety!
Fortunately my doctor friend and co-pilot had a friend with an arc-welder in his garage. And so too, as it need be, a 220V 50 amp power outlet. After a few unanswered calls we finally got a hold of him and drove to his house. At this point my little range gauge told me "power reduced" and “battery almost empty.”
The small trunk of the Tesla, which at best could hold a small bag of golf clubs, held a potpourri of chargers and adapters. We finally found a male plug that would fit in our friend’s outlet, but this required some reattaching of it to the copper wiring.
Finally the plug went into the wall. We opened the door of the Tesla which of course wasn’t a gas tank but a unique four pronged charge port. The other end of the charger slid in twisted and locked. Some clicking and whirring sound were heard along with an eerie flashing green light, and then those most comforting of words popped up on the cars screen…charging.
After about four hours running 220 V at 50 amps I found the car about 80% full and indicating a range of 168 miles. And so it was that I could deliver the car back to Manhattan. And so I did for another glorious ride, and the occasional gawking stare and thumbs up of people in passing cars who recognized this amazing car. Passing the tolls on the George Washington Bridge I could hear the shout of joy from one of the toll-collectors “that’s an electric car.” I sat in some heavy Manhattan traffic getting back to the parking garage and felt serene knowing no emissions were spewing from my car despite the sea of fumes around me. I imagined the day all of those cars too were electric.
The Tesla Roadster is a sheer phenomenon, the remarkable product of start-up can-do mentality and brute force determination, proof to the world that electric cars can work, are incredibly fun to drive, and will change the future for the better. They can and should be credited for triggering the big automakers including GM to begin developing electric cars.
Thank you Tesla Motors for this invention and opportunity , for helping to spur an automotive revolution and taking those first ginger steps to a world without oil.