Automotive

The rise of Tesla: From boutique to big time?

The rise of Tesla: From boutiq...
The Model S (pictured) is well out of reach for most buyers, something that Tesla is looking to address with its Model 3
The Model S (pictured) is well out of reach for most buyers, something that Tesla is looking to address with its Model 3
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Tesla has pushed the infotainment game on with the 17-inch touchscreen in its Model S
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Tesla has pushed the infotainment game on with the 17-inch touchscreen in its Model S
The Model S blew us away with its incredible acceleration
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The Model S blew us away with its incredible acceleration
With an 85 kWh hour battery, we never felt the pinch of range anxiety
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With an 85 kWh hour battery, we never felt the pinch of range anxiety
The Model S is beautifully designed and feels well put together, even though Tesla is only 13 years old
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The Model S is beautifully designed and feels well put together, even though Tesla is only 13 years old
The Model S P90D is fitted with motors on the front and rear wheels. As well as better traction, that means crazy acceleration
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The Model S P90D is fitted with motors on the front and rear wheels. As well as better traction, that means crazy acceleration
The Model S (pictured) is well out of reach for most buyers, something that Tesla is looking to address with its Model 3
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The Model S (pictured) is well out of reach for most buyers, something that Tesla is looking to address with its Model 3
The Tesla range grew to include the Model X last year, a car that will be joined by the smaller Model 3 on March 31
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The Tesla range grew to include the Model X last year, a car that will be joined by the smaller Model 3 on March 31
Tesla has worked hard to make its cars the safest on the road
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Tesla has worked hard to make its cars the safest on the road
The Model X has fancy falcon doors fitted
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The Model X has fancy falcon doors fitted
Although it's billed as a family car, the Model X is well beyond most families' price range
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Although it's billed as a family car, the Model X is well beyond most families' price range
The Model X's seats allow for great legroom for passengers in all three rows
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The Model X's seats allow for great legroom for passengers in all three rows
The Model X is built around the same platform as the Model S, although the big SUV body means it's not quite as fast
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The Model X is built around the same platform as the Model S, although the big SUV body means it's not quite as fast
Tesla will launch a car with a totally different focus to the Model X on the 31st of March
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Tesla will launch a car with a totally different focus to the Model X on the 31st of March
The Tesla Supercharger network in Europe - there are plans to expand the network to include the greyed out pins as well
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The Tesla Supercharger network in Europe - there are plans to expand the network to include the greyed out pins as well
Superchargers dot the main corridors across the USA
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Superchargers dot the main corridors across the USA
The Model S debuted a range of new features that only appeared after an over-the-air update
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The Model S debuted a range of new features that only appeared after an over-the-air update
Updates have added adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist and improved navigation for cutting down on range anxiety
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Updates have added adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist and improved navigation for cutting down on range anxiety
The Tesla Roadster was the brand's first offering to the market
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The Tesla Roadster was the brand's first offering to the market
The Roadster proved electric cars can be fun and fast as well as economical
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The Roadster proved electric cars can be fun and fast as well as economical
The Tesla Roadster reinforcing its green credentials
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The Tesla Roadster reinforcing its green credentials
Elon Musk envisions a mass-setup of Powerwall batteries which could power a whole town
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Elon Musk envisions a mass-setup of Powerwall batteries which could power a whole town
The Tesla Powerwall is designed to allow home owners to capture energy from solar panels and use it whenever they want
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The Tesla Powerwall is designed to allow home owners to capture energy from solar panels and use it whenever they want
View gallery - 22 images

Since its inception in 2003, Tesla has pushed the development of electric cars at a rate unmatched by any mainstream manufacturer. With niche cars like the Roadster and high-end electric saloons like the Model S, the Silicon Valley startup has a core following among cashed-up early adopters, but March 31 marks the date Elon Musk takes his project to the mainstream with the more affordable Model 3. So how did Tesla get here, and what challenges lie ahead?

Tesla was formed in 2003 by a group of engineers in Silicon Valley. Keen to prove the instant torque, smooth acceleration and zero emission motoring offered up by electric cars, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning financed the fledgling company until Elon Musk's involvement began in 2004. The story around who is responsible for Tesla's foundation and initial funding is still contested, but after a game of musical chairs involving the brand's founders, Elon Musk took over as CEO in 2008 and still holds the reins to the electric car manufacturer.

Roadster

The Tesla Roadster was the brand's first offering to the market
The Tesla Roadster was the brand's first offering to the market

In his first year in charge, Musk oversaw the launch of the Roadster, a Lotus-based sports car capable of dispatching the 0-60 mph (97 km/h) sprint in 3.7 seconds on its way to a 209 km/h (130 mph) top speed. Drawing on 6,831 lithium-ion cells, the Roadster was fitted with a complex network of microprocessors to maintain balance and temperature among the batteries. Power was put to the road through a single speed gearbox, after initial attempts at making a two speed unit were foiled by the Roadster's torquey three-phase, four-pole AC induction electric motor.

Although it set tongues wagging at launch, the Roadster's debut wasn't exactly without incident. For one, initial range estimates promised 245 miles (394 km) before an "equipment calibration" error led to that figure being downgraded by 24 miles (39 km). In 2009, the Roadster was recalled for incorrectly tightened rear flange bolts, which could cause owners to lose control and crash – not something you want in any car, let alone your US$110,000 roadster of the future.

It wasn't all bad though: road testers were blown away by the car's lightning acceleration, and impressed by the Lotus Elise-based chassis' setup.

Model S

The Model S blew us away with its incredible acceleration
The Model S blew us away with its incredible acceleration

If the Roadster showed the world electric cars could be fun, the Model S announced Tesla's intentions to move from boutique startup to a more realistic electric alternative to luxury stalwarts like Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar. Launched with a 40, 60 and 85 kWh battery packs, the Model S range now starts with a 70 kWh option, before jumping to a 90 kWh rear-drive and an all-wheel drive 90 kWh performance model.

With a claimed range of around 420 km (261 mi), the entry level Model S will hit 100 km/h (62 mph) in 5.8 seconds thanks to its 235-kW (315 hp) electric motor that generates 440 Nm (325 lb.ft) of torque. Those figures quickly jump into supercar-shading territory when you enter the P90D, which can reach 100 km/h in 3.0-seconds with the Ludicrous Mode upgrade installed. Thanks to upgraded battery connectors, which eschew steel for corrosion- and oxidation-resistant Inconel, the P90D Ludicrous' maximum pack amperage is 1,500 A instead of the 1,300 A from regular Model S.

One of the most prominent aspects of Model S ownership are Tesla's over the air updates, which ensure its cars are always fitted with the latest version of software. As well as updating things like dashboard layouts and the functionality of the in-dash touchscreen, over-the-air updates have helped to cut down on range anxiety by taking weather and altitude conditions into account and even added adaptive cruise control and lane keeping functionality to cars that previously lacked such capabilities.

Superchargers

The Tesla Supercharger network in Europe - there are plans to expand the network to include the greyed out pins as well
The Tesla Supercharger network in Europe - there are plans to expand the network to include the greyed out pins as well

Amid the constant hardware and software updates to the Model S, Tesla has also been rapidly expanding its network of Superchargers. There are currently 611 Supercharger stations worldwide, which means owners have access to 3,600 individual charge points across America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Unlike a regular wall socket, Superchargers operate at up to 120 kW and can give cars a range of up to 270 km (168 mi) in half an hour. It's not as quick as a fuel stop, but much faster than the few hours Tesla's own quick charger would require to provide the same charge.

Currently, the stations are positioned along major highways. For Australians, that means Model S owners can theoretically cover the 1,000 km (621 mi) between Melbourne and Sydney on Supercharger power alone. But with a starting price around $71,000 in America, and a list price of over AU$132,000 Down Under, the Model S is still well beyond the reach of the average buyer - as is the falcon wing-doored Model X SUV based on the same platform.

Model 3?

That's where the new Model 3 comes into play. Preorders for Tesla's cheaper sedan start on March 31st, although the car won't be produced until the Gigafactory being built in conjunction with Panasonic is up and running in 2017. Once the Nevada facility is open, Elon Musk is hoping to have it pumping out 500,000 battery packs annually by 2020: enough to support Model 3, Model S and Model X demand.

The Gigafactory will also support production of the Powerwall, a home battery designed to store energy for home owners keen to make the most of solar panels or cheap off-peak power rates.

According to an earning report released last year, the Model 3 will cost $35,000 and offer a range of more than 320 km (200 miles), which is similar to that offered by Chevrolet's Bolt. With 150 kW (200 hp) and 360 Nm (266 lb-ft) of torque on tap, the Bolt will have a range of over 320 km (200 miles) and retail for $38,000 before American tax rebates kick in.

So, why all the fuss about the Model 3 then? After all, Chevrolet is also out there trying to create an affordable EV for everyone, while Nissan and BMW already have production electric cars, as do Renault, and Mitsubishi.

Put simply, the Model 3 represents a crossroads for Tesla as it battles to become profitable. The Model S, Model X and Roadster are niche cars: perfect to show the world electric can deliver face-melting acceleration and usable range. But they're still beyond the reach of the average buyer.

What's more, Tesla is still a small fry compared to the automotive giants of the world, shifting 50,850 cars in 2015 compared to BMW's 2.2 million. Is it fair to compare a fledgling Silicon Valley startup with a company who's range starts with the Mini Cooper and tops out with the Rolls-Royce Phantom? Maybe not, but it's worth mentioning the relative size of Tesla when we start talking about volume sales.

Having recorded a $92 million loss in the second half of 2015, volume relative to the Model S and Model X is what Tesla needs from its new, smaller offering.

If the Model 3 can cash in on the cool-factor that has won the Model S and Model X so many fans, but also keep costs down, it can be the catalyst for the first American car company to float its stock since Ford in 1956 to cement electric power as a legitimate alternative to gasoline and diesel offerings.

We don't have long to wait for answers to these questions. The Tesla Model 3 launches tomorrow.

View gallery - 22 images
12 comments
sutski123
"One of the most prominent aspects of Model S ownership are Tesla's over the air updates, which ensure its cars are always fitted with the latest version of software. "
My mate's model S just popped up a SPOTIFY icon a few mornings ago and it (the Tessie) asked him if he has a spotify account to log into? "No" says my mate. "Would you like me to start you one for free" his Tessie asks him "Sure" says may mate "Beep beep, OK, you now have a Spotify account, what song would you like to hear first" asks Tessie.....
Wow.
Rocky Stefano
I love the car but until I can get one in a few months I just can't buy into this.
jerryd
Tesla tech got started in the EVDL EV group online that developed the small lithium cell pack concept, etc and ACPropulsion that supplied the motor/controller had built the T Zero IIRC it's name sportscar that Tesla copied . Now with the T3 and let's not forget the Bolt and likely 200 mile Leaf before the 3 comes out. Just with the SC, the only truly fast charger in just 20-30 minutes now, that let's Tesla be true long distance cars with an S crossing the country in 2 days, 10 hrs.
JanZboril
how does one get service with no dealerships. software up dates are nifty but what about hardware. I don't think these cars will last in the public's eye . They will just be a bling mobile
attoman
Since Musk joined Tesla a year after its inception he is not a founder and Tesla is one of the many things things Musk is involved with which he neither conceived nor started.
Except for his celebrity it is not clear what if any unique qualities he brings to the job except that being CEO to so many enterprises he is undoubtably short changing them all.
CharlieSeattle
...zero emission motoring? False!
Natural Gas and Nuclear plants supply 70% of the electricity.
http://energyalmanac.ca.gov/electricity/total_system_power.html
wle
these things cannot live without taxpayer support-subsidies
Daishi
There were tons of people in line at stores to to reserve a 3. I'm looking forward to the reveal today at 8:30 pacific.
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
"these things cannot live without taxpayer support-subsidies"
You mean just like how the oil industry (and some ailing auto manufacturers) cannot live without subsidies?
If anything, these things should get more subsidies, because they are currently peanuts compared to the amount going to the aforementioned.
Don Duncan
CharlieSeattle: EVs can be charged (fueled) by PVs, should the gas price rise, gas be scarce, an off grid driver chose, an eco-enthusiast want to "save the planet", or I want to be free from depending on the oil companies. Also, some power plants are hydroelectric. EVs provide more choice. That fact is not diminished because some energy may come from a polluting source. Therefore, it is true that the Model 3 makes zero emission driving possible.