The Road Ahead: A Tesla Car for the Masses?

Last week, Tesla released a series of short videos detailing the under-the-hood specs of the upcoming Model S electric sedan. Yesterday we had the chance to sit down with Peter Rawlinson, the narrator of the aforementioned videos, and Tesla's VP of engineering, at the Detroit Auto Show. We had to know: Why is Tesla spending so much time talking up its engineering credentials?

It all comes down to timing, according to Rawlinson. The alpha prototype for the 2012 Model S (pictured, in part, above), a version of the vehicle that undergoes extreme testing conditions, just finished its first test run. So Tesla figured it was time to show off the engineering prowess of the Tesla team in Detroit--that, and the automaker doesn't have any new models to exhibit. Unlike other automakers that greenwash their concept vehicles, you "can't fake" the kind of engineering unveiling offered by Tesla at the auto show, Rawlinson claims.

Say what you will about Tesla's lack of a mass-market vehicle (the Model S has a base price of $57,000, and the Roadster is in the six-figure range), but Rawlinson is convinced that the Model S's engineering will put off any naysayers. "Culturally, we're so different from traditional automakers that have silos of expertise--body people, suspension people," he explains. "We have an emphasis on process." That means the engineering team works together to make sure parts fit well together, and they're willing to compromise for the sake of the vehicle.

The Model S will be a platform for the Tesla brand--in other words, there will be other, similar vehicles coming down the line. Now that Tesla has the platform, other vehicles based on the Model S can be produced more quickly than they would without the already-built platform.

The Tesla engineer also hints that less expensive Tesla's aren't out of the question. "We've done the high-end product with the Roadster, the next cascade is the Model S, and the generation three platform will be even more affordable," he says.

But for now, Rawlinson wants to focus on the Model S, and for good reason. There's plenty of work to be done. When we asked if there were any major changes he would like to make between the alpha prototype and the production vehicle, Rawlinson responsed: "Do you have an hour?"

Read more coverage of the 2011 Detroit Auto Show.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.