This past week, Fast Company visited Tesla Motors headquarters for a look at the automaker's progress on its first mass-market vehicle, the Model S electric sedan. We had the chance to see the Model S Alpha testing fleet, see some of the vehicle's innards, and speak with JB Straubel, Tesla's CTO as well as Peter Rawlinson, VP of Engineering (we also spoke with Rawlinson at January's Detroit Auto Show). Here's what we learned.
The Battery Pack
The Model S's ultra-light battery pack (Tesla won't say exactly how light) can be swapped out in minutes with the right machinery. That means the pack could in the future be compatible with Better Place's automated battery swap stations. There are around 7,000 cells in the lithium-ion pack, which has a 10 year life span. The pack provides the Model S with up to a 300 mile range—and the whole thing can be recharged in just 45 minutes.
The Model S's motor is liquid cooled, which increases its continuous power and allows higher speeds for longer. By comparison, the Roadster featured an air-cooled engine. According to Straubel, two generations of technology from the Roadster have gone into what we see in the Model S.
The Front Module
The front of the Model S is made out of high-strength boron steel and is covered in energy-absorbing foam to reduce the damage from collisions. The system also features three radiators, with two side ducts that cool the car and a middle radiator that deals with heat from the motor and battery pack.
The Model S has undergone extensive durability testing, including low-speed crash testing and winter weather trials. "We've driven it into the ground on sheet ice and rotted roads," says Rawlinson. "There were zero failures." The low-speed crash testing also reportedly yielded impressive results. Next up: hot weather testing this summer.
The Alpha Fleet
Tesla has a fleet of 20 Alpha testing vehicles. They include one vehicle used for air-conditioning testing, one used to tune noise vibrations, one for winter testing, and one used to fine-tune the vehicle's interior. The Alpha cars are being built at Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., but the beta testing vehicles will be built at Tesla's supplier starting in three months. Soon after, beta production will switch to Tesla's $42 million Fremont factory, which will begin commercial production in 2012. The base price for the 160-mile option is $57,400, the 230-mile option is $67,500, and the 300-mile option is $77,400.