Tesla stands alone in pushing the limits of battery power: developing the software to make its all-electric Model S sedan the most advanced semiautonomous car on the road, equipping its cars with a dual-motor all-wheel-drive powertrain, and preparing to introduce its second vehicle—a seven-passenger luxury SUV called the Model X—late this year. That’s not to mention plans for its third car—the Model III—an affordable (think $35,000) cousin sedan to the flagship Model S, or its $5 billion Nevada Gigafactory, where it will build enough lithium-ion battery packs to supply half a million vehicles annually.
Chief executive Elon Musk has shown that his reputation for disruption is deserved. First he proved that battery-powered cars are not only possible but desirable: Sales of the Model S—the company’s first mass-market luxury sedan than can travel up to 265 miles on a single charge—are growing exponentially in the U.S. and China. The company says it sold 7,785 Model S cars in the third quarter of 2014, more than in the entirety of 2012, when the cars were first available. Then the upstart automaker turned the industry’s century-old idea of the model upgrade on its ear by spearheading over-the-air software releases. The remote updates make it as easy to download software for your car as for your iPhone, and they don’t require a trip to Tesla’s factory-owned stores. An October 2014 update included automatic cruise control, highway steering, and emergency braking, putting Tesla one step closer to the Jetsons-esque fantasy of reading the paper or taking a snooze in the driver’s seat. Meanwhile, it’s overhauling the long-entrenched dealer system, challenging franchise laws in several states for the right to open stores. Sure Tesla inspires rabid fandom, but it’s got the numbers to justify it: The automaker’s market valuation exceeds $30 billion, which is more than half the market cap of General Motors, the largest U.S. automaker.
- Model S upgrade: Tech like sign-reading cameras make it the most advanced semiautonomous car on the road.
- Factory boom: Tesla is building a $5 billion factory that can make lithium-ion battery packs for 500,000 cars annually …
- Affordable future: … reducing battery prices 30% and moving Tesla toward its goal: a $35,000 electric car by 2017.
Illustration: Chris Philpot
This video inside a Tesla Model S captures some of the car’s coolest semiautonomous new features: The car can follow lines in the road to stay within a lane, and a camera reads speed-limit signs and either slows down or speeds up the car accordingly.
[Illustrations: Chris Philpot]