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As Congress debates whether or not to bail out the Detroit automakers, this question remains: Does Detroit have what it takes to create a new kind of car for the 21st century? In California's Silicon Valley, a small start-up company called Tesla Motors has already done it. They've built an all-electric sports car that travels long distances on a single charge. Here's the catch: It costs more than $100,000. But cheaper models are on Tesla's drawing board. Like Ford, GM and Chrysler, though, Tesla faces economic challenges and an uncertain future. Tonight, in the first of two stories, NPR's John McChesney explains why reinventing the car isn't so easy.
JOHN MCCHESNEY: In an upscale showroom in Menlo Park, California, a low-slung, sleek, black sports car crouches on the floor. Manager Jeremy Cleland shows off some of the car's features.
Mr. JEREMY CLELAND (Car Showroom Manager): This here is a 2008 Tesla Roadster. Now this car here is a hundred percent electric, operates off of a lithium ion battery pack. It has 6,831 individual commodity cells. We get 244 miles per charge with this vehicle.
MCCHESNEY: Cleland calls them commodity batteries because they're just like the ones you find in laptops. That kind of battery made this car possible. The Roadster was largely the brainchild of Martin Eberhard, who developed the first electronic book reader back in the 1990s.
Mr. MARTIN EBERHARD (Cofounder of Tesla Motors): Remember that five years ago, when we started testing motors, there was two things that everybody in the world knew about electric cars: one that was that they sucked, and the other was that they were dead.
MCCHESNEY: They were dead because California, under pressure from Detroit, had dropped the electric car from its zero-emissions mandate, and the Big Three immediately shut down their EV operations. GM even recalled and crushed all of its EV1s. At about the same time, Eberhard had decided that electricity, rather than hydrogen, was the propulsion fuel of the future. He and his cofounders decided to target a niche not occupied by Detroit.
Mr. EBERHARD: And create a new segment of high-performance sports cars for the people who love them, but also for people who actually care about oil consumption, who care about their footprint on the Earth. And with that, if we succeed with that, we build a brand that allows us to move into other segments of the market.
MCCHESNEY: With a carbon fiber skin made in France and an aluminum frame made by Lotus in England, and a thousand pounds of batteries made in Asia, the Tesla Roadster was born after a very difficult labor period.
(Soundbite of Tesla plant)
Unidentified Man: Separate blank(ph), clear right here, on that side.
MCCHESNEY: Today, the shells are flown in across the Atlantic, and the power trains are installed here.
(Soundbite of men talking)
MCCHESNEY: No assembly line for the Tesla yet. Three workers roll around under the car, lifting the 1,000-pound battery pack into place.
(Soundbite of battery pack being lifted)
MCCHESNEY: After the batteries comes the drivetrain, an electric motor attached to the transmission. The remarkably small, gleaming motors are lined up here on a bench. They're about the size of a big watermelon. Elon Musk is CEO of Tesla.
Mr. ELON MUSK (CEO, Tesla): Tesla designed a motor that is the highest power-to-weight motor and highest efficiency motor in the world for this application. Our motor is capable of putting out 300 horsepower, but if you were to look at an industrial 300-horsepower motor, it's a size of a small refrigerator.
MCCHESNEY: So, of course, we had to go for a ride to see what this $110,000 machine could do. We were accompanied by Rachel Konrad, a publicist for the company.
(Soundbite of beeping sound)
MCCHESNEY: A few beeps tell you the car is on. Otherwise, you wouldn't know; it's so quiet. And Rachel Konrad has a lead foot.
Ms. RACHEL KONRAD (Publicist, Tesla): Put it in drive. It's a single- speed transmission. And unlike a Lamborghini or Ferrari or some vehicle where you really need a lot of driving skill in order to get to peak performance, we like to say zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds, and even your grandma can drive zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds. Because it's just...
(Soundbite of Tesla Roadster)
MCCHESNEY: Whoa. That's pretty amazing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MCCHESNEY: Like a slingshot, and just as quiet. No exhaust blast, just a gutsy whine when you floor it. Tesla has delivered just 70 Roadsters and hopes to produce 1,500 next year and then begin producing a lower-priced sedan in 2011. But the company is struggling, and it's had to lay off workers recently. Dan Neil writes about the automotive industry for the Los Angeles Times.
Mr. DAN NEIL (Writer, Los Angeles Times): I think Tesla has dramatically changed the mental landscape of the electric car. And it was a fascinating proposal, an electric sports car. Use the sex and glamour and cachet of sports cars to push this technology forward, and then generalize it with a family sedan.
MCCHESNEY: But Neil is skeptical that the company will be able to deliver on its dream.
Mr. NEIL: I think that it's a very close call whether they will achieve even half of what they've claimed they will achieve.
MCCHESNEY: Tomorrow, we'll look at another Silicon Valley start-up that's planning an infrastructure for electric cars. John McChesney, NPR News San Francisco.
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