Will Tesla Motors become the auto industry's next powerhouse innovation or suffer the fate of Tucker? • Tesla is the fast-rising California-based maker of the all-electric Model S luxury sedan, and the company is now focusing its marketing message on Central Florida. I had the chance to test drive a Tesla this past week. (More on that later.) Tucker is the company that in 1948 debuted its advanced automobile before collapsing under negative publicity that, even today, some blame on a conspiracy of the entrenched Big Three auto companies of that era. • This time around, things are different.
The Big Three of GM, Ford and Chrysler are today more like the Diminished Three. And Tesla, started by Paypal and SpaceX co-founder and Forbes 400 billionaire Elon Musk, already is a formidable, publicly traded corporation. Tesla shares that traded under $30 in the past year now hover closer to $180. Tesla's market value is a whopping $21.6 billion.
This is a company with clout, not some startup running up charges on a founder's credit cards to keep the lights on. Tesla comes armed with a remarkable, if very high-end, vehicle that already has won major kudos from the likes of Consumer Reports and top marks from national crash safety experts.
Then there is Tesla chief executive officer and product architect Elon Musk, whose reputation and wealth inspired the Iron Man movie character Tony Stark. That's fun. But it makes it harder to separate the Musk myth from reality.
Musk was most recently spotlighted in mainstream news for touting a new means of high-speed public transportation dubbed the Hyperloop. Passengers would ride in small capsules traveling as fast as 760 mph while floating on a thin cushion of air. Rather than rely on engines, the capsules would surf electromagnetic pulses in a set of tubes that could whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes.
Musk, 42, is not building the Hyperloop, just suggesting it as a possibility. His SpaceX project is developing advanced space rockets intended for eventual flights to other planets.
By those standards, his building Tesla cars in a California factory, with an SUV crossover slated as the next model, seems tame.
Now Tesla is pushing deeper into the Florida market.
Tesla operates a modest sales center in east Tampa at 1907 U.S. 301, just north of Adamo Drive. But the company says it is about to expand that center in anticipation of a bigger push into the Tampa Bay and Central Florida market. It already has a foothold in South Florida and is expanding the number of its recharging stations along I-95 and its sole Florida station along I-75 in Fort Myers. Eventually, it will reach the broader Tampa Bay metro area.
Florida already boasts nearly 400 public charging stations, including dozens in the Tampa Bay area, available for any electric vehicle.
Tesla is winning high praise from some early, deep-pocket converts.
"It's the best car I've ever driven — in part because everything is so logical," says Tesla owner Trevor Burgess, CEO of C1 Bank based in St. Petersburg. "I joke that it's like driving a spaceship — only because it is such a leap ahead of any other car I've ever driven."
I must admit the test drive of the Tesla Model S was an impressive experience. The sedan is simply and elegantly designed, quiet without the noise of a combustion engine and roomy even for my 6-foot, 4-inch frame.
There is no avoiding the power of the all-electric vehicle. Taking the vehicle on the interstate, the 416-horsepower, single-gear Tesla leaps quickly to 65 mph and, uh, beyond within seconds and only a slight touch of the accelerator.
The large and heavy battery that powers the vehicle is set low, helping the sedan to hug the road on turns.
The dashboard is striking for its absence of knobs, buttons and gizmos that some carmakers love to cram into their new models but often leave owners wondering what they all do.
An imposing 17-inch touchscreen mounted mid-dashboard offers rich content and mobile connectivity.
Unlike many other electric models, the sedan also boasts a boatload of trunk space.
A choice of lithium-ion batteries enables travel between charges of up to 200 or 300 miles. Recharging in the home garage can occur via a standard 110-volt or more quickly with a 240-volt outlet. Tesla also sells higher-power products for quicker recharging.
If the Tesla is such a magnificent ride, will I rush out to buy one?
No. At a base price of nearly $70,000 and upgrades topping $100,000, it's way too expensive for my budget. But consumers who typically consider high-end BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and other such luxury vehicles — especially those keen on zero emissions and eager to sever their ties to increasingly pricey gas stations — will certainly want to get behind the wheel of a Tesla to see what the (lack of) noise is all about.
I'm hoping, of course, that this is just the beginning of a new car company that will continue to improve its battery technology, expand its public network of charging stations and lower its cost to make Tesla models more for the middle class.
The good news is Tesla's early success quickly caught the attention of GM. The company now says it's working on longer-lasting batteries to take on the upstart electric carmaker.
There's nothing like the smell of fresh competition in the morning.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]