Tesla Model S Development Facility
Tesla Model S Development Facility - Click above for high-res image gallery

It's not every day that an automaker invites you inside its R&D center. In fact, it's rare for any OEM to allow journalists into a room that hasn't been swept floor-to-ceiling for any hint of what's around the corner. Then again, Tesla isn't exactly your average automaker.

The electric upstart, with its roots firmly entrenched in the Wild West idealism of Silicon Valley, is in the process of developing and testing its all-new electric sedan – the Tesla Model S – before series production begins next year. So in the Valley's spirit of openness and transparency, Tesla threw open its doors, corralled a few engineers and execs, and let us poke around its Palo Alto powertrain facility to see how development of the Model S is coming along.


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Photos copyright ©2011 Damon Lavrinc / AOL


The last time we were offered a glimpse behind the scenes at Tesla, the automaker was still holding court at its... ummm... quaint production facility up the road in Menlo Park. While the Menlo operation is still around (joining battery packs and motors to the Roadster "gliders" coming in from Hethel), the new Palo Alto center makes a convincing case that Tesla is joining the Big Leagues.

If there was any doubt Tesla isn't spending its partnership funding properly, Tesla's new powertrain plant puts that to rest. The 350,000-square-foot building is a massive, three-story ode to EV engineering, with a horizonless bottom floor producing battery packs and assembling motors, and a second floor littered with monitors, cubicles and Tesla employees plugging away.

When we arrived, we were quickly ushered into Tesla's main research and development bay, where a dozen Model S prototypes in various stages of completion were parked, stripped or hung from rotary lifts. A handful of workers were poking, prodding and assembling one in the background, and when asked what they were up to, we were told that the crew was comprised of managers from the newly acquired NUMMI plant across the Bay being shown how to assemble Tesla's latest EV. Despite toiling over each nut, bolt and alignment, in the time it took for one exec to explain the rear subframe, the workers managed to mount the front clip (comprised of a boron steel beam, three radiators and assorted structural supports) and battery pack into one hoisted sedan – something that, according to our hosts, will take under a minute when production begins in Fremont in 2012. Now, about that battery pack...

Tesla Model S Development Facility

The flat, black unit houses around 7,000 lithium-ion cells and is mounted directly underneath the Model S. When Peter Rawlinson, Tesla's VP of Engineering, mentioned the minimal amount of time it takes to install the pack, we naturally asked if it was designed to be swappable. At this point, Tesla isn't saying it has plans to offer a swapping service similar to that proposed and executed by companies like Better Place, but the potential is there, and that speaks volumes in-and-of itself.

Regardless, Tesla claims that the pack will be good for up to 10 years, with three capacities available to Model S buyers: one good for 160 miles, and two others that boost the range to 230 or 300 miles (charging times will vary from a few hours to a working day's worth). Pricing for each comes in at $57,400 for the 160-mile variant, with the 230-mile version commanding around $67,000 and the 300-mile pack model coming in around $77k – all before federal tax credits are deducted.

Tesla Model S Development Facility

Tesla's learned a lot from the 1,500 Roadsters silently motoring around the planet, with owners logging nearly 10 million miles in the last few years. Compared to the packs fitted to the coupe, the Model S' batteries not only boast increased performance, a longer life and higher energy density, but they are less costly to produce than those fitted to Tesla's original EV. And that increase/decrease stands to continue. While there's no Moore's Law-type equation to determine the rate of battery innovation, Tesla CTO JB Straubel figures that advances in both energy storage and density are improving at a rate of around eight percent each year.

Tesla isn't citing a weight for the battery pack just yet, but Rawlinson likes to point out that not only is the thin grouping of cells mounted incredibly low in the body, it's been designed to be an integral part of the chassis – so much so that Tesla engineers reduced the diameter of the sway bars because the pack provided enough torsional rigidity.

Tesla Model S Development Facility

As for the liquid-cooled motor, Rawlinson likens it to a Swiss watch, with all the components systematically developed and fitted to be as compact as possible – a good thing, considering it's sandwiched between the rear axles. Yes, the Model S is a proper rear-wheel-drive sedan, kicking out around 295 pound-feet of torque and 300 kWh from the combined motor/power control unit (in the pic above, the motor is on the left and the PCU is on the right).

All told, Tesla is claiming a 0-60 mph run of under six seconds, and when we asked what other products Tesla was benchmarking against the S, the response from Rawlinson was simple: "The best of everything."

Tesla is unapologetically hyping up the fact that the Model S has been developed (and soon to be built) entirely in-house, with production plans of around 20,000 units each year. But before series production begins, Tesla needs to test, crash, test, torture, test, drive and test its Alpha fleet of vehicles.

Tesla Model S Development Facility

To that end, Tesla is building 20 prototypes at its Palo Alto facility, mainly comprised of the black sedans littered throughout its workshop to test a variety of different systems. One is being used to evaluate the electrical system, another is the dynamics and handling mule, while yet another is undergoing stress testing, logging the equivalent of 250,000 miles in around six months. Two brake testing vehicles are undergoing evaluation in the chilly wilds of Wisconsin and Model S Program Director Jerome Guillen drove one of the prototypes to work the day we arrived. So... comprehensive, then.

Tesla plans to produce around 100 total testers before production begins, with the Alphas running around for three months, followed by dozens of Beta versions set to be built in Fremont later this year. The orange sedans in the shop are being developed for crash testing, and while Tesla reps will only say that full impact testing is set to begin "very soon," they've already performed a series of low-speed tests and were incredibly pleased with the results.

But with all this new production capacity, square-footage and warm bodies, how is Tesla going to turn a profit? Straubel admits that there are a lot of moving parts with its project, but is adamant that the Model S will keep Tesla in the black. "We simply can't sell this car at a loss." No kidding, Straubel. We'll let you get back to work...


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Photos copyright ©2011 Damon Lavrinc / AOL