• Mar 21, 2011
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.

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...

Photos copyright ©2011 Damon Lavrinc / AOL

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      Last time I checked Silicon Valley wasn't open with its secrets....cough, cough, Apple
      • 3 Years Ago
      I want one...but I don't want to pay for one

      It would be nice if they offered plug in Hybrids and EV's
      • 3 Years Ago
      The rear suspension looks awfully similar to a BMW Integral IV type suspension
      • 3 Years Ago
      Why does SHOP CLASS always come to mind when I hear TESLA? LOL
        • 3 Years Ago
        I don't know considering they have brought in some of the top people in the automotive industry.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I would like some idea of the interior planning. When I bought my Cirrus aircraft they said it would have an interior on a par with a BMW 5 series and they delivered on that promise very nicely. I would like to see a mockup of the interior before I plunk down a deposit.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I want those Snap-on tool boxes.
        • 3 Years Ago
        If you purchase enough tools from them, you can get the boxes free...
      • 3 Years Ago
      If Tesla was spending money wisely, they wouldn't be renting 350,000 of the most expensive real estate in the country in Palo Alto and instead using their already purchased Fremont plant 15 miles away. It's not like they don't have space there.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Would you take them seriously as an automaker if they set up shop in dinky little garage of house in the suburbs of San Diego?
        • 3 Years Ago
        It makes perfect sense. The Model S is still being developed. As such, the engineers are spending a lot of time working hands-on as the cars are assembled, and going back and forth between the shop and their offices. Would Tesla rather have their engineers spend more time on-site/in their office, or spend more time driving back and forth to Fremont?
        • 3 Years Ago
        Development of the Model S includes the design and development of the line that will eventually build the production car. As they develop the car, they will also build the production line. Having their initial build space in the same location as their future production might cause logistical and planning problems. My guess is they want to keep their production facility as clean, flexible and efficient as possible, so their spending money upfront for the future savings in production.

        Also, their ownership of NUMMI is tied to Toyota. They may not have the ability to do whatever they please with the whole place.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Exactly why I commented their offices should be where production will be - in Fremont.
        It's all moot though since we learned the timeline.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Last I heard, they were looking for tenants to lease a large chunk of NUMMI that they did not have plans to use. I don't see how you could be anymore efficient than having all your production in one place, in facilities with logistical infrastructure ready to go (shipping for example.

        I suspect the Palo Alto address is more about image, trendy coffee shops nearby, etc. Memories of the dotcom days, money for nothin', it's all for free.
        Fremont is a little too working class to sully around.

        That said, I would sure like to work there too.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I love what Tesla is doing and I am all for them.

      But, I hate to say it, but these prototype cars do not look as "nice" as
      the Model S at there website (http://www.teslamotors.com/models).
      The website car looks like a $57,000 car but these prototypes do not.

      Unless the prototypes are jazzed up a bit, I think the car may not be as
      popular as Tesla would like it to be ( and therefore not sell as many).
        • 3 Years Ago
        Really? Looking at the pictures, my thoughts were how are they going to make money on this car. Granted, most of my impression is based on looking at stuff underneath the skin, but look at those suspension arms and the front subframe. These are not cheap parts. Maybe there isn't a lot of shiny stuff on the outside, but then again, these are just pre-production units. Can't wait to see the finished product.
        • 3 Years Ago
        ( Unless the prototypes are jazzed up a bit, I think the car may not be as
        popular as Tesla would like it to be ( and therefore not sell as many). )

        I should clarify a little better. I am talking about the outside of the model S. The front end is what I am concerned about. It looks a bit plain. Although the black color does not help us see all the detail. The mid section and rear are ok. And we do not have a good side view photo.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I'd give my left nut to work there. Hell I'd give both of 'em.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @ blunckhouse
        • 3 Years Ago
        How many left nuts do you have?
        • 3 Years Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      Cool preview of the car here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2FJKY2-E6g
      • 3 Years Ago
      "...so much so that Tesla engineers reduced the diameter of the sway bars because the pack provided enough torsional rigidity."

      I believe this is an inaccurate representation of the causal relationship going on here. An increase of the torsional spring rate of the structure between the front and rear tracks would not, by itself, necessitate a decrease in roll rate (e.g. stiffer anti-roll bars) at both tracks. I suspect that the author is actually trying to describe the lower overall roll rate requirements because of the relatively low C.G height afforded by the mass and position of the battery pack.

      Now, changing the *difference* between the front and rear roll rates as a function of the chassis torsional stiffness is another thing.

      Good place, good people, and a good car. I hope it works out.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Oops. I should have written "(e.g. softer anti-roll bars)."
      • 3 Years Ago
      They have their two best employees on it!
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