Tesla in final stages of Model S prep; readying Supercharger network for road trips

Tesla Motors has nothing but undeniable design hits in its two-vehicle portfolio. We know this is true because there has been very little written about how bad the Roadster and the Model S look. We're about to see if the company can make it three in a row when the wraps come off the Model X at a special event February 9 in Los Angeles. Getting our first visuals of that crossover will certainly be interesting, but it's really just a part of what Tesla is calling "The Year Of The Model S." The Model S, after all, heralds a new Tesla brand, so the Model X needs to "have the same design cues" while also expanding Tesla's lineup.

A lot of people would love a minivan but can't bring themselves to buy one, so they drive an SUV.

Those are the words of Tesla's vice president of communications, Ricardo Reyes, who told AutoblogGreen during the Detroit Auto Show that the Model X will be a true seven-seater that combines "the functionality of a minivan with a cool SUV/crossover package. A lot of people would love a minivan but can't bring themselves to buy one, so they drive an SUV." Tesla wants to offer an alternative to the traditional SUV bodystyle just as it offers an alternative electric powertrain. The move into utility vehicle territory, also marks the end of an era of sorts. The car that brought electric vehicles roaring back to life – Tesla's iconic Roadster – is about to go the way of the dodo.

Right now, Tesla's Fremont factory (the former NUMMI plant) is still building beta versions of the Model S as it gets ready for the first production versions. Because of this, Tesla is confident that Model S deliveries will start in the U.S. this summer as scheduled, and that means that Tesla will sell the last Roadsters here soon. Reyes told AutoblogGreen in an email:

From the beginning, the Roadster was conceived as a limited production vehicle. Our original agreement with Lotus was for a glider run of 2,400 vehicles. Due to continued demand, we increased production into 2012 for a total run of 2,500. We decided to continue offering Roadsters in the markets outside the United States where Model S deliveries start later. Model S deliveries are on schedule to begin in the United States in mid-2012. They will follow in Europe about six months later.

To date, the Roadster sold well over 2,000 units around the world, with "approximately half" sold in the U.S., but the car is about so much more than giving a few thousand wealthy people a thrilling, emissions-free car.

"We are here because of the Roadster," Reyes said, talking about Tesla as a company. "Because the Roadster so quickly changed everyone's viewpoint on what an electric vehicle could be, an electric car became desirable."

tesla roadster 2.5

And now people are desiring the Model S. The vehicle configurator only went online a month ago and Model S customers are just beginning to pick their options, so Reyes said he does not yet have a good breakdown on which of the three battery sizes will be the most popular. The 1,000 Signature editions of the Model S are all sold out, he said, which indicates that the 300-mile range option might be the popular choice when the first full batch of Model S orders comes in (2012 production of the Model S is also sold out). An important thing to note is that Tesla is now counting on people to stick with the battery pack they buy with the car and not rely on battery swapping for special occasions. This goes against something that Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last year:

When people take an occasional two-way long distance trip, they'll get a replacement pack and then pick up their original one on the way back. The issue of giving up your one-year old pack for a three-year old one goes away.

In Detroit, Reyes stepped back from this idea, saying, "I don't think people should buy a car thinking I'll buy this one now and if I decide to change options later I can go get a new battery. It's designed to have a removable battery, but the way we're looking at it, that's mostly for servicing."

Just as Tesla needed to come up with its own charging system when the Roadster was introduced, the company has its own plan for taking EVs on road trips: it's called Supercharging. This is the name for Tesla's DC fast-charging option that will allow a ten-percent-to-90-percent charge in 45 minutes, Reyes said. He added that it wouldn't take many Superchargers to give drivers of the higher-range Model S vehicles the ability to drive from coast to coast, but the low-end Model S with a 40-kWh battery pack, for example, won't be able to Supercharge.

Chart of Tesla battery size options with several Model s's along bottom of frame

"The solution to when people want to take a road trip for the 300- and 240-mile range packs is going to be charging and supercharging," Reyes said, describing the network Tesla is talking about building. "If you look at an 'H' system [in the U.S.], the most popular routes on the west coast, the east coast and then cross-country, and then you have little spoke systems along the way, you pretty much cover the country with not that many systems," he said.

How many make up the "not that many" that it would take to blanket the country coasts "pretty well"? Reyes said it's fewer than 30 locations. (*UPDATE: Reyes emailed to say this number is just to cover the coasts.) Once this basic network is in place, more out-of-the-way routes could get Superchargers. Reyes notes that the cost to put in one of these Supercharging stations is "a fraction" of what it costs to put in a new gas station. Some possible routes? D.C. to New York; D.C. to Boston and San Francisco to Los Angeles, to name just three. "Suddenly, the whole 'I can't take road trips,' and range anxiety and all these red herring arguments are essentially obliterated at that point," Reyes asked.

Suddenly, the whole 'I can't take road trips,' and range anxiety and all these red herring arguments are essentially obliterated.

With Supercharging and the Model S, Tesla is trying to redefine what's possible with an electric car – again. The Model X is the next step. For now, Tesla just has a driving prototype and a design prototype for the Model X (photographers, keep your lenses peeled), which suggests many details about the vehicle are up in the air. One thing that is certain is that the Model X is going to introduce an all-wheel drive option, because "Tesla wants to keep innovating," Reyes said. It is also likely that the Model X will have a range of battery size options like the Model S does, but since the X isn't due for a few more years, it's too early for numbers. "It's impossible to predict how quickly technology is going to advance," he said. "We have good partners like Panasonic that continue to do research. We keep supplying them with real-world data from Roadsters and from other companies that we partner with. As far as what we offer [in the Model X], it's too early to tell," Reyes said.

Then there are the far-off future plans for the next-gen Roadster. This car is coming, but at this point, it's not much more than a flicker in Musk's eyes. Currently, Reyes said, Tesla's entire focus is on finalizing the Model S betas and getting the Fremont factory ready to start production. Any leftover oxygen will be used on the Model X, which means any next-gen Roadster work sits on a dark, cold back burner. Someday, though, this will change, and when it does, we'll be watching.

Tesla Information

Share This Photo X