LETTER FROM CALIFORNIA

[ Sun. Aug. 23. 2009 ]

ABSTRACT: LETTER FROM CALIFORNIA about Elon Musk and electronic cars. In a dressing room above the “Late Show with David Letterman” stage, the electronic-car magnate Elon Musk sat on a sofa, eating cookies. Musk, thirty-eight, is the chairman, C.E.O., and product architect of Tesla Motors, and he was appearing on Letterman to show off the company’s newest design: a sleek sedan called the Model S. After co-founding the Internet start-ups Zip2 and PayPal, when he was in his twenties, in 2002 Musk launched the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), with the ultimate goal of colonizing Mars; the company recently won a $1.6-billion contract with NASA to resupply the Space Station. In 2004 he provided Tesla with its initial funding, in the belief that electronic vehicles, or E.V.s, together with solar power, will help wean the world off oil. For decades, E.V.s resembled hovercraft or mobile eggs, and their lead-acid battery packs were costly and sickly. Last fall, Tesla began making the only highway-capable E.V. now available: the Roadster, a $109,000 sports car that goes from zero to sixty in less than four seconds and has a range of two hundred and forty-four miles. Powered by a lithium-ion battery, the Roadster was designed to prove that E.V.s can not just compete but excel. Musk plans to cut the price for each of Tesla’s succeeding models more or less in half and seize the market from the top down. The Roadster can be found in the garages of George Clooney, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and David Letterman. Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and he attended Queen’s University in Ontario and the University of Pennsylvania. In 2004, Musk met engineer Martin Eberhard, who proposed to build a sports car with a lithium-ion battery. Musk agreed to underwrite the company. It took four and a half years and $140 million. As new car sales in America are expected to fall to ten million this year, the big automakers are developing E.V.s of their own. Mentions Ford, Chrysler, Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi. Describes Musk’s appearance on Letterman’s show. In late March, Tesla unveiled the Model S at a cocktail party at SpaceX’s headquarters, south of L.A. Mentions Anthony Kiedis, Rick Rubin, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. For now, if you plug your Roadster into one of Tesla’s seventy-ampere wall boxes (which the company will install in your garage for $3,000), it takes nearly four hours to recharge the car completely. Mark Duvall, of the Electric Power Research Institute, says, of the cost of building charging stations across the country, “If you want to use E.V.s to drive between cities, we’re probably into the hundreds of billions.” Shai Agassi, an Israeli software whiz who runs the company Better Place, plans to build a huge charging network. In early April, Tesla threw a cocktail party at the National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C., to show off the Model S to congressmen and other government officials. Mentions Diarmuid O’Connell, Sen. Maria Cantwell, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, and Mike Carr. Sen. Cantwell acknowledged that there’s no political will in Congress to prod consumers to switch to electric by taxing gasoline heavily, as is done in Europe.

 

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