DETROIT - The Tesla Model X family SUV-slash-minivan prototype that is debuting at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit is certainly a pretty machine with its rear gull-wing doors and an iPad-like 17-inch dashboard touch-screen interface that will make tech geeks and Apple fundamentalists swoon.
The X, which Silicon Alley-based Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA) says will begin production next year at its assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., seats seven adults in three rows powered by a dual-electric motor all-wheel drive. The massive lithium ion battery – available in 60 KwH for 230 miles of range or the 85 kWh for a travel distance of 300 miles – is distributed along the floor of the vehicle, which means the front where a traditional engine would be located is freed up for storage. The gull-wing doors are more than an artifice; when open they allow passengers to stand completely up in the center row improving interior mobility for removing groceries or setting up a child seat.
Whether the X or any other electric vehicle will be something average car owners with average incomes would consider buying, especially outside of densely populated urban zones, depends on three factors: range, cost and infrastructure. None of these have been resolved in any capacity that would make electric vehicles competitors to regular gas burners or hybrids.
Tesla has been losing money – a billion dollars as of last summer as it engages in the capital intensive effort to set up manufacturing and marketing – and it won’t yet disclose how well sales are going for its Model S sedan that began deliveries last June. Despite having just won the 2013 Motor Trends Car of the Year, sales performance of the American-innovated, -designed and -manufactured beauty will be a harbinger of whether the company will be able to move forward successfully with the X.
Charging a Tesla, or any other electric vehicle, effectively requires the 240-volt station that comes with most electric vehicles. These domestic charges can fill up a Tesla overnight. The company has built six so-called Superchargers stations that allow trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a one-way distance of 420 miles, as well as spurs that allow drivers to recharge their way to Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas. The company says these stations can give a 50 percent charge in 30 minutes.
None of this is enough to sustain a car company, and for electric vehicles to truly take hold in America or any other country, charging points will need to be as ubiquitous as gas stations. The price of the Model S starts at $52,400 including the $7,500 federal tax incentive aimed at encouraging consumers to go green. But that’s a starting-level battery with a range of 160 miles. The price of the Model X isn't likely to be much less, and could be higher. The Model S Performance vehicle showing in Detroit had a sticker price of over $99,000.
Tesla can make wonderful and environmentally friendly Made-in-the-USA cars, but if the prices don’t come down, if the battery technology isn’t extended, and, most important, if the country doesn’t put the pedal to the metal to expand the number of places the batteries can be re-charged so that owners aren’t rushing home to plug in, then Tesla will either find a niche among the world’s environmentally friendly luxury car buyers, or end up in the history books as an early but unsuccessful American innovator.
The North American International Auto Show opens to the public on Thursday and runs through Jan. 27.