Since its release last June, the Tesla Model S has accumulated a significant collection of industry recognitions, including multiple 2013 Car of the Year awards. I had a chance to test drive one recently, and can say from firsthand experience that these accolades are well deserved. This isn’t just an amazing electric car; it’s an impressive car that happens to be electric. From an engineering standpoint, it also represents a radical push for innovation. Take a look at this list of some of the patents filed by Tesla since 2008—over 250 active ones related to the development of the Model S alone, and more are still pending.
The Model S represents as much a paradigm shift in automotive engineering as it does in our collective opinion of EVs. Though most of Tesla’s technological innovations remain invisible to car buyers, there are a few noteworthy components that are readily apparent once you take a test drive. One of the larger issues facing EV manufacturers is what to do with the battery; they’re heavy, and their positioning within the chassis can greatly affect performance. Tesla’s solution to the problem was to create a planar battery pack, and fit it along the bottom of the chassis, lowering the CG moment of the vehicle and increasing handling performance. Moreover, the 416 hp electric motor is capable of generating 443 lb-ft of torque available at any time, for any reason, meaning the car’s acceleration is far superior to an internal combustion engine (ICE). The same torque is available across the entire rpm range of the motor, so it doesn’t matter if you are at a standstill or at 60 mph. Additionally, the car has a coefficient of drag similar to a Ford GT, and can hit 60 mph in four seconds. I’m a BMW enthusiast, and in my test drive, the Model S ripped through corners and handled an emergency lane change like a sports sedan half its size.
Perhaps even more impressively, the battery – an issue-turned-asset for Tesla – is field replaceable. Owners can swap the base 40 kW-h battery pack for an upgraded 85 kW-h setup if they feel so inclined. The simple fact that this integral and inspired design element is customizable by the consumer represents an impressive degree of engineering on Tesla’s behalf. This is clearly a driver’s car. The interior boasts a 17” touchscreen that allows the operator to extensively modify the driving experience by changing steering modes, regenerative braking, and even an adjustable air suspension that automatically changes ride height depending on conditions.
The next big challenge to be confronted by this new American manufacturer is range anxiety. People remain skeptical of EVs because of their alleged inability to match the driving distances of ICEs. As Tesla begins to design new vehicles with composite frames, continues improving battery technology, and refutes sensationalists in the press (ahem John Broder), the young company will continue to lead the vehicular march towards a cleaner future with a much smaller carbon footprint. Even now, Tesla is developing an EV with a $30k price point to broaden the possibility of ownership to the Prius crowd.
The Model S is a huge step in the right direction. Beyond the landmark strides in tech and engineering, it’s a cool car. The EV stigma disappears in the four seconds it takes to hit freeway speeds. As a result, in the next decade—maybe even the next five years—we may feel the same way about ICEs as we feel now about cathode ray tubes: how quaint.