It's tough to say what is most surprising about the Tesla Model S all-electric sedan — the radical design changes that ensue when an automaker replaces the gas engine with state-of-the-art energy efficiency, or that the vehicle isn't confined to some Silicon Valley fantasy at all. A small but dedicated group of Tesla owners is quickly growing in New Orleans, and Tesla Motors is in the process of creating a new infrastructure to support their customers across the oil and gas-loving Gulf Coast.
"The car really feels like the future," said Matt Wisdom, CEO of New Orleans-based technology company TurboSquid and one of the first Tesla owners in the area. "It's not that they've built a relatively expensive car. It's that they've figured out how it's going to be. I have no question things are going to migrate this way."
Current Tesla owners were excited last week about the news that the company seems to be planning an expansion in New Orleans. Most of its stores and service centers are in California or the Northeast, with the closest locations already open in Houston, Atlanta and Tampa, Florida, but the company's website lists a number of other locations as "coming soon," including New Orleans, and the company's "careers" page currently has openings here for a service advisor and a service technician. Details about a New Orleans store are not listed, however, and Tesla officials did not respond to emails for comment.
David Wolf, a New Orleans attorney and Tesla owner, said locals have heard about possible plans for a service location for several months and are excited to see the company growing in this direction.
"My understanding is that they're looking for a location, but that's an ongoing process," Wolf said.
Tesla's all-electric vehicles are not hybrids; unlike many manufacturers, Tesla uses no gas tank at all, but is powered solely by a large rechargeable battery underneath the floorboard with "thousands of slightly-bigger-than-AA batteries," and a watermelon-sized inverter powering the rear wheels, Wisdom explained.
Tesla owners estimate they spend about $35 in electricity to drive 1,000 miles, compared to the $150 or $200 a gasoline-powered car would consume in the same distance. But the absence of a large gas engine or tank affects every aspect of the vehicle.
"A lot of what they did is just throw away what you're used to," Wisdom said.
Perhaps the most surprising visual illustration of this point is what's under the hood: nothing. That's where the trunk goes, or as the company calls it, the "frunk," the front trunk. Meanwhile, the backseat can hold three comfortably, and the hatchback style of the rear has room for two more rear-facing jump seats — creating room for as many as five people and two children, with "frunk" space for luggage.
For the driver, the acceleration on the Tesla is another surprising departure from a gas-powered vehicle. With no gears to shift, acceleration seems almost instantaneous. The car rushes from 0 to 60 mph in about four seconds, a rate associated with Porsches or even Ferraris and Lamborghinis — and the only sound from the car, even on the interstate, is that of the wind outside.
The first question most people have about the Tesla is its range. A fully charged car has a range of 265 miles, but to extend the battery life, it usually only charges to roughly 90 percent. That 200 miles or so is more than enough for most people's daily commutes.
"Every day you've got a full tank," Wisdom said. "It takes about five seconds to plug it in, so you quit worrying about whether or not you can make it somewhere during the day."
Design changes extend to the smallest details. The door handles are recessed into the door for aerodynamics, but automatically extend outward when the keyholder approaches. The dashboard replaces standard audio and temperature controls with a single, tall touchscreen, similar to an oversized iPad, with both 3G and wireless Internet. From the panel, the driver can access engine and steering settings, Google maps, satellite radio, temperature control and even the seat positions.
The instrument panel behind the steering wheel also is different. In addition to measuring speed, it also measures energy flow from the battery — and to it. The Tesla uses a technology called regenerative braking, which recaptures the heat energy as the car decelerates, so the dashboard shows the driver that the battery is recharging every time the vehicle slows.
But even Tesla enthusiasts admit the car has one significant weakness — it's not the ideal car for a road trip. A Florida vacationer from New Orleans could go the 200 miles to Pensacola on a charge, but not the 600 miles to Orlando. That, however, is changing.
The company already has built a network of free, high-speed "supercharger" stations up the East and West Coasts and spanning a route from Los Angeles to New York, and has plans for a Southern route across I-10 with a location in Louisiana by the end of 2014. The stations can provide 200 miles of charge in about 20 minutes — time for a snack or bathroom break — and essentially will allow Tesla owners to drive cross-country for free.
Tesla does not use traditional dealerships; instead, its cars are sold online through its websites, and its showrooms are simply places for customers to learn about the car before making a purchase. This model has faced regulatory hurdles in many states — Texas, Arizona and New Jersey have mandated that cars only be sold through traditional third-party dealers — which Tesla officials decry as economic protectionism by the gasoline-powered auto industry.
Wolf said he doubts Tesla has run into that issue in Louisiana yet, simply because the car has not been adopted by enough drivers. He estimates 50 Teslas may be on the road in Louisiana, with about a dozen or so concentrated in the New Orleans area, but, he said, a physical presence in the city would likely draw more people to buy them.
"I think there are people who would definitely be hesitant to buy a car when there's no service locally," Wolf said.
For now, Tesla has a service technician assigned to the city who travels by van, from which he can perform most service needs on site, Wolf said.
"It's just the battery and a very simple electric motor," Wolf said. "The car has so few parts, the ranger can actually carry pretty much everything he needs to fix the car in his van."
But as the company grows — a new Tesla SUV, the Model X, is planned for release next year — New Orleans would provide a centralized location for Gulf Coast customers, said attorney Todd Slack, another Uptown Tesla owner.
"We're seeing more and more cars pop up in the city," Slack said. "If they're perceiving New Orleans is the best place to put it, they've got much better information about where the cars are going than we do."
Right now, going electric is not cheap. The Model S starts at $60,000 and can easily cost twice as much depending on the performance options the buyer chooses, such as a higher-capacity battery for more range or a faster inverter for more speed. But Tesla is developing a car that costs half of what the Model S does (in the range of $30,000 to $35,000), in part by reducing the cost to produce the expensive batteries that power them.
Tesla owners share a similar bond to other communities of early adopters. Many Tesla owners in New Orleans know one another — they had their first meet-up at Company Burger in February — and many bought their cars after being loaned one for a test drive by a friend.
"We all know each other," Slack said. "When a new car pops up, we try to figure out who's got the car. And if someone genuinely wants to buy one, we'd let you drive our car."
"If this is the reaction the car is getting, they have done something beyond belief," Wisdom said.
When someone wants to test-drive Wisdom's car, they'll often offer him their own car as a temporary trade, meaning Wisdom has driven some of the best cars in the world, including a Porsche and an Aston Martin.
"All I could think of is, 'I want my Tesla back,'" Wisdom said. "Those were amazing cars, but it really feels like driving a horse and buggy."
Cartoonist Matthew Inman ("The Oatmeal") created "What It's Like to Own a Tesla Model S," which he calls "a cartoonist's review of his magical space car."
Read it at www.theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla_model_s.