July 20, 2006 10:32 AM PDT

Electric sports car packs a punch, but will it sell?

SANTA MONICA, Calif.--The Tesla Roadster has kick.

As soon as the driver hits the accelerator, you are thrown back against the seat. The car climbs from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about four seconds, as advertised. But unlike a Porsche or Ferrari, there are no fumes or gear changes and not much noise. Instead, this electric sports car emits a low-grade hum.

"It's a whole different mind-set. It's stealthy," said Malcolm Smith, vice president of vehicle engineering at Tesla Motors, which designed the car and plans to start shipping them to customers next year. "You can tell you are dealing with a lot of power."

But don't take it from me. Take it from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who showed up at the car's public unveiling in Santa Monica on Wednesday.

"It's terrific," the governor said, before speeding off with his two kids and a bodyguard in an SUV after test driving the car. Former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who sort of looks like Andre the Giant in a pullover sweater, showed up later. He didn't take a test drive. "I'm only checking it out," he said.

Tesla hopes to popularize the electric car, a goal that has eluded General Motors, Japanese hobbyists and others. The company has two things in its favor, said Elon Musk, PayPal founder and chairman of Tesla Motors. First, fears about global warming, combined with the popularity of hybrid cars and rising gas prices, indicate that consumers want cars with better gas mileage, or that don't use gas at all.

Second, the state of technology behind batteries, software and semiconductors has improved to where electric cars can perform as well, or better, than conventional cars, said Musk during an interview at the event.

Tesla Roadster

"Until today, all electric cars have sucked," said Musk, who was a Stanford Ph.D student studying high-density capacitors. "Electric cars play into the strength of Silicon Valley. A lot of the things inside the car are conventional automobile technology. The magic is the battery technology and the software and the controllers."

Asked about the EV1, a General Electric electric car that was summarily shut down, Musk said the car's short life wasn't likely the result of a conspiracy between car manufacturers and oil companies. Instead, he said, the car probably failed because of big-company inertia.

"Don't explain...by conspiracy what you can explain by incompetence," he said.

An easier recharge
In some ways, the Tesla Roadster is a battery on wheels. Much of the company's design work revolved around developing a lithium-ion battery pack to power the car. The battery cells come from a third-party provider, but Tesla has wrapped it into a battery pack that can deliver energy rapidly to the car's acceleration. Unlike GM's EV1, the Tesla Roadster doesn't require a unique external charger. It can be charged from conventional electronic outlets by using with a special cord.

Electric cars aren't pollution-free. In many parts of the country, the majority of electricity is produced by coal-fired electrical plants. Still, Musk claimed that the Tesla Roadster will produce half the carbon dioxide per mile of a hybrid car. Tesla is also working with solar panel companies to install panels at the homes of Tesla Roadster owners to help them power the car.

Electric cars were running neck and neck with gas-powered cars at the beginning of the 20th century, said Smith. But once makers of gas-powered vehicles developed the electric starter to get rid of the crank, the die was cast.

To avoid patent disputes, the company has licensed technology from AC Propulsion, which did much of the engineering work behind GM's EV1.

CONTINUED: An eco-friendly sports car…
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