There are many companies that have been referred to as "upstarts" over the years, but in the case of Tesla Motors, the descriptor is particularly apt. Founded in 2003, and named after Nikolas Tesla, the Serbian engineer, inventor and electrical wizard whose patents included the induction motor and alternating-current power transmission, this small Silicon Valley company launched with a big dream and a bigger mission. They were going to build an electric car that not only wouldn't make drivers feel as if they were being punished, but would also positively promote non-gasoline powered hybrid cars.
They succeeded, roughly three years later, when the 2007 Tesla Roadster was introduced to the public in July, 2006, just a few days after the 150th anniversary of their namesake's birth, and during the year designated by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) as "the year of Nikola Tesla."
The Tesla Motors team is led by Ze'ev Drori, who brought more than thirty years of entrepreneurial expertise and experience with both the automotive and high tech industries with him to this new endeavor. His career highlights include the founding of Monolithic Memories, another Silicon Valley company, which specialized in semiconductors until AMD eventually bought it. Later, he was involved in taking automobile security company, Clifford Electronics, from a start-up to a valuable commodity that was acquired by Allstate Insurance.
Drori is joined by chief technical officer JB Straubel, and vice president in charge of vehicle integration Malcom Powell.
Straubel began his career by tinkering with old golf carts when he was a boy. He oversees the technical and engineering design of the Tesla Motors vehicles, with a special focus on the power systems and software, and he also manages systems testing and is the technical voice of the company when dealing with vendors.
Powell comes to Tesla from England by way of Westland Helicopters and Ford of Europe where he was part of the Special Engineering Division that developed "fun" new cars, as well as his own consultancy and a 17-year position with Group Lotus.
The real star of Tesla Motors, however, is its car, the Roadster. The model originally planned for a late 2007 release was pushed back to March 2008 (though the very first production model was given to its new owner on February 1, 2008), because of problems with the transmission, which were subsequently resolved.
What's so special about the Tesla Roadster? It's the first fully electric performance car to be put into production. Not only does it have a race-car inspired body style instead of the boxy profile so often associated with electric vehicles, but the 2008 model can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds, can go more than 200 miles between charges. And, if measured in terms of gas-engine equivalents, would have a fuel efficiency of 135 mpg.
Because Tesla Motor's limits its production to only a few units, the cars must be pre-ordered. And, along with performance car style and features, the Roadster comes with a hefty price, but the company says that was intentional. It plans to use the performance car as the developing tool for more mass-market-friendly vehicle down the road.
The Tesla mission is to combine power, performance and environmental protection, and the company website stresses its commitment to moving away from fossil fuels. Electricity, it points out, is clean to use, and costs considerably less than any other fuel source.
Call them carmakers with cause, or just refer to them as upstarts. Either way, Tesla Motors has already changed the face of the automotive industry, and will likely continue to do so.