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Relentless Despot.
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Silicon Valley entrepreneurs race for electric car market

Like many Silicon Valley engineers, Martin Eberhard loves cars, especially fast ones. But the self-described "closet gearhead" didn't feel comfortable buying a hot rod that guzzled gas from the Middle East or some other troubled region.

So three years ago, Eberhard and friend Marc Tarpenning launched Tesla Motors Inc. Their goal: to design a sports car that would go as fast as a Ferrari or Porsche, but run on electricity.

With about 80 employees, Tesla just raised $40 million from high-profile investors including Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. It plans to start selling its first model next year.

"I'm not the only person that would like to buy a car that's beautiful and fun to drive but also remain on the moral high ground," said Eberhard, 45, who sold his previous company, electronic book maker NuvoMedia, for $187 million in 2000. "None of the energy that goes into an electric car comes from the Middle East."

Silicon Valley thinks it can do what Detroit could not — create a thriving business selling electric cars. In the 1990s, General Motors and other automakers spent billions to develop battery-powered vehicles, but they flopped because they couldn't travel more than 100 miles before being recharged.

By tapping the Bay Area's engineering expertise and culture of innovation, a cluster of entrepreneurs, engineers and venture capitalists here are racing to bring their electric cars to market. Unlike Detroit and Japanese automakers, they're working on high-performance sports cars for wealthy car enthusiasts.

At least three Silicon Valley startups — Tesla Motors of San Carlos, Wrightspeed Inc. of Woodside and battery maker Li-on Cells of Menlo Park — are among a cadre of companies nationwide developing electric cars or components.

Commuter Cars Corp., based in Spokane, Wash., last year started selling its Tango T600, an ultra-narrow, two-seat electric car that claims actor George Clooney among its customers.

AC Propulsion Inc., a San Dimas-based maker of electric car motors and charging systems, is supplying Tesla and Wrightspeed with key components.

As fuel costs rise, technology improves and consumers seek more environmentally friendly vehicles, these companies see potential in a niche largely neglected by the big automakers.

But some industry analysts question whether electric cars could ever become cheap enough, or have the battery life to compete in the mainstream auto market.

"To attract consumers en masse, the price has to be low enough where they can see the break-even point," said Anthony Pratt, an automotive analyst at J.D. Power & Associates.

The success of Toyota's Prius and other hybrids, which run on a combination of gas and electricity, have shown there's a market for eco-friendly cars. Page and Brin, Google's billionaire founders, are known to drive Priuses.

Tesla's Eberhard thinks the Prius is "terrifically ugly" and believes other wealthy car enthusiasts feel the same way.

In Tesla's workshop in San Carlos, about 20 miles south of San Francisco, Eberhard and Tarpenning offered a glimpse of their first model — a sleek two-seater that resembles a Lotus Elise — but would not allow photographs. They plan to unveil it at an event for prospective buyers next month in Santa Monica.

"We're building a car for people who like to drive," Eberhard said. "This is not a punishment car."

While mum on details and pricing, Eberhard said the first Tesla model will be able to drive more than 200 miles on one charge, making it good for commutes and Sunday drives but not long road trips. With lithium-ion batteries, the car can be plugged into any electrical outlet.

Named after the inventor Nikola Tesla, the company has big ambitions. Tesla executives talk about building a "new kind of car company" and hope to eventually offer several models, starting at the high end and bringing down the price as technology improves.

But the company must first undergo rigorous government safety and environmental tests — a rigorous process the founders didn't anticipate.

"The car business had more challenges than we expected," said Tarpenning.

Ian Wright, who left Tesla to start Wrightspeed last year, is aiming at the same $3 billion market for high-performance sports cars. The New Zealand-born electrical engineer spent nine months retooling an Ariel Atom race car to run on an electric battery — a prototype of the car he eventually hopes to sell.

He frequently takes prospective investors — and reporters — for a spin in the hills near his Woodside home.

With no doors, roof or windshield, a drive in Wrightspeed's X1 feels like a roller coaster ride and can leave passengers wind-beaten and queasy. It accelerates from O to 60 mph in three seconds, making it one of the world's fastest production cars. Last year, Wright's X1 beat the fastest Porsche and Ferrari models in head-to-head races.

"I wouldn't describe myself as a radical environmentalist," said Wright. "I think my customers will buy my cars for performance. The energy efficiency is nice to have, but it's not the reason they will buy the car."

Wrightspeed is still raising its first round of financing and remains a one-man startup. Many venture capitalists are "serious car nuts" but are nervous about investing in a car company because they don't know enough about the industry, Wright said.

Backers of electric cars, powered by batteries charged from an electric outlet, say the country could quickly reduce its dependence on foreign oil — as well as emissions of "greenhouse" gases blamed for global warming — if more drivers went electric.

But so far, efforts to bring electric cars to market have stalled.

In the 1990s, the major automakers introduced several thousand electric cars under a California state mandate to develop cars with no tailpipe emissions. The most popular model was General Motors' EV1, which the company spent more than $1 billion to develop.

While those cars attracted a small but devoted following, they didn't get much traction in the marketplace because of their restricted driving range.

The big automakers lobbied against the mandate until it was overturned in 2003. Most car companies then recalled their electric vehicles and destroyed them, sparking an outcry.

Some enthusiasts say the automakers never gave them a chance. The demise of those vehicles is the subject of a new documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" which chronicles the demise of GM's EV1.

Now Silicon Valley, known for its ability to innovate and overturn established industries, sees an opportunity to break Detroit's grip on the U.S. auto industry.

Developing an electric sports car is a complex engineering challenge that's well-suited to the region's techies, said Elon Musk, the PayPal co-founder who has provided about half of Tesla's $60 million in funding.

"The technological challenges don't play to the strengths of Detroit," said Musk, who also heads Space Exploration Technologies Corp., an El Segundo developer of commercial rockets. "Nobody in the world is better than Silicon Valley at solving electrical engineering problems. The key technologies are in Silicon Valley, not Detroit."

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Spend word for word with me and I shall make your wit bankrupt

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T e x
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quote:
While mum on details and pricing, Eberhard said the first Tesla model will be able to drive more than 200 miles on one charge, making it good for commutes and Sunday drives but not long road trips. With lithium-ion batteries, the car can be plugged into any electrical outlet.
That's most driving...at least, in my country; little public trans, so peeps gotta get to work.

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Nashoba Holba Chepulechi
Adventures in microcapitalism...

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glassman
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In the 1990s, the major automakers introduced several thousand electric cars under a California state mandate to develop cars with no tailpipe emissions. The most popular model was General Motors' EV1, which the company spent more than $1 billion to develop.

While those cars attracted a small but devoted following, they didn't get much traction in the marketplace because of their restricted driving range.

The big automakers lobbied against the mandate until it was overturned in 2003. Most car companies then recalled their electric vehicles and destroyed them, sparking an outcry.


this is one of the reasons i have been uncompormising in my criticism of my own party....

100 billion dollars woulda put these cars allover our hiways, and "primed the pump" so to speak on production cost reduction and increased R&D....

as far as i'm concerned? we've been robbed...

and for what?????

it appears to me we've been stopped in our tracks in terms of forward progress...
engineering wise and science wise by these bozoz

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Relentless Despot.
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Yep, all that BS about investing in R&D went pretty much nowhere.. now we have a few different smaller companies doing it the right way without government's help.
A focus on high performance and long lasting batteries is what will draw the customers.

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The Bigfoot
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I like it! Nothing like a little pressure to get the creative juices pumping! What a difference this could make. You know if a model catches on with the wealthy it will only be a matter of time before other car makers start creating knockoffs for the ordinary Joe!

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No longer eligible for government service due to lack of tax issues.

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glassman
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bigfoot....
i've seen fleets of electric Toyota cars and Ford Ranger pickups that were great in the city... and in town....

basic commuter stuff....
they were destroyed.....

this corn from ethanol kick?
it's just another political gimmick too...
corn is not very practical...

these guys in DC don't care.... as long as they get their election campaign funds...

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Don't envy the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise.

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jordanreed
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isnt this world fueled by oil and oil money?

gotta be tough to buck that..

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jordan

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The Bigfoot
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Corn is a flash in the pan. That will only last for the next decade.

Cellulose Ethanol will last longer but even that is only a stop gap because it still uses petrol products to create it. There will come a day transportation is cheap and much faster than what we have now...and it will be fueled by the wind, sun, and rain.

Mark my words...we are in a time of great change. If we don't kill ourselves in the process, we will learn to move with nature instead of against it. The power of man for the last thousand years has been shaped by the few. We are changing that as we ...type. It will not be allowed much longer. The few will bow or be brought down on the tide of the power of man.

Whoa! I'm getting a little too deep for myself here. Gonna go watch something blow up on TV.

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No longer eligible for government service due to lack of tax issues.

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Relentless Despot.
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Yep, all the indicators are pointing to a huge change a comin'
Unfortunately that whole part about killing ourselves in the process is the tricky part...

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Spend word for word with me and I shall make your wit bankrupt

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Dustoff 1
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Killing ourselves off? Might not be an issue, anybody paying attention to the weather and virus problem?

We could be drowned, burned, shook, eaten by ravanious plaque carrier bugs and microbes, and throw in a twister and Hurricane to rip us to mince meat all at any moment!....Oh' almost forgot, the sun is going Nova and a Black hole is hiding on the otherside of the moon.

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