How Tesla made the leap to the rest of the auto industry – in 2006

In the summer of 2006, a little-known startup named Tesla Motors launched the modern electric vehicle industry. At the time, most people equated electric vehicles with golf carts: slow, bulky and with limited functionality. GM had just scrapped its pioneering EV1, as chronicled in Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary Who killed the electric car?and it looked like the future of high-efficiency cars was going to be cars that looked a lot like the fast-selling Toyota Prius.

This is what made the debut of the Tesla Roadster revolutionary. On July 19, 2006, Tesla rolled out the Roadster in an invitation-only event at a hangar at the airport in Santa Monica, California. Not only was it a sleek sports car, but it could go 250 miles on a single charge, it could accelerate from zero to 60 mph in under four seconds, and it was quiet. It was not a golf cart. As one journalist commented, the Roadster made it clear “the endless possibility that exists in the field of electric motors.”

Even then, Tesla had plans that went far beyond the Roadster. Two weeks later, Elon Musk released the “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan,” which outlined Tesla’s ambition to leverage sales of the high-end Roadster to build a “wide range of models, including family cars at affordable price”.

I expect many readers of Clean Technica already know this story, which is part of my new book, Charged: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future, but what I didn’t appreciate about this story until I researched the book was how inauspicious the timing of the Roadster’s debut was. In the summer of 2006, the power of lithium-ion batteries had begun to attract public attention for a completely different reason: they kept catching fire.

In the early 2000s, few people knew what a lithium-ion battery was, although they were rapidly replacing the nickel-metal hydride batteries that had been used to power a previous generation of cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices. But public awareness of lithium-ion batteries grew rapidly in 2006, as sporadic reports of laptop computer fires in hotels, airports, cars and homes drew increasing public attention. The guilty? Lithium-ion batteries made by Sony, used by manufacturers such as Dell, Apple and IBM.

Although fires were rare, considering the tens of millions of laptops in production, they were frequent enough that in August 2006, in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Sony issued a worldwide recall of lithium batteries -ion ​​he had made. for use in laptop computers since 2005. At the time, it was the largest consumer electronics recall in American history. The best article on recall and its roots in the globalization of the electronics industry is Matthew Eisler’s 2017 article in Technology and culture.

An editorial published in the New York Times in August 2006 was one of many pieces that sounded the alarm over lithium-ion batteries. He warned: “Lithium-ion is just the latest in a succession of relatively toxic rechargeable battery technologies, each intended to pack more available electrons into smaller and smaller packages, with li-ion beating the field by a resounding five times, the explosions be cursed.”

Not only did the Roadster rely on similar battery cells, it relied on a lot of them. The Roadster’s battery contained 6831 notebook-grade 18650 lithium-ion battery cells. But Tesla engineers didn’t consider laptop fires a cause for concern. “There have been five laptop fires so far and this is headline news,” said Ian Wright, senior vehicle development manager at Tesla. vanity lounge. “There are 750 gasoline car fires every day, but that’s nothing new.”

To assure observers of its battery safety, Tesla took an unusual step in August 2006 for a vehicle that was still a year away from delivery. He released a 5-page document outlining his strategy to build a safe and resilient electric vehicle battery using consumer-grade lithium-ion battery cells. The document described the active and passive safety features built into the battery system. Tesla explained how using thousands of small batteries, as opposed to fewer large battery cells, improved safety by increasing heat dissipation and making it easier to contain cell failures.

With laptop batteries in flames, manufacturers issuing recalls and lithium-ion batteries making headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2006, it’s no wonder major automakers weren’t ready. odds are the same technology that enabled the wireless revolution could fuel a transition to electric cars. Early hybrid cars, including the Toyota Prius, relied on less efficient, but safer, nickel-metal hydride batteries. This made Tesla’s bet on the Roadster all the bolder. And, in retrospect, it is clear that the bet paid off.

This article is adapted from James Morton Turner’s new book, Loaded: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future (August 2022). You can learn more about Accused via the link above. Turner tweets at @_jay_turner


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