The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

There’s something about electricity and the name Nicolas. In 1769, French military engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot designed and built a steam-powered tractor that could be called the world’s first true automobile. It was revolutionary for its time, harnessing a power source that had until then not been used for propulsion. Fast forward nearly two-and-half centuries, and a company named for another famous Nicolas—Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla—is advancing automotive propulsion once again.

The namesake is apt for a company dedicated to an electric future. Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) is best remembered for his work with electricity. Our modern world is largely powered by alternating current—better known as AC—a technology based on the rotating magnetic field, which he discovered and patented.

Tesla, Inc.—the former Tesla Motors, Inc.—is taking that electric inspiration and driving the world toward a future of sustainable energy. Founded in 2003 by CEO Martin Eberhard and CFO Marc Tarpenning, the company is renowned for its association with PayPal and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who saw Tesla’s potential and invested more than $30 million in the start-up in 2004. Musk has served as CEO since the departure of Eberhard in 2008.

The development of an affordable electric car was the founding goal of Tesla Motors. Over the past decade, the company has released three fully electric vehicles: the Roadster sports car, the Model S luxury sedan, and the Model X sports utility vehicle. In 2016, the Model 3 sedan was revealed, which will be the first Tesla intended for the mass market, with initial deliveries expected in late 2017.

When you think electric car, limited range and modest power typically come to mind. But the Tesla Model S has the longest range of any electric car—335 miles for the 100D, as rated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—and is the quickest production car in the world. Only the limited-run, hybrid-electric Porsche 918 Spyder can accelerate faster: 0–60 miles per hour in 2.2 seconds versus the Tesla Model S P100D’s 2.28. And yet, this vehicle is designed for ecology—part of Tesla’s vision of a future built on sustainable energy.

The technology powering this car can only be fully appreciated firsthand. For this story, The Journal took the Model S 90D on a two-day excursion stretching from the dense roads of Tokyo to the wide-open spaces of Tanzawa-Oyama Quasi-National Park in Kanagawa Prefecture. The experience was eye-opening—a glimpse of the future with a connection to the past.

The Model S—essentially a beautifully designed piece of computer hardware on wheels running an advanced operating system—fully captures the traditional car experience while advancing it in ways long promised by science fiction. In John Brunner’s 1969 novel Stand on Zanzibar, set in 2010, cars were powered by rechargeable electric fuel cells. And in Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children (1941), the Camden Speedster handled the driving itself—something Tesla’s Autopilot can do. These are but two examples of past visions now becoming reality.

Tesla isn’t alone in this technological march. The Leaf from Nissan Motor Company Ltd., Focus Electric from Ford Motor Company, the Renault Zoe, and the BMW i3 are all popular and highly capable electric options. But the Tesla Roadster, released in 2008, was the first highway-legal, lithium-ion battery-powered car, and the Tesla Model S continues to set the standard.

Tesla’s Autopilot has also inspired other companies and spurred advancements that are bringing Heinlein’s Camden Speedster to life. Mercedes-Benz’s Drive Pilot is available on the company’s E-Class sedan and is coming to the S-Class.

General Motors will introduce a semi-autonomous driver assist system called Super Cruise in the 2018 Cadillac CTS 6 sedan this autumn. And Google Inc.’s Waymo program aims to develop fully self-driving cars.

But Autopilot remains the most advanced system available to drivers, and our two-day excursion showed why. On an open highway, Autopilot provides the sensation of luxury as the car glides effortlessly, gently slowing, speeding up, and changing lanes as required. And unlike human drivers, who may tend to hug the left or right side of the lane, Autopilot keeps the car perfectly centered.

In stop-and-go conditions, Autopilot takes the stress out of driving. In our tests during a traffic jam on the Tomei Expressway, the system flawlessly handled the constant changes in speed, gently alternating between complete stops and leisurely crawls, and reacting to motorcycles weaving between lanes by braking lightly to keep a safe distance.

Of course, Autopilot should not be used as a replacement for human eyes; and the system reminds you to keep your hands on the steering wheel and be prepared to take over if needed. When used appropriately, Autopilot makes driving relaxing—and science fiction reality.

Japan could make the move to automation quickly. “The Japanese government is very positive towards shifting to a self-driving society,” said Nicolas Villeger, vice president of North Asia & SEA at Tesla. “The local regulations are almost the same as global standards, and Japan does not lag behind in terms of self-driving laws, which enable our Model S and X owners to experience the highest level of Autopilot capabilities.”

A common belief about self-driving cars is that they are unsafe. But the technology that makes Autopilot possible provides a level of safety that isn’t achievable with traditional vehicles. The Model S has eight cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors that make it aware of its environment in a way that a human driver cannot be.

Anyone who has driven in Japan knows the challenge. Narrow roads and parking spaces that appear impossible to get into can try the patience of even the most experienced driver. During our time with the Model S, however, the information provided by the cameras and sensors—which includes measurements of distance to surrounding objects down to the centimeter—made navigation far easier.

Tesla makes safety a centerpiece of design. As a battery engineer at Tesla said: “We have significant experience and expertise in the safety and management systems needed to work with lithium-ion cells in the automotive environment.

“We design our battery packs to achieve high-energy density at a low cost while also maintaining safety, reliability and long life,” he explained. “Our proprietary technology includes cooling systems, safety systems, charge balancing systems, battery engineering for vibration and environmental durability, robotic manufacturing processes, customized motor design, and the software and electronics management systems necessary to manage battery and vehicle performance under demanding real-life driving conditions.”

Tesla Solar Roof complements the beauty of your home with hidden solar panels.

In keeping with Tesla’s vision, it is electricity that brings this technology to life. We’re all familiar with charging our smartphones, tablets, and computers. The batteries inside these devices are tiny compared to that of the Model S. Refilling batteries of this size using standard electric vehicle charging stations takes serious time—as long as eight hours.

The difference in planning required to operate and manage a car powered by electricity, as opposed to one powered by gas, is a key challenge in transitioning the world to this technology. Drivers are used to simply pulling up to a pump for five minutes as the tank is running dry. Refueling an electric car takes considerably longer.

To address this, Tesla developed its own charging station called a Supercharger, which is up to 16 times faster. The company has 16 Superchargers and more than 200 destination chargers—less-powerful stations often located at hotels, hot springs, and shopping complexes—around Japan.

A Supercharger, which feeds up to 120kW of electricity to the car, can take the Tesla Model S’s massive battery from empty to about 50 percent in just 20 minutes and 80 percent in 40–50 minutes. Actual numbers and time will vary depending on the situation and the car’s configuration.

A full charge gives the Model S enough juice to travel about 482 kilometers (300 miles). Determining the “fuel” efficiency of electric vehicles is a bit different from what we’re accustomed to with gas-powered engines; but the numbers can be translated into familiar terms to give an idea of energy use. The 2017 Model S 90D received an EPA rating of 200.9 watt-hours per kilometer (323.3 watt-hours per mile) which translates to 104 miles per gallon of gasoline.

A Tesla engineer explained how their design approach provides the flexibility needed to achieve this power. “Our powertrain and battery pack have a modular design, enabling future generations of electric vehicles and our stationary storage applications to incorporate a significant amount of this technology,” he said. “Our powertrain is very compact, and contains far fewer moving parts than the internal combustion powertrain. These features enable us to adapt it for a variety of applications, including future vehicles and energy products.”

While the network of Superchargers needs to grow, the stations show that the technology to efficiently refuel electric vehicles exists; and this can be built upon.

Villeger told The Journal: “So far, the charging infrastructure has been developed by ourselves in collaboration with private landlords. We are open to fostering collaborations, as we believe our Supercharger network model is a good showcase for the future world.”

When Apple moved beyond its computer roots, the company changed its name from Apple Computer to Apple Inc. As mentioned, what was once Tesla Motors, Inc. is now Tesla, Inc. The change became official on February 1, 2017, with the filing of a report with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. While the company was founded to build an electric sports car, Musk’s vision has moved beyond the road. Tesla aims to be the world leader in solar energy.

A home battery called Powerwall, solar panels, and a technology called solar roof—which hides solar panels under roofing with a traditional appearance—have equal footing with cars in the company’s lineup.

While the core components of this home battery are similar to those that power Tesla’s cars, an engineer explained how the design differs: “The battery cell for the Powerwall is optimized to have an extended life at relatively high constant discharge rates, while the battery cell for the vehicle is optimized for high energy density to achieve long driving range. As for the battery pack design, a vehicle application requires extensive vibration testing and crush testing. The Powerwall is designed to be fixed in one specific location for the life of the product.”

The solar tie-in for Powerwall is Solar roof, a technology Tesla brought to market together with SolarCity, the San Mateo, California-based company which Tesla acquired for $2.9 billion in November 2016. Together with Gigafactory 1 (GF1), the enormous lithium-ion battery factory being built by Tesla and Panasonic in the Nevada desert near Reno, this demonstrates a commitment to a solar future.

GF1 itself will be powered entirely by a rooftop solar array generating 70 megawatts of electricity. That’s about one-tenth the power produced by the average coal plant, but nearly seven times the current largest rooftop solar system, an 11.5-megawatt installation at the Dera Baba Jaimal Singh campus of Radha Soami Satsang Beas Educational and Environmental Society in Punjab, India.

Currently, the footprint of the factory is a massive 1.9 million square feet, but when complete that will expand to 6 million.

Phase 2 construction is underway and will support annualized cell production capacity of 35GWh and battery pack production of 50GWh. This allows for production of 500,000 cars and exceeds the entire 2013 global output of lithium-ion battery cells. When at full capacity around 2020, GF1 will produce 150GWh of battery packs per year.

Despite being only about 30 percent complete, GF1 is already producing Powerwall 2, Powerpack 2—a larger version of Powerwall aimed at commercial users—and batteries for the forthcoming Model 3.

Now in its second generation, Tesla’s Powerwall is a home battery that can make solar power use more efficient, and provide emergency power during a disruption. It can integrate with solar panels to store surplus energy for use at night, and up to 10 units can be stacked to meet the needs of various house sizes. Each 14kWh battery, suitable for an average 3LDK home, costs $5,500 in the United States (¥696,000 in Japan).

As we concluded our test drive, Villeger left us inspired. “Particularly in Japan, there are no more infrastructure barriers to purchase. The Tesla charging network complements the high density of public charging, and our battery performance enables long-distance driving without range anxiety,” he said. “The only barrier is awareness of this fact, which is why we work to provide education in our stores and at events.”

Just as Nikola Tesla helped usher in the electric age at the turn of the 20th century, Tesla Inc. is building on that work in the 21st.

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-chief of The Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.
While the company was founded to build an electric sports car, Musk’s vision has moved beyond the road. Tesla aims to be the world leader in solar energy.