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Meet the first highway-ready electric car

Carmakers have toyed with the idea of an all-electric car for more than a hundred years, but all struggled with issues of range and power. The Tesla Roadster, a battery-operated vehicle made of lightweight carbon fiber, seems to have solved that.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

It certainly looks like something a movie star would drive. This car, like the early icons of the silver screen, is definitely the strong silent type. It's built by Tesla Motors, a start-up in Silicon Valley. And this Roadster can go from zero to 60 in about 4 seconds without so much as a drop of gasoline.

I recently took a test drive with Jeremy Snyder, general manager of Tesla's Los Angeles store.

Josh Mankiewicz: This thing is like a rocket ship.

Jeremy Snyder: It is.

An electric rocket ship, powered by lithium ion batteries — the same type of batteries that run your laptop and cell phone. Right now, the Tesla roadster is the only highway-ready, all-electric car on the market.

Jason Calacanis: Because there are no oil changes, the car only needs to be serviced once a year.

With a lightweight body molded from high-strength carbon fiber, the Tesla Roadster can travel 240 miles on a single charge. And just like your cell phone, plug it into an ordinary wall socket overnight, and it's good to go the next morning.

Jason Calacanis: Once the car is fully charged, the light will turn a solid green color.

Carmakers have toyed with the idea of an all-electric car for more than a hundred years, but all struggled with issues of range and power. The Tesla seems to have solved that. But if you think the Tesla sounds like a dream come true — an answer to our dependence on foreign oil — think again.

The Tesla Roadster costs a cool $109,000 to start. $153,000 fully loaded. No financing, strictly cash.

Elon Musk is Tesla's CEO.

Elon Musk: The kind of person who would buy the Roadster is someone who would perhaps buy a Porche or Ferrari or Mazerati--that sort of car.

Josh Mankiewicz: It's an indulgence.

Elon Musk: It's an indulgence. But it's also that kind of buyer who also cares about the environment.

Musk made his fortune as founder of PayPal, the e-commerce business. Musk has spent millions trying to get Tesla's technology to market. The company began delivering its first roadsters last year.

Josh Mankiewicz: How much money has it cost to get us this far?

Elon Musk: The total money invested in Tesla to date is $195 million.

Josh Mankiewicz: How much of that was your money?

Elon Musk: Too much. Geez, I'm like losing track. I think it's sort of 70. 70 to 75 million

Josh Mankiewicz: Of your money?

Elon Musk: Yeah, I should probably know the exact number, 70-something. (laughs)

Whatever the number, Elon Musk has already bet a fortune on Tesla in hopes of creating a market for electric cars in the middle of a global economic meltdown.

Josh Mankiewicz: Is this the wrong time to try and bring out this car?

Elon Musk: It's probably not the best time, given that automotive sales are the worst since World War II. But we're in a fortunate position that we've got a large backlog of customers. So, we're actually sold out through the end of October. And that leaves us in a pretty good position for 2009.

So far 1200 very well-heeled customers have plunked down $60,000 deposits and agreed to wait years for their Tesla roadster.

Internet tycoon Jason Calacanis is one of only 250 Tesla buyers in the world who actually has a roadster he can call his own.

Josh Mankiewicz: You've always been a corvette guy?

Jason Calacanis: Yeah, my favorite car for my entire life.

Josh Mankiewicz: But not anymore?

Jason Calacanis: No more. No more corvettes. No more gas. Now I'm a Tesla guy.

Josh Mankiewicz: How long have you had this?

Jason Calacanis: About three or four months

Josh Mankiewicz: And?

Jason Calacanis: And I love it. I drive it daily. Probably 20 to 50 miles a day. It's faster than the corvette and I haven't been to a gas station in three or four months, which is a very strange feeling.

Almost as strange as the feeling the big three carmakers will have if the Tesla makes the jump from rich man's toy to the mass market.

Matt Stone: I'm not sure if the Tesla is quite yet ready for prime time, but it's awfully close.

As executive editor of Motor Trend Magazine, Matt Stone knows a thing or two about cars.

Josh Mankiewicz: Is the Tesla a great idea whose time has come or just a great idea?

Under this drape is a car Tesla hopes will change the way America drives. It's the Tesla model S, a four-door sedan that is scheduled to go on sale in 2011 for about half the price of a roadster.

Elon Musk: I would say the Model S is arguably more scientific than the roadster because the Model S is a true mass market car. And there has actually never been a mass market electric car--ever.

The public won't get its first look at Tesla's model S prototype until the end of this month -- but former Corvette addict Jason Calacanis is already sold. Literally.

Jason Calacanis: I bought two of them. One for my wife and one to give away on my website

Josh Mankiewicz: And they don't even exist yet.

Jason Calacanis: Yeah--but I ordered this car two years before it came out and I believe that this is actually a way of making an investment in the future of America. I believe the future of America is going to be alternative energy and I believe that this is going to be the next big boom from a global perspective in the same way the Internet was.

Though Tesla has not made a profit yet, motor trend's matt stone says the company has already made an indelible mark on the industry.

Jason Calacanis: They have accomplished something: probably the most credible modern technology-electric car to date. If they end up going away, I suspect there will be some customers out there who would be ready to take that technology and begin developing it to the next level. And if they make it--if they're able to make this into a business case and a long-term profit, they could be America's newest car company.