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Tesla employee: Model S alpha prototype up and running

Has Tesla Motors completed its first Model S prototype?

A Tesla manufacturing team employee, commenting on Engadget, appeared to confirm a test of the much-anticipated all-electric sedan, Tesla’s first mass-market model, though Tesla has not formally announced anything.

“I just got to see the 1st Alpha proto run…. And, boy, did that thing run! The production vehicle will be as sexy as the red/silver rollers in all the photos. So awesome….” Brian Z. Jones wrote in the comments section of a Tesla story. His Facebook profile identifies him as a production control manager at Tesla.

According to some investor slides released last month, Tesla planned to finish its first prototype of its hotly anticipated 2012 Model S all-electric sedan by the end of December. The company has announced an aggressive production plan for the car, and will be assembling vehicles from start-to-end for the first time at its newly acquired $42 million Fremont factory. Many regard the Model S as a major testing ground for the company and the foundation for future revenues after its hot IPO last year.

Per Jones’s comment, it looks like Tesla might have hit the December 2010 goal of getting a prototype up and running. Take it with a grain of salt, though. Outside of the excitement factor, one prototype is probably not that big of a deal, considering automakers like GM typically build dozens before going into full production. And carmakers must crash 20 or more cars in safety ratings tests, Tesla has many more prototypes to make.

It’s also unclear what kind of prototype, exactly, Tesla has built, since there are various stages of advancement possible. An alpha prototype could mean the company built a running Model S using prototype parts that resemble what Tesla intends to produce, according to John Voelcker, editor at Green Car Reports, one of VentureBeat’s editorial partners. Tesla already has one running prototype it has showcased in the past, which Voelcker rode in briefly in 2009.

Commenters on the original Engadget post were discussing the battery swap technology that will be incorporated in the Model S, which an exiting Tesla engineering chief Michael Donoughe told Edmunds in 2009 would enable a five-minute battery swap. While startup Better Place has been one of the biggest and most visible proponents of battery-swapping technology — in which a fully charged electric car battery is swapped out with a depleted one — the design wouldn’t be exclusive for use with Better Place’s battery swapping infrastructure.

Here’s the full text of what Jones said:

“Working as part of the Model S mfg team, I can tell you it is a single unit. Don’t take the #s below as gospel, I’m being purposely vague – I’m sure you understand. ;^)

Cells → modules → packs. X# of [Panasonic] cells become a module, Y# of modules become a pack. Packs are bolted to the underside of the body with 30-something bolts.

I wouldn’t give a direct correlation of a battery-swap to an engine swap. Compared to an engine, the battery-pack is quite large & unwieldy. Most of the people doing engine swaps at home are swapping V8s, which generally go in from above, with a hoist. So you’re only lifting the weight of the engine (300-700lbs). (Here, we’re completely ignoring the fact that ppl who spend Mercedes-money on a car are not the type of ppl who do engine swaps in their driveway… :^) ).

If you wanted to swap a battery pack at home, 1st, you’d need to be able to receive something that weighs over 1000lbs., and has a footprint of something like 6ft x 8ft – not realistic in most ppl’s homes. Then you’d need to support both the battery pack & the body – separately, of course, since you’re removing it – the body weighing in at over 2000lbs (thanks to lots of Aluminum). Then you have to roll one or the other away – now, using three times the footprint of the vehicle. Then do it all again, in reverse.

You really need a vehicle lift to remove the pack. It will be interesting to see the possible infrastructure develop around swappable packs. If you want to mirror the ICE infrastructure, then this is the way to go. But, I think we need to evolve from that allegory. I’m not going to postulate on what that could be – I work in process & internal logistics planning, not power-train engineering – but I joined Tesla to be part of this exciting future.

I just got to see the 1st Alpha proto run…. And, boy, did that thing run! The production vehicle will be as sexy as the red/silver rollers in all the photos. So awesome….

-bZj”