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On the Hot Seat

Tesla looking to make electric vehicles mainstream

Diarmuid O’Connell, vice president, business development, Tesla Motors Inc.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Diarmuid O’Connell, vice president, business development, Tesla Motors Inc.

While other federally backed “green technology” companies like Waltham’s A123 Systems have flopped, electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc. posted a profit in the first quarter of 2013. The California company has repaid its federal loans and earned rave reviews for its latest car. But Tesla is fighting for the right to sell its cars directly to consumers, instead of through dealers. Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray recently chatted with Diarmuid O’Connell, Tesla’s vice president of business development.

Other electric cars are rather plain. Your Model S is dazzling.

It competes in the category of Mercedes, BMW-class vehicles, has performance, acceleration that is as good or better than all those models. But most important for an electric vehicle, it achieves 265 miles of range on a single charge.

How long does it take to charge?

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It really depends. If you’re using your household circuit it takes several hours. If you use one of our superchargers, which we’re installing on major interstates and arteries — we’ll be doing one here on I-90 in Sturbridge — you can recover 150 miles in 30 minutes or less.

Other than being electric, what’s so great about this car?

This car was not to be a great electric car. It was designed to be a great car. The car won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award late last year. It was just rated by Consumer Reports as the best vehicle they’ve ever tested.

But this Model S with all the options costs about $100,000. Few people could afford it.

The base price of our first car was $109,000. The base price of this car, $64,000. The whole purpose is to get to a mass-market $30,000 EV [electric vehicle], and we think we can get there within three or four years. Like so many technology companies, you start with a high-price, low-volume offering. Think about the $3,000 cellphone of 1984.

So, you someday want to make the Ford Model T of electric cars — an EV so cheap that the ordinary person can afford one.

Actually, the mission of this company is to catalyze a mass market for electric vehicles, either with our own cars or by inspiring competition by other manufacturers. We believe that this is the technology of the future and we need to bring it forward now, for reasons having to do with reduction of oil dependency, climate issues, and simple balance-of-trade issues.

But how “green” can a vehicle be? You still have to burn fuel for the electrical grid, to recharge the car.

The grid is getting cleaner every day. In California, where we operate, there’s very little coal on the grid. The emissions profile of this vehicle is vastly better than an internal combustion vehicle.

Tesla borrowed nearly half a billion dollars from the US government. You paid it back nine years ahead of schedule. How’d you manage that?

People are flocking to the technology. That allows us to attract capital, to raise funds, and to earn money off the sales of the vehicles.

Why does Tesla sell its cars directly to the public, instead of going through traditional dealers?

It doesn’t lend itself well to the traditional dealer model. A dealer who’s trying to sell this technology next to gasoline technology [is] essentially undermining his own core business. So, it’s very important for us to sell this car ourselves. We have a store at the Natick Mall, we have a service center in Watertown, and we plan to open more stores here.

But dealers in Massachusetts aren’t happy about this.

We’ve been challenged by the Massachusetts [State Automobile] Dealers Association. We’ve sought a license to operate as a dealer in this state, we’ve been granted that license, but the dealer association is challenging that license. They would like to force us to sell through their channel.

But there’s pending legislation to back your right to sell cars, right?

There is a bill moving under the sponsorship of [State Representative David] Linsky, which is seeking to clarify our position so that we can continue to do business here and we can continue to grow our business here.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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