Four Electric Seconds 

Wednesday, Jul 26 2006

“Are you comfortable with acceleration?”

“I am . . . I think I am.”

“Because if at any point you’re not, just tell me, and I’ll slow down.”

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Malcolm Powell, or “Mac,” as he’s called, is about to take me for a very short spin in the Tesla Roadster, a high-end sports car with an AC motor powered by 6,831 lithium-ion batteries that recharge in three hours. The Roadster has a 250-mile range, but we only have to make it out of the Santa Monica Airport hangar, where Tesla Motors is throwing a lush party for the machine’s debut. I have seen the thing explode out the door a few times by now, and since I have never been good with speed, I am terrified.

But I’m not about to turn around. I have been waiting for 30 minutes in a line of unkempt journalists and spotlessly groomed potential clients (the Roadster, available in 2007, will sell for $100,000). I have nearly memorized the words on the glowing screens spaced throughout the queue, telling how CEO Martin Eberhard started the San Carlos–based company to produce fast, fun, pollution-free cars. I know the names of the 60 Silicon Valley investors projected above us. I have eavesdropped on Los Angeles Times columnist Dan Neil, in sharp Vanson leathers, when he leaned in to give a radio reporter encouragement: “You can’t bail now!” he insisted. “Think of it as a Disneyland ride.”

I take that advice to heart, reminding myself that most Disneyland rides don’t last more than 30 seconds.

As I’m about to load in, Chris Paine, director of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, comes running up wearing a “Who Killed the Electric Car?” T-shirt. A beaming, dark-haired man is at his side.

“I have a buyer!” the filmmaker announces. “He wants a ride.”

“You’ve got to change the name of your film, though,” says one of the guys on the track, stabbing a finger at Paine’s shirt. “It’s ‘Who THOUGHT They Killed the Electric Car?’ ”

The Tesla sits low; I land in the long, enveloping passenger seat with a thud. My heart pounds. I fumble with the seat belt, which I check for security the way I would a safety bar on a roller coaster. My brain calculates the odds: Mac has done this before. Mac is Tesla’s vice president of vehicle integration. Mac helped bring the Lotus Elise to the U.S. He must be a really fine driver. But Mac also has a British accent, which may mean he drives better from the other seat. And I do know that electric-vehicle promoters want the world to know their cars can out-torque any internal-combustion climate changer (0 to 60 just in first gear!): Would they take risks?

No. A crash with a journalist in the passenger’s seat would still look very, very bad. I figure I’m safe.

I jiggle my seat belt once more.

Mac asks again whether I’m okay.

“I like thrills,” I chirp.

The car glides silently out of the hangar.

“All right, then,” he says.

We waft out onto the tarmac. The car slows. Mac fiddles with the key.

“Oh,” he says. “Maybe not.”

The Tesla has floated to a halt.

“What happened?” I ask, my once-racing heart sinking.

“Oh, you know,” says Mac, throwing up one hand and slapping it on his knee. “Prototypes!”

The sun is setting over Santa Monica Airport as high rollers in Hummers and private jets, including Governor Schwarzenegger, mill about in the valet-lined parking lot, and the mighty Tesla Roadster, a streamlined convertible with sloping curves and headlights that look as though they’ve been stretched oblong by a powerful wind, is stalled out on the tarmac.

“Maybe you need to reboot,” I offer.

“Right,” Mac laughs graciously. ”It’s a computer!”

Mac pulls out his phone. A photographer runs out. “This works out great for me — stay there!” he says, and snaps a picture of the car in the pinkish twilight.

I don’t blame the car. I blame myself. My fear has psychic power. Up in Seattle once, I objected to riding on the back of a BMW motorcycle at 110 miles per hour.

“You don’t trust me,” said the driver.

“No,” I said. “I don’t trust your bike.”

A few weeks later, the BMW was totaled while parked at a meter.

As Mac is midcall, a tall young man runs out to see what the problem is. “I got a 5061 error,” Mac says.

The young man dives for two knobs painted with swirly red arrows above the instrument panel. He twists one, then the other; they snap back into position. “Try it now.”

Mac turns the key. Presses his foot to the accelerator. The Roadster moves out. The motor whines like the jet on a very tiny airplane. And somewhere in the space above my head, I hear myself yelp.

My body disconnects from the seat; imaginary gray matter seeps from my skull. In my peripheral vision, objects melt. I laugh like a crazy person.

And then it’s over.

We return to the hangar. I thank Mac. A man helps hoist me out of the seat. I cross the room, shaking, and head over to the bar, where I find the Reverend Gadget.

“How was the ride?” he asks.

“Fun,” I say. “Really fast.”

“Oh, no, it wasn’t,” he says. “You should have been here an hour ago, before the Santa Monica police came by and told them to cut it out.”

“But it was plenty fast,” I insist. “We must have gone 100.”

Gadget laughs. “Are you kidding? You barely went 60. You just aren’t used to getting there in four seconds.”

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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