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Schwarzenegger seizes Tesla Motors plant for California

Governator sings the body electric

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California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger - famed for his uncanny resemblance to an electric machine clad in an unrealistic fleshy cloak - has managed to ensure that noted electrical car company Tesla will base future manufacturing in areas under his rule.

Tesla Motors, maker of the well-known but troubled $100k Roadster battery supercar, had planned to produce more modestly-priced cars in New Mexico.

"To see this company build a plant in New Mexico drove me absolutely insane," Schwarzenegger said, quoted by Reuters. "My administration ... does not like to lose."

California managed to secure Tesla's new plant by offering a tax exemption on manufacturing equipment to zero-emissions vehicle builders. Tesla is presently headquartered in California, and has its design team there, but much of the assembly on the present Roadster is done in the UK by Lotus (its body is basically an Elise).

The Roadster was long held up by technical difficulties, and while it finally went into production in March it will be produced for an indefinite period with what Tesla describes as an "intermediate solution" transmission. The company says that this will be durable and reliable, but won't deliver the Roadster's one truly supercar-like capability - the much-touted 0-60 mph in four seconds acceleration.

Instead, production Roadster transmissions will be good for sixty mph in just under six seconds - a bit more like $40k hot hatchback acceleration than true supercar poke. (The Roadster has never pretended to be a supercar - or even a hot hatch - in terms of top speed, maxing out at a very ordinary 125 mph. But acceleration is a lot more relevant than top end to normal road drivers.)

Tesla promises that once it has a proper full-poke transmission sorted out and able to fulfil the promised spec, it will retrofit this to all the early Roadsters for no extra charge. Most Roadster buyers probably aren't buying for performance anyway, and that would presumably be doubly true for the new mass-market design. With fuel prices seeming to shift from ballistic (what goes up must come down) to astronomical (staying sky high forever) the tremendous user economy of electric cars - in the UK, currently equivalent to slashing your petrol bill by 90 per cent - is looking more and more impressive.

The new Tesla Model S (previously aka "WhiteStar") is intended to have broader appeal than the Roadster, being substantially lower priced and featuring five seats rather than two. Both it and the Roadster will still have the main, crippling downside of all-electric cars - a long recharge time once the battery pack is flat, making such vehicles unsuitable for long journeys or other sustained use. The Roadster is said by its makers to run flat after just 165 miles of "aggressive highway driving", and hours of recharging is pretty much a deal-breaker for ordinary mortals - common in the UK, at least - who must park their cars on the street overnight.

That said, Tesla has previously mentioned plans to offer range-extended variants fitted with supplementary petrol generators that might stretch out a battery charge as far as 400 miles (unlike a normal hybrid such as the Prius, these cars would then flake out; the generator can't usefully propel the car on its own, it just ekes out battery life). These plans evidently won't disqualify Tesla from getting the California tax break, though it refers specifically to zero-emission vehicles.

Company founder and main money man Elon Musk - also of PayPal and SpaceX commercial spaceflight fame - is now firmly in control at Tesla, following boardroom battles with other early players last year. Apart from tussles with fellow Tesla founders, Musk is also embroiled in a legal scrap with bodywork designer Henrik Fisker, who he says pirated tech secrets from Tesla and stiffed the company with a deliberately bad body design for the new mass-appeal cars now to be made in California.

The new models will now use bodywork with major creative input from Musk himself, and are expected to start rolling off the Northern California line - location as yet unspecified - in "late 2010". ®

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