As the sale of Saab’s assets to NEVS reaches a head this summer, it will be almost three years since its last sale to Spyker. Amazingly their ownership of Saab feels like a blip in that whole spanse, which was more or less plagued by scandals, production stoppages, and dramatic sales. Yet Spyker was able to initiate several structural changes not only to Saab’s model portfolio through the development of the Phoenix platform, but also structural changes to its work force and third party sourced engineering expertise with companies like eAAM, Vicura, ZF, and True Electric. Three years, and yet here we are, without a Saab to buy and with no real promise that we’ll ever be able to drive a traditional gas powered Saab off a new car dealer lot again.
So what could the next three years bring? Three years ago, Tesla introduced the Model S in a big media splash. The company’s founder, Elon Musk, an internet billionaire, risked his entire fortune on his two startups, SpaceX and Tesla. The former just launched the first successful commercial space flight to dock with the International Space Station, so it’s clear this man can multitask. Some think of him as a cocky arrogant prick, I’m not one of them– he’s a visionary who sees obstacles and blasts through them. We’ve seen the arguments against his company (especially in comments sections of websites including our own) lambasting the company as a fly by night and their first car, the roadster, as a rich man’s go cart. Well, that go cart’s inflated price didn’t hurt sales to those rich men, who in turn helped subsidize the development of their real first car of note, the Model S.
Here’s Musk three years ago, on Letterman explaining his vision.
As he points out, even when the electricity comes completely from coal, the original roadster still emits less CO2 per mile into the atmosphere than a Prius. I wish he’d have mentioned before the commercial break when Dave took a swipe at GM for the Volt’s range that while his car is out of juice at the end of a charge, the Volt can keep running on gas, something most readers here would actually prefer, myself included.
When it came time to develop their first attempt at a ground up car, he hired the best consultants he could find in the industry. From Motor Trend’s piece this weekend on the Model S:
You’re probably snorting and rolling your eyes at the hubris of a guy who daisy-chained a bunch of laptop batteries together to make a Lotus run silently, but trust me — after a walk through the factory, a visit to a dealer showroom, and an hour-and-a-half spent driving the car on a mix of roads, my eyes are wide and my jaw has dropped. Remember, Musk’s Space-X operation just launched a commercial rocket that successfully docked with the international space station. Don’t underestimate his determination, or his ability to lure talent. Examples? In the chassis department, Huibert Mees did the Ford GT’s suspension and Graham Sutherland spent 23 years tuning Lotuses. Manufacturing boss Gilbert Passin ran Toyota’s North American manufacturing engineering operations, and sales veep George Blankenship designed the Apple Stores.
What these engineers were able to do was toss out all the conventional gear that gets in the way of creating the best car possible. Our favorite engineering teams from Trollhättan have a similarly daunting task ahead of them, and already have gotten a running start with the Phoenix platform. But if we study the lessons that the Tesla team provides, there’s incredible reason for optimism. Here’s a very simple example of what advantages the electric system provides:
By ditching the complicated internal combustion system, the weight and structure of the car could be completely designed from the ground up to give the best driving characteristics. The battery is so well designed that it not only lowers the car’s center of gravity, but stiffens the chassis. The structure of the car is completely new, as Motor Trend learned from Tesla’s presentation:
The aluminum structure of stampings, die-castings, and extrusions utilizes expertise from the rocketry division. Extruded rear suspension links (as strong as forgings) and hollow-cast front knuckle designs are claimed automotive innovations, each of which also lowers unsprung weight. Double-octagon extrusions form the front and rear crumple-zone structures, which are claimed to outperform federal standards, especially in back, where the car was impact tested at 50 mph as well as the mandatory 35. The roof crush resistance is also double the requirement (it broke the crush machine), and the rigid battery pack greatly restricts side-impact intrusion.
Tesla even bought a factory and then acquired flexible production tools that allow most parts related to the chassis to be built on site. Fortunately, Saab already has much of this advantage in that most of the tooling is all set to go to build everything in the car, so they can check that off the list of to-dos.
So how does it drive? I’ll let these videos show you instead of talking to you about it.
From GigaOM: Pay attention to the acceleration on the highway when she first merges at 4:10, it was as effortless and nonchalant as any turbo experience I’ve felt in a Saab, the two are no doubt similar. I find the air suspension pretty damn impressive, as these are test run cars with no rattles and build quality exceeding most automakers (these comments coming from seasoned auto journalists).
From Wired: Check out those gorgeous turbine wheels (ahem…Saab had them first) in grey. Keep in mind, if you live in the US, you could have one of these for less than $50K, whereas a 9-5 Aero with less standard features than the Tesla (disregard the range for a moment, more on that later) retailed for nearly $5-7K more at dealers. So as far as price goes, to get into one of these isn’t an insane proposition.
From Engadget: For those of you familiar with Trollhättan from Tim’s great videos driving around showing us the area, this is a great view of Ryan’s neck of the woods on the west coast of the US. If you wondered what the area where most of your software and even hardware is developed looks like, this gives you a pretty good idea of Silicon Valley. And the Model S is pretty much the ultimate vision of what a car from this area would be like. He doesn’t drive quite as fast as Katie does on the 101 though, so I put him last :).
If you’ve made it this far and watched the videos, you’ll understand why I put them there. If not, scroll back up and watch them when you have time. For skeptics of electric cars like me, it takes time and proof of seeing them operate, not only well but beautifully, to appreciate what future Saab might soon have. I encourage you all to read up as much as possible about the Model S since it provides the template for where NEVS will need to take Saab. While I’d like to see more than electric cars in Saab’s range (PHEV or EREVs please), I can honestly say I’d be upset if Saab didn’t fully embrace electric propulsion. Tesla intends to use a through the road AWD system similar to eXWD as a bolt on solution for their SUV based on the Model S, the Model X. After that’s introduced, Tesla’s aiming to go big with a mass market EV priced for the mainstream, around $30K. All the profits they reap from the Model S will go a long way in helping them defer development costs and the infrastructure work they’re investing in, like the quick charge stations along the roads between major cities to allow for 150 mile top ups in under 30 minutes with their cars’ built in chargers.
Three years ago, the Model S was lambasted as a pipe dream. Now it’s breaking through convention, expectation, and preconceived notions of what a car can and should be. Hopefully Saab with its engineering and production capability can excel in a similar way, and in less than three years we can have our own moment of triumph. It comes down to a few key things: creativity, capability, and capital. We know that NEVS has access to the first two in Trollhättan and possibly Japan, hopefully they have enough of the third to keep things going smooth this time. For an example of a company that has stumbled as of late on the third, you’ll have to wait until my next installment on Fisker coming soon.