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Tesla CTO Talks Model S, Batteries and In-car Linux

For most people who identify themselves as techies, Tesla’s Model S is something of a dream car. The all-electric vehicle accelerates fast, can maintain a high top speed, has a range of up to 300 miles, and packs a 17-inch flat panel display with a Linux-based computer system that provides access to just about every aspect of the car’s performance and entertainment system.

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(Watch an IDG test drive of the Model S with details on its high-tech systems on YouTube.)

It’s perhaps no wonder that thousands of the cars have been reserved, even though Tesla has only just started delivering them to customers. IDG News Service spoke to JB Straubel, chief technology officer for Tesla, about the Model S, its design and technology, and his outlook on electric vehicle technology. Here’s what he said.

IDGNS: When you get into the Model S, this 17-inch flat-panel screen dominates the interior. Was that how you intended it, or did the design evolve that way?

JB Straubel: We did want to make a statement and package as much touchscreen as we could. Tesla is very much trying to drive forward the usability, technology and infotainment as well as the propulsion and the electric drive. It was a key design point from the very beginning.

IDGNS: What type of batteries are you using?

JBS: They are all Lithium Ion batteries, that gives us the best range and the best power and also life. We’ve exclusively used Lithium Ion batteries since the Roadster and into the Model S. These are made in Japan. We work with several notable companies in Japan and also elsewhere in Asia. We buy the cells and integrate that into a battery pack with cooling and electronics, and build that here.

IDGNS: What is the state of Lithium Ion battery technology today? It seems that for any gadget powered by Lithium Ion, longer life is always critical.

JBS: Technology in these batteries is constantly improving. It’s a pretty exciting thing from a car point of view. Today, we’re just at a tipping point where it’s possible for the first time ever to build an electric vehicle that has a range similar to a gasoline vehicle. This car has 300 miles of range, and the Lithium Ion batteries are getting better [by] maybe 7 or 8 percent every year. A little bit more energy and range, and also the cost is improving. So, it’s a very exciting time, and vehicles we’ll build 10 years from now could have almost potentially twice the range of today, or a battery pack that weighed half as much as the battery packs we have today.

IDGNS: When it comes to your customers, or potential customers, is the range a worry? As it’s all electric, you can’t just fill it up with more gasoline. Is that somewhat of a psychological barrier?
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