Power surge

Heralded as the “21st Century Electric Car,” the sleek, powerful Tesla has area residents charged

From left, Bob Fulton and his wife, Betsy Styron, and Ken and Linda McGurn with their Tesla electric cars.

Rob C. Witzel
Published: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 at 1:19 p.m.

Tesla's true believer nation in Florida is a hearty crew, numbering 660 owners of the $80-thousand Model S luxury electric car and its precedent sportster.

The Tesla troops cite voltage, lithium ion counts and ampage figures, spouting theories on electrical circuitry like a classroom full of gearhead nerds gone wild in University of Florida's Larsen Hall.

And maybe they have something, perhaps like the advocates of the Model T in 1908. You know, as in 'this car thing just might catch on.'

Tesla is a survivor of the plug-in luxe car wars, selling its Model S to people who are happy to wait six weeks for delivery.

The vehicle is a modern tech marvel, a snippy, low-riding four-door sedan that looks as good as a BMW and has sold more in this year's first quarter than the unfortunate hybrid Chevy Volt and the heralded electric Nissan Leaf.

“I have people ask me about it when I'm stopped at a red light,” said David Guzick, senior vice president of health affairs at University of Florida Health. “Gainesville is not a place where there are a lot of conspicuous cars, and I wanted to avoid that. But it turns out this is somewhat conspicuous.”

Bob Fulton was sold on the Tesla within minutes of hitting the road.

“I was fascinated with this idea of the Tesla, but I was hesitant,” says Fulton, a physician who commutes to Jacksonville. When his friend Ken McGurn, a Gainesville developer, purchased his own Tesla, he invited Fulton to drive it.

“He got his delivered on July 3rd...and let me drive it on July 5th. And that same day, I ordered mine. This was a car that when you step on the gas, it puts you back in your seat.”

McGurn's other family car is a Prius W, the lone vehicle he and his wife, Linda, shared for many years.

He offers free 240-watt charging at his downtown parking garage for other owners of electric cars, using power generated from the solar panels on the garage's roof. The 240-wattage offers about a 40-miles-per-hour charge.

And he takes advantage of powering up the car when he drives to Daytona, where he and his wife own property.

“They have a supercharger at the Port Orange exit where I get off the interstate; they are providing free charging for all electric cars,“ McGurn says.

There are likely to be more superchargers on the horizon, as the Tesla's sales caught fire earlier this year. (Then a Tesla itself caught fire in September, undoing some of those popularity gains.)

The “21st Century Electric Car,” as it dubbed itself when it launched in the early 2000s, also burned through a couple of CEOs before it had even put a prototype on the road.

The company has managed to stick in the electric car game, and current CEO and company co-founder Elon Musk told reporters last summer that the company has an order backlog of about 20,000 on an annual basis.

Tesla advocates speak of the 42-year-old Musk with a reverence once used to laud Steve Jobs. The comparison is not far off. Musk is also the co-founder of PayPal and founder of outer space long-hauler SpaceX, with a visionary intensity that compels followers to anticipate his next venture.

Like the early days of the Model, T, when gasoline was a scarce fuel source usually sold in drug stores, Musk's challenge is to create a system of power for his automobiles.

In terms of general infrastructure for electric cars, it's slowly changing. The University of Florida has a number of charging stations. Nissan dealerships have stations. Some hotels are even beginning to offer charging services, from the Hilton Orlando to the Fontainebleau in Miami.

Tesla has what it calls “superchargers” in various spots around the U.S., including three in Florida, as McGurn mentioned, where Tesla drivers can get a high-voltage charge in a brief period. Driving electric means to be in search of a charge, which can take some time, especially if the charges comes from a low voltage household outlet, where it can take an hour to get a 4-mile charge.

By the time Bennett Brummer gets his Tesla Model X in 2015, there should be more of the Supercharger spots around the state.

Brummer, who served as public defender in Miami-Dade County for 32 years before retiring in 2009, moved to Gainesville in May. He drives a Ford C-MAX Energi and a Lexus hybrid SUV. Ordering the Tesla “is a natural progression,” Brummer says.

“I'm in favor of electric cars, and I'm conscious of the environmental issues as well as the national security issues of having our own power and not being dependent on sources of fossil fuels.”

It's the same reasoning people gave when the Honda Insight hybrid hit the car scene in 1999. But drivers didn't have a luxury, custom-made ride like the Tesla, with a range of up to 300 miles on a charge, to fawn over.

“This Tesla has sufficient range for me to drive all over Florida with no problems,” Brummer says. “And I'm waiting for them to expand the Supercharger network so I can drive across the country.”

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