The invention of the internal combustion engine during the 19th Century shook up the world like few other discoveries have ever done. Originally designed to power machinery, by the latter part of the century engineers had begun to realise the internal combustion engine could power vehicles too. The first car to be designed specifically around the internal combustion engine was the Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1885. It was the beginning of the end for the age of the horse.
Less than a century and a half later there are comfortably north of a billion motor vehicles in the world and for decades now concerns have been growing about the damage all those engines may be inflicting on the environment via pollution and carbon emissions.
The solution to these grave problems which has gathered the most interest and been the focus of most research is the electric car, and the highest profile name in the sector is undoubtedly Californian firm Tesla Inc.
Based in Palo Alto in the heart of storied Silicon Valley, the firm was founded 15 years ago, as Tesla Motors, by entrepreneurial engineers Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, who had previously collaborated on the creation of one of the world’s first e-book readers.
Eberhard, in particular, was interested in sports cars but also concerned about global warming. Tesla was born when General Motors decided in 2003 to recall and crush the EV1, the first mass-produced electric vehicle, despite customer protests. It had been well received but GM believed it would never generate sufficient profit.
Eberhard and Tarpenning set up Tesla Motors before the year was out, naming it after legendary Serbian electrical engineering pioneer Nikola Tesla and initially funding it out of their own pockets. It was the first car company ever established in Silicon Valley.
Tesla quickly attracted the attention of South African programmer and engineer Elon Musk, who already made a fortune via his involvement in the creation of PayPal. Musk became heavily involved. He was appointed chairman of the board and lead the company’s successful efforts to attract its first round of venture capital funding – a stage known in investment circles as ‘Series A’. Musk also made a substantial investment in Tesla from his own funds He is now officially regarded as a co-founder, while Eberhard and Tarpenning have both left the firm – the former under contested circumstances.
Tesla owes some of its high profile and plentiful media coverage to the press-friendly charisma of Musk, an energetic presence who, unlike so many other CEOs, is not afraid to crack jokes on Twitter.
In the subsequent decade, Tesla has branched out, expanding its research and development efforts beyond the electric vehicle into solar panels and battery technology. The latter is not so surprising when you consider the crucial importance of effective batteries in the operation of electric cars. The battery life of Tesla models has in fact been a source of several disputes with the motoring media, including the popular BBC show Top Gear.
But such bumps in the road aside, the future seems bright for Tesla. In 2017 the company brought in revenue of nearly $12 billion, while its range of vehicles has expanded to three: the Tesla S, Tesla X and Model 3, with a fourth, the high-performance Roadster, scheduled for 2020.