The Untold Story Of The Tesla Prototype Test From Hell

Take away timing, ego, innovation, and opportunity and what you are left with is bullshit. And bullshit is a dead deer, a dead car, and the smell of gunpowder and imminent media disaster.

Our ears were still ringing from the gunshots. He had emptied his entire clip into the writhing animal seconds earlier.

"Do you want this?" the California highway patrolman asked as he dropped the buck’s bloody carcass in front of the equally lifeless, $2 million prototype automobile. This would be Tesla, the world’s first electric sports car, and its introduction to The New York Times and the CBS Evening News. Dead and standing in a pool of blood reflected in its burgundy metallic paint.

We’d been making a much better impression just a few minutes earlier…

(This section is excerpted from the book "Reboot: The (Previously) Untold Story Of Tesla's Electric Sports Car" by author David Vespremi, the former Director of Public Relations for the company who recently won a lawsuit against the company.)

The on-ramp from Woodside Road to Interstate 280 North is essentially a long sweeper with a pronounced kink at the bottom that gradually opened up as the onramp rose in elevation to meet the freeway. As I approached it at moderate speed, I knew that the instant torque of the electric motor would allow me to break traction, at least momentarily, and drift the rear end of the Tesla Roadster prototype in a bit of a powerslide before I would need to counter-steer a bit and accelerate back out of the slide.

I also knew that executed precisely, this little bit of showboating was generally a sure-fire move for impressing upon journalists that this car was in fact something special. Far from a sluggish boat anchor that would need to make excuses for itself in comparison to its gasoline powered counterparts ('yes I'm slow, unwieldy and bordering on narcoleptic to drive, but did I mention how green I am...?") The Roadster was lithe, alive, and deliciously playful.

My passenger this brisk morning was the esteemed David Pogue of the New York Times, whom I had met for the first time just twenty minutes earlier in Tesla's lobby. Following behind in a rented van and capturing our every move on high-def video was a national TV news crew from the CBS nightly news (Ed: You can see the aired version of that story here). The plan was to do a little vehicle-to-vehicle filming from the open side door of the van and maybe take a few beauty shots at Filolli Gardens along Cañada Road.

Along the way, I would feed David as much information about the car and the company behind it as he cared to hear. As Tesla's PR guy, I knew the drill well and had done it countless times before, and I also knew the stakes were high to have it go flawlessly.

This particular prototype I was driving, Engineering Prototype #2, was a bright burgundy red example, and one of just two working prototypes in existence at the time (circa summer of 2007). For this reason, it was also valued in the neighborhood of $2M and had required me to submit to a background check for driving privileges for which even the company's CEO and co-founder, Martin Eberhard, wouldn't qualify owing to a couple of points on his license.

What I didn't know that morning was what, exactly, I was driving.

The Untold Story Of The Tesla Prototype Test From Hell

Allow me to clarify. An awful lot of how modern cars drive is dictated by several onboard computers that oversee the mechanical components. The computers help regulate how much power the engine is able to generate at any given moment when called upon, how much braking force is applied to which wheel, and how steering and shifting inputs are synced to these other sub systems.

This is all well and good, but as drivers, we have the reassurance that comes from knowing that despite all this computerized oversight, there are still the same four, six or eight pistons generating the power, a box of mechanical gears sending it to the wheels, and generally some mechanical connection between the driver inputs like the steering, throttle and brakes that have existed for the better part of two hundred years now.

The Tesla Roadster, by contrast, is essentially a giant computer with a 900-pound battery pack sitting just behind the driver’s head. It has more in common with an iPhone than the car sitting in most people’s driveways. In a normal car, it might be a nerve wracking experience to suddenly lose all engine power, but you’d still have fully functional steering and brakes to get you to the side of the road safely.

But in the Tesla Roadster, when the computer crashed, nearly everything went with it – power and brakes – the truly important things. Given this, the single most critical point of focus for a driver like me behind the wheel of an early prototype was an innocuous little touch screen display just above my left knee and out of view from the passenger seat.

This screen, known as the VMS (Vehicle Management System) display in Tesla parlance, or the blue screen of death, to those of us on the sales and marketing team that actually had to drive the cars in traffic, was like a really buggy, virus-infested version of Windows that would crash or freeze up for no apparent reason at the most inopportune times.

The engineers loved it, because through it, and the computerized interface it was connected to, it provided ready access to every critical system used in powering and driving the car –from the power steering to the regenerative brakes to the motor and battery controls to the air conditioning – the EPS logged and controlled it all. Of course, when the EPS crashed or froze, short of a reboot, the car suddenly became a giant paperweight that may or may not be moving at the time.

The only real safeguard against potentially being stranded, or worse, was keeping an eye out for error codes on the EPS. Sounds easy enough, right? On a typical car that we are all accustomed to driving, we might see two or three check lights on the dashboard alerting us to whether the oil was critically low, the airbag sensor detected a fault, or the car was due for service. The seriousness of the warning would dictate, what, if any action one might need to take right there and then.

The EPS screen was another matter entirely.

It regularly spit out error codes varying from marginal to critical importance so fast it was like what might come out of a courtroom reporter transcribing an auctioneer. And that's when it was working.

Add to this was the uncomfortable fact that Engineering Prototype 2 was in Tesla speak “a shared resource,” meaning the engineering team would have it in a thousand pieces any given night and by two, three or four a.m. they were to have it reassembled into a functioning car as to not render it catastrophically undriveable for marketing/sales use in the morning.

The Untold Story Of The Tesla Prototype Test From Hell

Did I mention that engineering and sales/marketing, by virtue of constantly stepping on each other’s toes, didn’t have the most cordial of working relationships?

While no one from either team (openly) wished death or grave bodily injury on their counterpart on the other team, one often had the sense that a wheel falling off from missing lug nuts was, from the perspective of the night crew, not an unpardonable oversight. Between 6-8 a.m. the car was generally hastily washed down by an intern putting in some sweat equity for resume material (this season it was Grif Harsh, the son of Meg Whitman, eBay's former CEO and California gubernatorial candidate). And hopefully, someone, anyone, would have remembered to plug it in long enough to give it at least a partial charge before it would become a sales and promotions work horse at 8am.

By the time I retrieved the keys from a metal box secured to the wall at the back of the shop, I would say a little prayer that the guys wrenching on it the night before had enough lucidity left (after a night of pounding Red Bulls) to put the thing back together without too many important parts left behind on the shop floor.

I would generally assume the alignment would be off, and this particular morning I could already confirm that the car was pulling to the right side and crab-walking a bit from having its suspension disassembled and reassembled without anyone checking to make sure the wheels were all pointed in roughly the right direction relative. Fortunately for me, nothing would appear to be amiss to Mr. Pogue or to the news van following behind.

That morning, like every morning, I was also blissfully unaware of what version of the software had been loaded into the car. Engineers often installed new, buggy versions whenever they tore the car apart and reassembled it – which was virtually every day. The car could be making give or take a hundred horsepower more or less than the advertised 200, it may or may not have ABS enabled, it may or may not have traction control enabled, and its energy consumption could give a real world range of plus or minus a hundred miles from the indicated display.

So back to that onramp.

The Untold Story Of The Tesla Prototype Test From Hell

Playing it relatively safe, I goosed it just enough to break traction at the rear and, as the back of the car began to swing wide, I gave it a bit of opposite lock on the steering wheel, dialed in some more power as the car straightened back out, and rocketed onto the freeway, rendering the camera van a tiny spec in the rear view mirror.

Based on his wide eyed grin, Mr. Pogue seemed to be enthralled with the experience. And then it happened. The proverbial blue screen of death as the EPS froze.

Doing somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 mph and merging into the fast lane, the prototype lost all power functions. Now, this wasn't the first time I had to think fast behind the wheel of the two EPs. I had a spectacular near spin in my very first outing in EP2 along with a multitude of failures to start. I'd had my close calls with the law, including a 3 a.m. drift session in San Rafael prepping the car for its television debut racing a Ferrari in a Microsoft Forza video game commercial.

I'd even gotten the car completely sideways with a customer riding shotgun on Michigan Drive in Chicago. We'd had 3 and 4 a.m. photo shoots in some of the more colorful back alleys of Williamsburg and Harlem in NYC that could have gone horribly wrong, but somehow didn't.

But a full power loss at speed was something altogether new. I guess I missed the code that said stop accelerating immediately, and the EPS, all safety systems off, shut down, essentially buffering itself into oblivion when it could no longer cope with the litany of error codes being thrown.

With the average in-flight magazine writer or foreign journalist riding along, I might have come clean right then and there, and apologetically indicated that the car had essentially given up the ghost and we would momentarily be gliding to a halt if we managed to avoid being taken out by a speeding SUV. But this wasn't just any morning, and the New York Times and CBS together was a big deal for Tesla. Make that a very big deal. So, I made the call to bluff.

As the car began to rapidly lose forward momentum, I signaled right and played like I was taking an exit for a scenic overlook – maybe setting up for some impromptu b-roll beauty footage for the benefit of the guys in the camera van. The brakes suddenly as effective as pressing blocks of wood against the tires, I let the goofy alignment carry the car right until we were doing 50, then 40, 30 and 20 mph up the Farm Hill Road off-ramp just one exit from where we had merged on.

As the car continued to slowly glide to a halt, I frantically pushed through the reboot sequence to cycle the EPS, smiling for David’s sake as beads of sweat glistened on my forehead, hoping he wouldn't catch on.

When the prototype finally ground to a halt on the shoulder, a few hundred yards from the top of the uphill onramp, I knew the gig was now undeniably up. It was time to come clean.

"Are we stopping here?” he finally inquired with a bemused expression, very much stating the obvious.

“Yeah, ummm, we’ll be back underway momentarily,” I stammered, trying to feign an air of calm. “I just need to check back with home base on scheduling..." (OK, maybe not coming entirely clean just yet).

The Untold Story Of The Tesla Prototype Test From Hell

No sooner had I pulled the cell-phone-to-the-ear trick then did a loud speaker put an end to the ruse once and for all.

"Move the car," it commanded.

I looked in the rear view mirror to see a CHP cruiser, light bar lit up in red, inching closer.

"Move the car now or I'm moving it for you. You can't park there," the voice boomed.

The thought of the cruiser bashing the back of the prototype Roadster's carbon fiber bumper with its bull bar was too much to take. Before I could even suggest a course of action, Mr. Pogue, one foot already out the door, was signaling to the camera crew in the van to come over.

He knew what was up without my saying a word and within seconds we were huffing and puffing away pushing the 2,800 pound Roadster uphill the last few hundred yards to get it off the exit ramp, the police cruiser pacing us from behind.

Wiping the sweat from our brows and gasping for breath as we crested the hill, a picture postcard idyllic scene greeted us. In a field of tall grass were two deer grazing, the hillside opposite lit in a warm glow from the morning sun. Tranquility realized in a moment.

And then just as quickly, snatched from us as one of the two deer, apparently spooked by the arrival of a shiny red wheeled object and a bunch of gasping men, bolted from the field across the road, which had moments ago been empty, straight into the side of a speeding minivan.

Predictably, the van, now featuring a deep deer-sized indentation on the driver’s side fender emerged the clear winner.

The police car that had been behind us slowly pulled alongside and an officer emerged, naively, I thought, to render aid to the motorist and/or deer. Instead, he approached the deer, drew his gun, and shot it.

To our horror, the deer continued to writhe and spasm. The officer paused for a moment and proceeded to unload his entire clip into the deer until we could hear the empty pistol clicking with no more rounds left to give.

Re-holstering his weapon, he then grabbed the deer by the antlers and dragged its now lifeless body to just a few feet from the Roadster's front bumper, dropping its head unceremoniously on the asphalt before our feet.

"Go ahead and take that if you want it," were his parting words as he got back in his car, turned off the light bar, and drove off.

Staring the deer corpse in the face, its mate having bounded away with the first shots fired, I turned to Mr. Pogue and suggested that this might be a good time to break for lunch. I would arrange for the pick up of the lifeless car and possibly its antler adorned kindred spirit.

David hopped in the van and took off. Back on the cell, I called home base. "Hi Phil, it's David. Could you send the van over towards Cañada College. I'm going to need a lift back to the shop...."

This story originally appeared in Reboot: The (Previously) Untold Story Of Tesla's Electric Sports Car" by author David Vespremi. The author wants everyone to know that the price for the first part includes the other updates.

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Photo Credits: AP, Getty Images