Elon Musk Envisions Tesla Electric Car as Low as $20K

Shortly after Tesla held a press conference Wednesday morning touting its $250 million planned plant in San Jose, Calif., Tesla chairman Elon Musk presented his vision of Tesla’s leadership role in the auto industry at the AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference. Musk said that Tesla has the ability to accelerate the auto industry’s progress toward the adoption of electric vehicles by 5 to 10 years. Lighting even that small fire could be very important if you consider what a decade of delay can do for climate change, he said.

Tesla’s efforts to spur the auto giants will include a third-generation, low-cost electric vehicle that could possibly be priced as low as $20,000, (he mentioned $30,000 as an option, too) a price point that is “super affordable,” he explained to us in a phone interview. The company has discussed plans for a third-generation car before, suggesting prices closer to $30,000. Tesla could produce the low-cost, third-generation electric car in partnership with other major auto makers, Musk said in his speech. He also noted the company’s previously announced partnership with Daimler and said that the connection could possibly turn into a larger deal. Details haven’t been announced about the deal with Daimler, but Musk confirmed with us that Tesla’s partnership with Daimler won’t focus on its Model S. So does that mean a future Daimler/Tesla EV partnership could deliver one of its third-gen lower-cost options? We’re not sure, but it sounds like a possibility.

Musk gave a few details on Tesla’s second generation Model S sedan, which he said the company will unveil early next year. Drivers will be able to swap the battery pack out of the Sedan, and in his talk Musk envisioned battery swap stations that could offer the same convenience as visiting a gas station. He explained to us that it was not that hard to design the battery to be swappable and that it made the car easier to service.

Battery-swapping made us think Tesla might be getting on board with Shai Agassi’s Better Place, but Musk said that at this point the two startups are focusing on different markets — Better Place currently has deals with Israel and Denmark.

On the topic of electric-vehicle competitor Fisker, Musk had some strong opinions. He said that the startup had copied a strategy from Tesla, but that it was using the wrong one (the Fisker-Tesla brawl headed to arbitration in June). We asked him what he thought the market would look like in 2010, when many of the large auto makers are first launching their electric vehicles, and he said it would be significantly later than that before any serious contenders came onto the market.