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Tesla Looks To Make Affordable Electric Car In 3-4 Years

FREMONT (CBS News) -- For more than a century, automakers have tried and failed to build a popular electric car. Tesla Motors is now promising that an affordable one is on the way. Its first car, the Tesla Model S, is now rated safest in the world. The carmaker, it seems, may have plugged into a formula that works.

Tesla's Model S electric car has often been seen as a novelty, a cutting-edge toy for the rich, but America's youngest car company is enjoying a run of good news that has nothing to do with being the new kid on the assembly line.

In a recent interview with CBS News, Musk said he's really "proud of the fact that we've gotten the safety to where it is."

This week, chief executive officer Elon Musk announced the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given his Model S sedan the highest safety rating in its history of testing cars. Musk said, "When we did the roof crush test ... it got to four times the weight of the car and then the machine broke, so the, literally, the roof, the thing that's supposed to crush the car, broke instead of the car."

Speaking further about the safety rating, Musk said, "That's incredibly important to me because, my kids drive in the car every day, my friends drive in the car every day, I really couldn't live with myself if there was something that I could've done that, that would've saved them, and I didn't do it."

Earlier this month, Tesla posted its second consecutive profitable quarter, more than doubling its operating profit from the first quarter of 2013. And then, last fall, the Tesla Model S was named Motor Trend's 2013 Car of the Year. It was the first time in the 64-year history of the prestigious honor that the winning car did not run on gasoline.

"I'm not trying to be disruptive for the sake of being disruptive," Musk replied. "That's not making people's lives better, but in the case of oil-based transport, there's no choice, we've got to disrupt that, we've got to have sustainable means of transportation."

It's a long way from 2008, when the fledgling company almost went bankrupt. Its critics called Tesla a house of cards that would collapse due to the lack of electric car charging stations and an unproven driving record.

Jessica Caldwell, of the car information Web site, said, "I think what Tesla and Elon Musk are trying to do is go by those criticisms one-by-one and to very methodically address those: do we have good performance? 'Yes, Motor Trend says that we did.' Do we have good safety? 'Yes, (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) says that we are a very safe car'."

The Model S can go up to 300 miles on a single charge and the company plans to add to its network of superchargers along the East and West Coasts. The next challenge: making a mass market electric car more people can afford, not just those who can shell out more than $100,000 for a loaded Model S.

Musk said, "I think we can produce an affordable long-range compelling electric car in about three to four years."

Statements like that are no longer considered boastful. In fact, traditional car companies, such as General Motors have now formed teams to study Tesla and learn from its success.

Musk said, "I think the big American car companies kind of got complacent at a certain point and they just stopped trying to innovate, or they didn't think anyone could sort of outdo them and I think soon as you sort of have that, that attitude, then somebody's going to outdo you."

At only 21,000 production cars a year, Tesla isn't going to out-do Detroit in volume anytime soon. But when it comes to innovation, the company is cornering the market.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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