Keeping Tesla in Perspective
Tesla is in the crosshairs of controversy again.
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: July 12th, 2012
I'd argue, though, that Tesla is just one piece of the puzzle, and the success or failure of electric cars probably won't be tied to the success or failure of the company.
nce again, start-up automaker Tesla has found itself in the crosshairs of a controversy. With the launch of the Model S sedan, the company invited journalists from automotive-media outlets (full disclosure: we weren't on the list) to drive the new sedan, with most getting a test drive of only ten minutes. Even The Wall Street Journal's Dan Neil—one of the better-known auto journalists in the industry—got only a bit over an hour in the car.
To put this in perspective, journalists usually get a full day in a test car on a press launch, usually after sitting through a press briefing and question and answer session. Generally, when one factors in lunch breaks and driver swaps, a journalist will get two to four hours of wheel time in the car. That's not to say a review can't be done based on an hour or even ten minutes of driving time, but rather that a good journalist will tell the readership how brief the drive was (Neil did in his piece).
Of course, the limited drive time became an issue, mainly because auto-enthusiast website Jalopnik wrote a post on it before following up with another post saying that Neil's brief drive didn't allow for certain questions about the car to be answered.
I tell this story—which is admittedly a bunch of inside baseball (more full disclosure: I've met both Neil and Jalopnik's Matt Hardigree, who authored that site's posts, in the course of my professional life)—because it brings up a larger point: we, meaning both consumers and the automotive press, don't quite know what to make of Tesla. And it's time to stop either believing that Tesla is "like totally the best company EVER you guys" or "a bunch of over-hyped hippie vaporware." Let's instead focus on what Tesla is: a start-up that makes interesting electric vehicles that are quite pricy (the cheapest Model S starts at $49,900).
Tesla's not the only small start-up out there doing unique things. There's Fisker, which sells the luxury Karma plug-in hybrid, and of course there are plenty of small companies building niche sports cars. But Tesla gets a lot of pub because Elon Musk—he of Space X fame—sits at the top, and because it's a publicly-traded company that has taken federal dollars (as Hardigree noted), and because the cars look cool, and because a lot of fans (and detractors) of electric cars in general have been laser-focused on Tesla's efforts, mostly because of the reasons above.
I'd argue, though, that Tesla is just one piece of the puzzle, and the success or failure of electric cars probably won't be tied to the success or failure of one company. It's easy to suggest that if Tesla fails, all electric cars will fail, because if Tesla can't make electric cars cool, then no one can, but that argument ignores a whole lot of realities. The future of electric cars depends on a lot of factors, such as infrastructure, retail price, and range, and while Tesla can work to improve its models' range or lower their cost, it can't totally control infrastructure. That's to say nothing of demand, which may fluctuate with gas prices. And even if there was an affordable electric vehicle out there with a 300-mile range, five-minute recharging capability, and all the creature comforts we've become accustomed to, and even if rechargers were as plentiful as gas pumps, would Americans buy it?
So even though the company has taken public money, it seems unfair to be extra critical. It's likewise foolish to be a pom-pom waver. The best approach that the media and customers should take towards Tesla is to wait and see.
Perhaps the most interesting part of all this Tesla talk is that it ignores the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf—two cars that were getting plenty of press just last year. The Volt is the first mass-produced extended-range electric car, and the Leaf is the first mass-produced electric car. The Leaf, in particular, is the canary in the coal mine here, because it's the first on the scene. This doesn't mean that electric cars are doomed if the Leaf is a failure—the technology is likely to improve, after all—but that perhaps we should be paying more attention to the Leaf, which is available to a wider audience, than a luxury sedan that comes from a niche automaker instead of one of the volume big-boys.
Tesla defenders will say that it's not just about the cars, that it's about other aspects of the company such as the buying experience, which has been compared to Apple. But Tesla partisans shouldn't feel the need to "defend" the company from this piece.
Here's why: this isn't an attack on Tesla. Rather, it's an attack on the love-it-or-hate-it-hype that surrounds the company. No other automaker, save perhaps GM, is so polarizing, at least among the motoring press if not the motoring public. And perhaps we're best served by looking at the company in a neutral light, instead of viewing it while blinded by our biases.
Then again, that approach doesn't seem to work for politics. So perhaps I'm being a bit naïve.
That won't stop me from hoping for change, though.Related Vehicles: 2013 tesla model s