Goddamit Elon! A timely third look at Tesla.

Now free of other distractions, the Musk mental virus is taking another crack at this fertile skull of mine.i

In the last couple of years, I’ve been perhaps unduly, even unfairly critical of Elon Musk and his electric car company Tesla (eg. 1, 2, 3), but I think that it’s now safe to say that I’d underestimated the company’s potential.

If I can be forgiven, it’s because Tesla is a bloody polarizing thing! There seems little room to sit detachedly on the fence with the Fremont-based firm. Where oh where in the mighty blogosphere (or vlogosphere) do you see anyone sitting quietly, patiently observing the seemingly unstoppable start-up and making informed decisions for themselves ? It’s somehow become such an emotionally charged arena of debate and speculation that Tesla all but forces a black-and-white position.

Thankfully, with age and maturity, shades of grey materialise everywhere around us. The open-and-shut cases of our early 20’s evolve into nuanced puzzles more complex and multi-faceted than our earlier selves could’ve ever appreciated. So it is that I’m taking a fresh look at Elon’s automotive and alternative energy endeavours.

My latest two bitcents ?

What I’m coming to appreciate is principally Elon’s vision. What he seems to understand – and what the rest of the automotive industry is shitting its collective pants over, going so far as to mount massive disinfo campaigns and shorting the living bejeesus out of $TSLA – is that it’s not a hardware game anymore. Yes, hardware still matters, but the competitive advantages in 21st century manufacturing lay in software. It’s been said before but it bears repeating : software is eating the world, and nowhere moreso than in consumer appliances, of which cars are undeniably a subset.ii

Of course, even the best software in the world isn’t enough on its own – you still have to create the infrastructure, which to Tesla’s immense credit, they’ve done – but even more importantly, you have to market and brand the whole thing well,iii which the over-promising and under-delivering of Musk paradoxically delivers on too, if only because “shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars” and optimism is in such horrifically short supply these days that it basically sells itself.

But enough armchair hypothesising, let’s put this shit to the test! All this sizzle, infrastructure build-out, financial wizardry, software supremacy, and surprising staying power of the firm aside, you might wonder what a Tesla is like when the rubber hits the road. As a long-time gearhead, I decided to find out!

After a few spins in Mr. O’s Model S and a recent road trip to the Bitcoin Rodeo via Model X,iv I have to admit that I’m… not sold. I’m simply not coming around to the user experience as much as I thought I would.v

Flying Tesla Model X

Between the excessive wind noise coming from behind the front passenger seat where the front door met the rear gullwing door, the trunk that didn’t want to latch as we left the house, the other Tesla charging at the halfway point losing half-an-hour on her journey because the supercharger didn’t “click” as it usually did, the unacceptable four-hour duration of our own trip after the 40 minute-stop in Red Deer for more juice, and the overly firm (and loud) ride on the optional 22″ wheels, the whole chauffeured Model X experience was all-in-all worse than the Red Arrow luxury coach service that I usually take at even money. That the Tesla service cost 2-3x more and was slower sealed the deal for this frequent business traveler, and it also had the additional benefit of curing me of any $200k electric cars in the near future.vi I haven’t been in a car that obnoxious on the highway since my cinquecento.

So that’s basically that. After this brief third look, I’m still really rather compelled by Musk’s grand vision of the future even if it’s not right for me right now. At the end of the day, other than Tesla, no other car company in the world has waiting lists in the hundreds of thousands for its products, none priveledges cutting-edge software to anywhere near the same extent, none markets better, and none are doing more to bring electric cars into the mainstream.vii It’s on the back of Musk’s Herculean efforts that the Jaguar I-Pace, Porsche Taycan, Mercedes EQA/C, Audi e-tron, and more are entering the fray in the very near future. The Germans in particular will bring quality control and precision to the stage but they’ve all a very long way to go before they can match Tesla’s software, sizzle, end-to-end product control,viii and infrastructure.

So it is that Tesla will stand at the head of the pack for the foreseeable future. I won’t be buying one just yet, but some things are worth believing in just for their promise, particularly when they’re so sweetly disruptive.

___ ___ ___

  1. Musk’s first crack, back in 2011, was really rather successful, even if I managed to clear the infection a few years later when his hype-machine really started taking off in the mainstream. Update 15/11/18 : Just found this golden oldie in the archives…

    Tesla Roadster - Berlin 2011

    These original Roadsters will surely be the air-cooled Porsches of the 2040s!

  2. My current working theory is that Tesla’s software supremacy is the core reason for its superlative and industry-leading customer satisfaction ratings. No doubt that everything else Tesla does helps, but the fact that Tesla’s frequent over-the-air-updates allow your car to become an ever-evolving creature enables an otherwise inorganic lump of metal and plastic to take on a life of its own, and for owners to form surprisingly deep relationships with what are really no more than appliances. From our experience with consumer electronics, this makes sense! In much the same way that smartphones are indispensable extensions of modern consumers in large part because they’re constantly updated and new features are always being added, so too are Teslas continually being improved upon via software updates. Even from our experience with classic cars, why Tesla is so successful (despite offering a diametrically opposed temporal vision) also makes sense! In much the same way that classic cars encourage such deeply emotional bonds because they’re objects that are never standing still (mostly because something is always breaking on them), so too do Teslas keep changing, eliciting many of the same biological attachment mechanisms. Elon’s cult of personality, the obviation of the necrotic dealership model, the charging infrastructure, and the gravity-defying stock price are just the icing on Tesla’s cake compared to the software-enabled new-feature-crack-cocaine.
  3. Marketing/branding is something that, unfortunately, the folks in ye olde #trilema utterly fail to comprehend, if quite intentionally so, but the result is the same : they collectively couldn’t market, brand, or sell their way out of a paper bag and childishly mock any attempts to improve on that score. Such is the bed they’ve made for themselves.
  4. This new chaffeur/shuttle service in Alberta called “InOrbis” has a small fleet of (Uber-style-sub-leased) Model S and Model X vehicles for the 300km journey. It’s about 2-3x more expensive than the leather-lounged Red Arrow motorcoach service, but it’s door-to-door and entirely private.
  5. In a way that neatly paralleled my research-based fascination with the Porsche 911 – a bubble immediately burst by driving the GT-R – the Tesla Model X also seemed to be a very compelling candidate to replace my LS460L, at least on paper. But we don’t drive cars on paper, do we ? So taking a road trip in one, even as a passenger, was a worthwhile investment in first-hand experience (and with Autopilot, it was basically as good as driving!). A couple hundred bucks to save a couple hundred grand is a really good deal! 
  6. The driver said that his P90D came to C$ 204`000 when he bought it new in 2016. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that that was over 400 BTC at the time…
  7. The sales chart for the newly released Model 3 is fairly staggering, especially for a C$ 80`000 vehicle. It’s flying off the shelves faster than Furby circa 1999.
  8. Tesla’s end-to-end product control is very Jobs-esque. Successfully delivering such products requiring incredible willpower, taste, and every ounce of Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field” ! But it seems like if anyone can carry that brightest of torches, it’s Elon.

10 thoughts on “Goddamit Elon! A timely third look at Tesla.

  1. PeterL says:

    Footnote ii: “frequent over-the-air-updates allow your car to become an ever-evolving creature”

    How can you possibly see this as a good thing? I hate having automatic updates! The fact that there are frequent updates pushed out implies that the thing was not finished correctly in the first place. As they say, if it works don’t fix it. Why should I update my software which might cause problems with other software and break the things that I am using? This constant need to update is madness and should be stopped! And once there is a mechanism for getting automatic updates, how do you know that a malicious update will not be pushed through without you knowing?

    • Pete D. says:

      How can you possibly see this as a good thing? I hate having automatic updates!

      I’m not sure where you read “over-the-air-updates are a good thing,” whatever that even means, but suffice to say that regular software updates are bloody addictive and create fervent, zealous owners that are the envy of every other automaker on the planet. We’re in the minority of the minority of the minority if we don’t want our software user experiences to improve over time, but I suppose you already knew that. Recall, when we’re talking about Tesla or any other car for that matter, this is mass market we’re talking about.

      The fact that there are frequent updates pushed out implies that the thing was not finished correctly in the first place.

      While it’s indeed the case that Tesla makes beta testers out of its “owners,” the implication that any car from any manufacturer comes off the assembly line “finished” is beyond preposterous. See Takata, etc. Whatever you’re driving, even if it’s as a passenger in a taxi, it’s only just good enough and only for now. That Tesla can correct the inevitable faults that arise in its vehicles is unprecedented, even if it does seem that they have to fix more faults than others. On the plus side, Tesla can also add features to existing vehicles in a way previously the exclusive domain of tuning shops.

      This constant need to update is madness and should be stopped!

      For those of us in the minority, I couldn’t agree more.

      And once there is a mechanism for getting automatic updates, how do you know that a malicious update will not be pushed through without you knowing?

      The malicious behaviour in question is unfortunately already possible with pretty much all newer vehicles, because really, what’s more malicious than making your car swerve into a tree “for no reason” ? See Michael Hastings, etc.

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