Wrestling an Electric Eeel
June 3, 2015 10:57 AM   Subscribe

You might find Tesla (and all of Elon Musk's businesses) to be excitingly Geektastic (or not), but you may have wondered if there's anything more to it than just a lot of cool engineering. Does any of it actually have the potential for real positive change? If you want some information and a framework to help answer that question, check out this post, which investigates Understanding Why What Tesla Is Doing Is Important.

For a little backstory about Musk, also see Part 1 of the post.

From the new-to-me (but interesting) Wait-But-Why.
posted by Ickster (52 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
How to describe the process of Homo sapiens learning to create and control fire?

The one thing about having made fire our bitch is that
posted by Greg Nog at 11:08 AM on June 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


Yes, I found that to be a crappy choice of words. Haven't noticed anything else so far that should give offense.
posted by Ickster at 11:13 AM on June 3, 2015


having made fire our bitch

Bro-metheus
posted by RogerB at 11:19 AM on June 3, 2015 [42 favorites]


having made fire our bitch

Bro-metheus


The engineers gave us fire ?
posted by k5.user at 11:21 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


This guy previously
posted by RogerB at 11:21 AM on June 3, 2015


This guy is such a transparent shill. He is basically a libertarian who dresses up his dim-witted, John Stossel-level bullshit with the artifice of tumblr/reddit humor and all the authenticity of this guy.
posted by lattiboy at 11:30 AM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would not be the least bit surprised if this guy was somehow paid by the RAND Corporation, is what I'm saying.
posted by lattiboy at 11:31 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's the new Friedman.
posted by colie at 11:43 AM on June 3, 2015


He is basically a libertarian

Is he? I was wondering if he self-identified as a Randian or something, given the Roarky undertones of "In reality, if a more advanced future does happen, it’s because that future was willed into our lives by a few brave people."
posted by Greg Nog at 11:49 AM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


I thought Tesla was important because he invented the AC transformer, publicly mocked Edisons's DC power distribution ideas, licensed his patents to Westinghouse, and thereby enabled the electrification of the entire planet. It's more than a little ironic that his name is being besmirched with the idea that the future will be all battery driven DC, but I guess Elon was too humble to name his golf cart after himself.
posted by three blind mice at 11:50 AM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


And Elon Musk will never be cool enough to be played by DAVID BOWIE. (Supremely Cool YouTube Link)
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 11:57 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man

*rolls eyes* I'm getting a little tired of Musk hagiography. I ride a bicycle. It's greener than anything Tesla will ever make, the only difficulty is that most of the world has spent the last six decades building out suburban sprawl and stupid car-centric infrastructure. Electric cars sound dandy, but I'd rather end car culture altogether and have affordable, walkable cities with bike lanes.
posted by Wemmick at 12:05 PM on June 3, 2015 [21 favorites]


Wow! 90% extraneous detail and useless digression by volume!

There was so much gratuitous information there that it seems like the author was indifferent to the actual utility of the post itself and chose to indulge himself in explanation-for-explanation's-sake. We don't even get to Elon Musk's company for the equivalent of fifty pages.

And the worst part is that there's nothing insightful or useful being said. The author summarizes some information about energy use and the preferable nature of electric cars, but seems ideologically opposed to understanding that the entire world needs a new infrastructure for the production and distribution of energy, even though he's already made a very strong case for the untenability of continuing to use energy technologies that rely on combustion.

He seems simultaneously informed about empirical facts (e.g., climate science, physical energy infrastructure, etc.) but deeply, indefensibly naive about how human society functions:

In reality, if a more advanced future does happen, it’s because that future was willed into our lives by a few brave people. The present isn’t welcoming of an advanced future because the present is run by a thick canopy made up of the ideas, norms, and technologies of the past.

No, "the present" isn't actually a thing that can welcome or not welcome new ideas. Oil companies have always opposed any alternative to their business, even though dependence on fossil fuels is ruining the damn world, and their political connections and economic clout are the problem here, not "the present." In addition, we need political leadership to take positive action in that direction, since obviously there's more to change than just a lack of the most serious structural impediments.

This is a problem of political economy, primarily, and only secondarily is it an issue of innovation itself. Elon Musk's company might build cars that will moderately ameliorate some of the damage that combustion-powered vehicles are doing to the environment, but what's really needed is a massive campaign to build renewable energy infrastructure; we already have systems for transmitting electrical energy, so there's no obvious need to reinvent the wheel there. We just need to put new structures at the supply side of energy, first and foremost, and we can figure out how to solve any of the trickier problems of distribution once we're no longer actively ruining the environment upon which all of human civilization depends.
posted by clockzero at 12:27 PM on June 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


Electric cars sound dandy, but I'd rather end car culture altogether and have affordable, walkable cities with bike lanes.

Spoken like a man who has never been disabled.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:34 PM on June 3, 2015 [14 favorites]


He is basically a libertarian

Is he?


As I said in the thread about his Yuppie/Toys posts, and the more I read about the guy the more firmly I believe, Urban is an out-and-out authoritarian — reverential of power and order, terrified of freedom and uncertainty. This particular stripe of authoritarianism, the "rationalist"/technocratic New Atheist ideology, seems energetically ascendant at the moment, which helps to explain the climate where windbaggy pseudoexplanatory stupidity of this kind can find such success. No surprise to learn, along with Musk, that Sam Harris is another fan.
posted by RogerB at 12:36 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Great, now that the guy has been branded "basically a libertarian" with an "edgy" writing style, everyone can skip reading the article... except that I found it pretty interesting and not worth of intense hate.

There is actually some interesting material, and, while I don't agree with every point, I am not understanding the blanket dismissal. The dude spends a lot of time quoting the Union of Concerned Scientists and discussing carbon emissions. He debunks a lot of common myths about electric cars in useful ways that others may have read, but I have not.

Sure, he overly lionizes Musk, but I don't think he is entirely ignorant that change does not come from solely individual action. He argues that Tesla is trying to create systemic change, as far as I can tell, through proving that its model works.

And, here's the thing - he isn't entirely wrong that systemic change is hard, and often does require key individuals to help change occur. It is the reason why Edison's particular bastardy genius (PDF, but a wonderful article by Hargadon) beats Tesla's weird pigeon-loving raw intelligence. He is basically making an argument that Musk is engaging in robust action (another PDF). I didn't read it as authoritarian, but maybe I am wrong.

Where is the shilling? I see some arguments I disagree with, but not any sort of weird agenda. Where is the RAND Corporation? (And why is RAND always a bad thing?)
posted by blahblahblah at 12:42 PM on June 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


Spoken like a man who has never been disabled.

Cars are disabling! The whole infrastructure of suburbia is set up in a way that anyone too young, too old, or too poor can't get around independently! You can't just treat automotive infrastructure as the norm and then sensibly talk about disability without acknowledging the tradeoff. And I expect it would be simpler to accommodate people with disabilities in higher density urban development than in our current forms of building.
posted by Wemmick at 12:45 PM on June 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


*rolls eyes* I'm getting a little tired of Musk hagiography. I ride a bicycle. It's greener than anything Tesla will ever make, the only difficulty is that most of the world has spent the last six decades building out suburban sprawl and stupid car-centric infrastructure. Electric cars sound dandy, but I'd rather end car culture altogether and have affordable, walkable cities with bike lanes.

You're like the ecological equivalent of Nader voter, here. This is an almost canonical example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. You have to work with the world as it is, not as you wish it to be. Culturally acceptable (cool) electric cars will move more people more greenly than any existing alternative. Once they go driverless, they'll be a massive blow to the cultural standard of individual car ownership, which will multiply the beneficial effect. This is a good thing; take the win.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:47 PM on June 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


There is actually some interesting material,

Indeed, there's bound to be when one's logorrhea is this severe.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:51 PM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Indeed, there's bound to be when one's logorrhea is this severe.

[editor needed]
posted by blahblahblah at 12:53 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I gave up at around 4,500 words. Didn't count the cartoons.
posted by yesster at 1:09 PM on June 3, 2015


I thought Tesla was important because he invented the AC transformer,... more than a little ironic that his name is being besmirched with the idea that the future will be all battery driven DC
I believe the Tesla motor is 3-phase AC.
posted by MtDewd at 1:35 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Culturally acceptable (cool) electric cars will move more people more greenly than any existing alternative.

With the amount of lithium that will have to be mined to make enough batteries to give everybody an electric car, is that actually true?
posted by junco at 1:37 PM on June 3, 2015


Once they go driverless...

But this is not the world as it is, it's the world as you wish it to be. It is one of many possible futures.
posted by indubitable at 1:47 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


With the amount of lithium that will have to be mined to make enough batteries to give everybody an electric car, is that actually true?

From the Swiss National Labs:
Battery-powered electric cars (BEVs) play a key role in future mobility scenarios. However, little is known about the environmental impacts of the production, use and disposal of the lithium ion (Li-ion) battery. This makes it difficult to compare the environmental impacts of BEVs with those of internal combustion engine cars (ICEVs). Consequently, a detailed lifecycle inventory of a Li-ion battery and a rough LCA of BEV based mobility were compiled. The study shows that the environmental burdens of mobility are dominated by the operation phase regardless of whether a gasoline-fueled ICEV or a European electricity fueled BEV is used. The share of the total environmental impact of E-mobility caused by the battery (measured in Ecoindicator 99 points) is 15%. The impact caused by the extraction of lithium for the components of the Li-ion battery is less than 2.3% (Ecoindicator 99 points). The major contributor to the environmental burden caused by the battery is the supply of copper and aluminum for the production of the anode and the cathode, plus the required cables or the battery management system. This study provides a sound basis for more detailed environmental assessments of battery based E-mobility.
and: "The main finding of this study is that the impact of a Li-ion battery used in BEVs for transport service is relatively small."
posted by blahblahblah at 1:52 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


And, here's the thing - he isn't entirely wrong that systemic change is hard, and often does require key individuals to help change occur.

posted by blahblahblah at 2:42 PM on June 3


Ah the ol' Great Man Theory!

(Not that I necessarily disagree with your general point!)
posted by symbioid at 1:58 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


This guy writes like he's teaching kindergarten. Only no kindergartner could possibly stay interested in whatever he's going on about for more than a couple of minutes, tops. His "history of energy" is impossibly banal.
posted by Fnarf at 2:02 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


From the Swiss National Labs

If you click through to the "Supporting Information" PDF and look at table S19 (total environmental burden of electric vehicles vs conventional internal combustion vehicles), you'll see that they estimate electric vehicles produce about 35% less carbon dioxide and pose about 20% less "non-renewable cumulative energy demand", which isn't nothing, but "about 25% better than combustion-engined cars" is a lot different than "electric cars will move more people more greenly than any existing alternative", unless you're going to argue that mass transit doesn't move people.
posted by junco at 2:09 PM on June 3, 2015


Not the Great Man Theory in the Carlyle sense, I don't think anyone believes that anymore. We are circumscribed by society and circumstance, obviously. And we know that most CEOs who think they are heroic individuals are eminently replaceable.

But, there is certainly enough sociological evidence to suggest that leadership, in some cases, matters a lot. This is especially true when there are substantial competing interests and high levels of change that must be managed. That doesn't make Elon Musk a "Great Man," but it does suggest that he currently occupies an important network position where he can have outsized influence on issues having to do with transportation.

And, I should mention for all the people attacking the writing style of the piece - I agree! I think as an academic I have developed a skill of skimming terrible prose looking for interesting bits, and that other people might expect, well, actual quality writing.
posted by blahblahblah at 2:10 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I believe the Tesla motor is 3-phase AC.

Whatever it is at the end, it begins life as battery driven DC power. That's how Li-Ion batteries work. Nothing wrong with that. The wrong is branding Tesla's name on battery driven cars. (OTOH you could generate a lot of AC power from his turning in the grave.)

You're like the ecological equivalent of Nader voter, here. This is an almost canonical example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. You have to work with the world as it is, not as you wish it to be.

I too ride a bicycle and do not own a car (electric or otherwise) - as do many other people in Europe - and pretty much all the Dutch - despite the wind and the rain and the nasty weather in Holland. This is the world as it is. At least part of it. The point is that building an infrastructure that promotes bicycle transport (and public transport) is far less of a pipe dream and much more realistic than driverless electric cars, but also far less profitable for people like Elon Musk and the fossil fuel industry that will provide the coal-fired plants to charge all of those batteries. So there you have it.
posted by three blind mice at 2:11 PM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Electric cars sound dandy, but I'd rather end car culture altogether and have affordable, walkable cities with bike lanes.
Spoken like a man who has never been disabled.


Part of this is that we still need to work on making public buildings and affordable housing more handicap accessible and safe.

The other is that those of us that can walk, bike, etc, should aim for walkable cities with bike lanes, and spare abundant but limited oil and gas reserves so that those who can't walk, bike, etc. have affordable options to get around in the interim.

Most of us can walk, bike, etc. and should aim for this for their benefit and the benefit of those who are less physically capable.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 2:26 PM on June 3, 2015


pretty much all the Dutch

The Netherlands has the 30th-highest rate of auto ownership in the world, higher than the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, and lots of other places. You can't go by just what you see in Amsterdam, anymore than you can by just what you see in Paris or New York.

The problem I have with guys like Musk is that they fell pretty much by accident into a vat of money and convinced themselves that it's because they're ultrainsightful supergeniuses. Most of his technical achievements were done by other people, like Martin Eberhard, Marc Tarpenning, and Malcolm Smith. Musk didn't start Tesla, and his input on the design of the car was pretty limited, fiddling with the door sills and headlights. Most of his decisions delayed the production of the car, and cost the company money. He certainly is a star celebrity marketer, though.

There is a chance that Tesla will turn the car world upside down. There's a chance it won't, too. The whole business is very long on hype, very short on actual achievements.
posted by Fnarf at 2:31 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


The wrong is branding Tesla's name on battery driven cars. (OTOH you could generate a lot of AC power from his turning in the grave.)

Nikola Tesla invented and patented a wirelessly-controlled, battery-powered electric boat. Uh, that used DC.

The only Teslas that are going to be turning over here are the AC induction motors Nikola Tesla invented that are being used to propel Musk's Tesla-namesake cars.
posted by eschatfische at 2:33 PM on June 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


why what who
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 2:52 PM on June 3, 2015


This is an almost canonical example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. You have to work with the world as it is, not as you wish it to be.

The problem with Musk-fandom is that realistic, shovel-ready projects like high speed rail get less attention in favor of things like The Hyperloop (which has a million unaddressed engineering problems - oh really, a super-long sealed system in a fault zone?). It's not enough to have high-speed rail with Musk, it has to be a totally disruptive paradigm shift that will take us from LA to SF in 90 minutes, even though we don't need that. And it'll take years of research, development, cost billions of dollars (in spite of his rosy projections), and in the meantime we still don't have a rail corridor from LA to SF.

Maybe there's an argument that Tesla cars are the market force to brings electric vehicles to a wider market. But the intense cult of personality around Musk is more than grating. He's an entrepreneur. It's one thing to say it's important to have dedicated capital behind something like electric vehicles; it's another altogether to make Elon Musk the Valley bro of the millennium. Every time something comes out about what a bro Musk is, I worry that we're all being taken on a ride (on a vacuum-powered, ultra-fast high speed tube transport system, naturally).
posted by teponaztli at 3:23 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


and in the meantime we still don't have a rail corridor from LA to SF

But that is in no way Musk's fault, and there's really nothing he can do about it. The whole situation is a fiasco of corruption, lack of will, and politics.
posted by Justinian at 3:31 PM on June 3, 2015


Wow, I am not getting all the negativity here. This was very long, but I thought it (and part 1) were great.

A lot of the criticisms are way off-base if you actually make it through the article. For instance:

The author summarizes some information about energy use and the preferable nature of electric cars, but seems ideologically opposed to understanding that the entire world needs a new infrastructure for the production and distribution of energy, even though he's already made a very strong case for the untenability of continuing to use energy technologies that rely on combustion.

But the author does talk (extensively) about the need for revamping energy production… it's half of the framing device for the whole article:

The sustainable energy world of the future—the yellow zone of our timeline from earlier in the post—is simple. It looks like this:

1) Almost everything we use will run on electricity.
2) Almost all of our electricity will be produced from sustainable sources.

That’s a world running on sunlight and electricity, and burning has no part in that world.


Again, one of the criticisms here:

No, "the present" isn't actually a thing that can welcome or not welcome new ideas. Oil companies have always opposed any alternative to their business, even though dependence on fossil fuels is ruining the damn world, and their political connections and economic clout are the problem here, not "the present." In addition, we need political leadership to take positive action in that direction, since obviously there's more to change than just a lack of the most serious structural impediments.

The article actually spends a lot of time talking about this, comparing oil companies to tobacco companies, and using very similar language:

The problem is, giant companies have enough influence that any government attempt at making changes through regulation ends up being watered down to the point where it’s ineffective.

When it comes to a carbon tax, the only explanation for not having one seems to be the power big oil has over the US government—because to me, it seems like every politician in either party should be in favor of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Right?

posted by designbot at 3:31 PM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


The problem with Musk-fandom is that realistic, shovel-ready projects like high speed rail get less attention in favor of things like The Hyperloop

Except that HSR is actually funded and is being built (however slowly), whereas the Hyperloop is admittedly pie-in-the-sky intellectual noodling. Musk drew up some plans for the hyperloop, decided "I don't have time for this, whoever else wants to can build it out," and it has gotten a middling amount of media attention since then. How would you have it work - no one is allowed to talk about any sort of mass transit until HSR is finished? I don't see what harm hyperloop talk could possibly be doing given that, again, HSR is actually funded and in progress.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 3:36 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Maybe you know more than I do about the Hyperloop, then. I read some of the proposal back when it came out, and at no point did it come across as "oh hey, wouldn't this be neat?" All the media attention I've seen has been stuff like "Hyperloop Transport System is Becoming Close to Reality" or "Hyperloop: Shit is Getting Real-ish." Yeah, it's not plastered all over the LA Times, but it certainly doesn't look like some little intellectual exercise only a few people paid any attention to.

No one is holding Elon Musk personally responsible for delays in HSR in California. But the last thing we need is for some proposal for something that is claimed will cost a fraction of the huge HSR budget, that will be super fast and amazing, and that "could be built soon!" If it was all just an intellectual exercise for shits and giggles, I definitely missed that part, and I think a lot of other people did too.
posted by teponaztli at 3:48 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am not someone who has heroes. I think the Great Man approach to history is pernicious bullshit. But Elon Musk, or more properly, what he's trying to do? It inspires me in a way and to a degree that nothing has since I was a child, and I fervently hope for his success.

In terms of WaitButWhy, well: I like it a lot, only having found discovered it in the last couple of months. I appreciate a spirit of appreciative inquiry, and in this twitter-benighted attention-deficit era, I am thankful for somebody who's willing to do the legwork on complex subjects and lay out what they've learned in a readable way, the longer the better.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:03 PM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


The problem with Musk-fandom is that realistic, shovel-ready projects like high speed rail get less attention in favor of things like The Hyperloop (which has a million unaddressed engineering problems - oh really, a super-long sealed system in a fault zone?). It's not enough to have high-speed rail with Musk, it has to be a totally disruptive paradigm shift that will take us from LA to SF in 90 minutes, even though we don't need that. And it'll take years of research, development, cost billions of dollars (in spite of his rosy projections), and in the meantime we still don't have a rail corridor from LA to SF.

Nobody is funding any Hyperloops anywhere and somebody is funding and building old timey high speed rail between LA and 'Frisco. Right now. Today.

Where's the displacement?

Musk's efforts may not pan out in space travel or electric cars or solar powered battery factories or off-grid power or digging his gravesite on Mars, but he's absolutely putting his money and his energy and his talents where his mouth is, to mostly positive effect (afaict). Our billionaires could do worse. Most of them are.
posted by notyou at 4:29 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Our billionaires could do worse. Most of them are.

C'mon, man. Zuckerberg wore a necktie every day for a whole year.
posted by Fnarf at 4:33 PM on June 3, 2015


Where's the displacement?

Yeah, that was a bad line of reasoning I was starting to go down. I don't mean to make it sound like he's taking real money from things.

It's more that we have this entrepreneur who does PR really well, and before things even get off the ground, he's changing the world. Tesla is more than just a successful luxury electric car company, it's the start of an automobile revolution! SpaceX isn't a private rocket firm, it's going to kill NASA! He's willing to put his money where his mouth is in that he has those two companies and soon you can buy a decent battery pack for your home. I don't want to sound like the guy who thought the horseless carriage would never take off, but I worry that stuff gets blown out of proportion, and that makes it harder to really judge what's valuable and what isn't.

I'm not making a great argument, and I'll stop talking about this. I probably react as I do because I've spent way too much time around people who think he's the most amazing human being on Earth who does everything out of the goodness of his heart (because he alone cares about the future). I worry that things aren't being judged realistically when the headlines call him "The World's Raddest Man," and I haven't been able to find stuff that doesn't boil down to that.
posted by teponaztli at 5:17 PM on June 3, 2015


There was an interview with Bloomberg writer Ashlee Vance on CBC yesterday about his work with Elon Musk. I think both of them are big believers in their own powers of self-promotion, but that's their schtick, and the biography part was interesting.
posted by sneebler at 6:57 PM on June 3, 2015


I don't want to sound like the guy who thought the horseless carriage would never take off, but I worry that stuff gets blown out of proportion, and that makes it harder to really judge what's valuable and what isn't.

So, I get this. As someone who always had a passing interest in urban transportation and electric cars, and who was aware of so many failed electric car attempts, I looked at Tesla with a wary eye when they emerged on the scene. The Tesla Roadster sounded like another boring kit car and was released at the same time that WIRED was writing up how ZAP Motors, a different EV startup with cute little electric cars and a flashy name, was in actuality a huge stock fraud. Who Killed The Electric Car? had been out for a while, and we were all well-educated on the fact that electric cars were a failure.

But soon it became clear there was something different going on. When I finally saw a Roadster in the wild in 2009, it wasn't on a pedestal, or masqueraded by body panels, or some weird test car. It was just another car, inconspicuously headed down 19th Street, looking completely normal. My reaction was something to the effect of "Oh! This is actually a real thing that's actually happening!"

And it was. I got to speak with a Tesla engineer at a hack event, and he had brought one of the development cars. He was a sane, normal guy. The tech was real. There was no double-talk or hype, just reasonable explanations of how issues had been resolved and how the car was being produced.

But time and time again, Tesla and Musk would release these statements I thought were kind of ludicrous and that I'd react to with incredulity. It all had to be hype! Nobody had even come closing to doing what Musk was proposing. It sounded ridiculous.

After all, if you looked at the previous examples of megalomanic car industry magnates, Malcolm Bricklin and John DeLorean failed after delivering a wholly unimpressive 10,000 cars across the two of them. Electric cars seemed like an even bigger folly, since from the 1907 Detroit Electric to the 2008 release of the Roadster, there had likely been only 20,000 or so street-legal electric cars sold.

But since 2008, Tesla's sold and delivered over 50,000 production electric cars as an independent. It may not sound like a lot compared with the big automakers, but Musk has delivered. The scope of what he's done is way beyond anything that's come before.

And here's the thing: I bought a Tesla. Now, its not the Roadster or a Model S, it's the RAV4 EV, a bizarre Toyota/Tesla chimera that was the lovechild of California Air Resource Board regulations and contractual obligations from the sale of Toyota's old NUMMI plant to Tesla. It's just a 2012 RAV4 from the floor up, and I assure you it doesn't turn heads. It doesn't have carbon-fiber construction or a 17" touch screen or leather seats, it's just like my neighbors' mid-range gas RAV4s. But underneath, it's got a Tesla motor, a Tesla battery, and a Tesla charger. It does 0-60 in less than seven seconds, has great range, it runs (for free!) off of our solar panels. It hasn't needed any maintenance beyond software updates or tire rotations in two years, and it didn't cost us much more than a gas RAV4. The novelty has worn off, but that's actually a good thing. We don't have to make any sacrifices or excuses. We just use it every day like it's just our normal family car - except it just happens to be fast and doesn't have a gas engine and doesn't have to use fossil fuels.

So when someone mockingly talks about how Tesla claims it will start an automotive revolution, or that Tesla just makes toys for rich people, I can assure you that the revolution is over two years old, has a dent in the bumper and the vinyl upholstery is kind of stained because of the dog. It is a real thing that's actually been happening. For years now.

Similarly, SpaceX has completed 19 successful launches. Musk has put satellites into orbit for NOAA, Thailand, and Turkmenistan. This isn't something Musk has bragged that he's going to do. It is a real thing that's actually been happening. For years now.

These aren't easy things. What he's doing literally is rocket science. The road to where Musk was able to go is littered with countless corpses from the early part of the 20th century. People are listening to him, and idolize him, because he's been making a really large number of impossible-seeming things actually happen.

Strip away the Tesla management changes, strip away the bro hype, strip away the riches, and you've still got something incredible.

But I agree that the Hyperloop sounds kind of stupid.
posted by eschatfische at 7:20 PM on June 3, 2015 [18 favorites]


Teponatzli - I too witnessed a conversation - online on a different message board - where there was a strong sentiment of: "Why are we building HSR when we could be building the hyperloop?", when Musk announced his back-of-the-napkin proposal. I also recall there being media articles and commentary explicitly comparing the California HSR proposal with Musk's proposal. Musk's proposal was said to be both faster and cheaper than HSR by several orders of magnitude, and I saw a lot of people commenting that we should just ditch HSR and investigate Musk's proposal. Lost in the comparisons were the facts that: 1) Musk's proposal would have carried about a 10th of the passengers of HSR (just going by his numbers), 2) Musk's proposal didn't address acquiring the land needed to travel through densely populated areas to get to city centers, which is a huge driver of the cost of California HSR, so in sense Musk's proposal wasn't really solving anything from a cost perspective, 3) Hyperloop doesn't actually exist, even in prototype form, and 4) Musk didn't invent the concept; it has been around at least since I saw proposals for maglev trains in vacuum tubes in the 90's. Clearly public policy is not being made on the basis of message board comments, but given the political and cultural barriers to any transit proposal in this country not involving a highway, the fact that Musk's proposal had the effect, which I observed, of undermining support for the California HSR project among the very people most likely to support it was not helpful. Basically, the hyperloop vs California HSR debate didn't just occur in your imagination.

As for Tesla, I think there are three factors driving their success. One, they decided to market their vehicles as ultra high end luxury sports cars rather than attempting to self a mass market car. That allowed them both to target a consumer that is not as price conscious as the typical consumer and to highlight the strengths of electric vehicles in terms of performance. Basically, they treated their cars as a consumer electronic product where first, high end consumers are targeted, and then later, after manufacturing costs are reduced, the product enters the mass market. I imagine that strategy comes from the tech background of the people running Tesla. Two, the advent of smartphones, tablets, and laptops is driving the continued development of Lithium Ion battery technology. Again, the background of the founders of Tesla in tech probably helped chart that direction. Finally, three, the Obama administration and the State of California were able to enact several measures, ranging from public funds to regulations, that are helping to spur the development of electric vehicles. Overall, Musk surely played a role in the direction of the company, but I would say that the success of Tesla was a result of timing and the decision to apply the strategies of the consumer electronics industry to electric cars.

All that being said, right now, the most affordable "electric car" that is usable for the vast majority of people is probably the Chevy Volt. It has a 38 mile all electric range (50 in the new version), which is enough electric range for the vast majority of people in their daily driving. For longer trips, a range extending gasoline engine provides power. In a couple of years (2017 I think), Chevy will release a similarly priced all electric car with a range of 200 miles. Musk has promised that Telsa will release a more affordable electric car of its own (defined as less than the 60,000+ dollars that current Teslas cost), but so far details of this vehicle are not available.

My sense is that the Chevys won't sell because they are still slightly too expensive for the mass market and they lack the sex appeal of the Teslas (or the yuppie of appeal of the Prius). Electric cars won't truly begin to replace internal combustion engines until they are competitive in terms of cost. Getting to the point will require the efforts of many companies and governments. Musk and Telsa are playing a role in this process, but they cannot complete the task of making electric cars cost competitive on their own; indeed, even now they are not the only game in town, and it isn't clear that they will even survive once all the major players have made the conversion. It would be all too typical of our culture, however, to inflate the role of one individual to make it seem like they accomplished everything.
posted by eagles123 at 10:05 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]




Whatever it is at the end, it begins life as battery driven DC power
Well, if your focus is on the origin -- it begins life as AC power coming down the grid or from your solar panels. Its AC on the input and output side, but it is stored in a DC battery briefly in the middle. Even Tesla was pretty much on-board with that idea.
If you click through to the "Supporting Information" PDF and look at table S19 (total environmental burden of electric vehicles vs conventional internal combustion vehicles), you'll see that they estimate electric vehicles produce about 35% less carbon dioxide and pose about 20% less "non-renewable cumulative energy demand", which isn't nothing
Much of this analysis is predicated on the current mix of AC power generation, which leans heavily on coal and other fossil fuels. Electric cars support a potential future where electric power is generated through renewable resources and the emissions gap widens dramatically in that case. If the utilities in your area use hydro or if you use solar panels on your roof to charge the car, the gap in emissions is massive. Many of these analyses also are biased by examining the entire production process for batteries and electrical generation without considering the entire cost of extracting, refining and transporting the petroleum and gasoline. It is extremely difficult to do a true apples to apples comparison. However, it is clearly true that at some point in the future when we have exhausted our oil reserves we must inevitably move to electric propulsion. The only real question is "Do we want to go ahead and burn all of the remaining oil before we switch?"
they decided to market their vehicles as ultra high end luxury sports cars rather than attempting to self a mass market car
Tesla have laid out from the very outset a three phase approach. Phase 1 was a proof of concept exotic sports car assembled from components mostly built by others (the Roadster). Phase 2 is a purpose built high end luxury car (and apparently now to include a SUV) that would sell at a very high price point to generate cash for the ultimate goal (the Model S and X). Phase 3 is the mass market car, targetted to be sold at 35k that is the one which is really supposed to spark the revolution (Model 3). It requires a massive improvement in the cost of producing batteries (underway in the desert at the still to be completed gigafactory) and may fail spectacularly, but it remains very much the goal of the company and the outcome of that project will determine the verdict of Musk's impact on transportation.
posted by Lame_username at 8:14 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Tesla have laid out from the very outset a three phase approach. Phase 1 was a proof of concept exotic sports car assembled from components mostly built by others (the Roadster). Phase 2 is a purpose built high end luxury car (and apparently now to include a SUV) that would sell at a very high price point to generate cash for the ultimate goal (the Model S and X). Phase 3 is the mass market car, targetted to be sold at 35k that is the one which is really supposed to spark the revolution (Model 3). It requires a massive improvement in the cost of producing batteries (underway in the desert at the still to be completed gigafactory) and may fail spectacularly, but it remains very much the goal of the company and the outcome of that project will determine the verdict of Musk's impact on transportation.

Yeah, like I said, they decided to follow the standard path to market penetration for consumer electronic products: first, target the high end consumers who are willing or able to spend large sums of money to become early adopters of a new technology; then, once manufacturing costs decrease, target the broader market. For electric vehicles, the barrier to achieving this goal is the cost of the battery pack.

Personally, I don't think that the 30,000 to 40,000 range is cheap enough for mass market penetration. In that price range, you are basically competing with entry and mid-level luxury cars. The current Tesla models match up well with high and ultra high end luxury vehicles in terms of price and performance. The success of the Model 3 will depend on how well it competes in terms of price and performance with entry and mid range luxury vehicles such as the BMW 3 series.

Of course, the Chevy Volt is already basically an electric car that sells in that price range, but in terms of performance and other amenities it is more comparable to small sedans and hatchbacks that cost about 10,000 less than the Volt. Similarly, the just announced all-electric Bolt, with a range of 200 miles, will sell in the 30,000 to 40,000 dollar price range but will be comparable performance and features wise with cars costing 10,000 or more dollars less. Of course, that represents a dramatic improvement in terms of price and range compared with current electric cars, but I don't think it will be enough of an improvement to truly penetrate the mass market. We will see how the Model 3 compares, but Telsa hasn't formally announced it yet, so we don't know how it will compare in terms of performance. If Tesla can build something that can entice the type of buyer who buys cars like the BMW 3 series, then I think they will achieve success. Whether they can do that remains to be seen, however.

Personally, i think that we are about a decade away from battery prices reaching the point where electric cars will be comparable to cars with internal combustion engines in terms of price, range, and performance. Once that happens, I imagine there will be several models available from the various car companies. Already, for all electric vehicles, Nissan has the Leaf, which currently sells in that price range with less range than what the Bolt is targeting. I imagine Nissan will improve on that design as battery prices come down, as well as leverage their experience with the Leaf in new models. BMW, as well, is currently heavily involved with releasing electric vehicles. Basically, given that the price of battery packs is the main barrier to mass market pricing, all electric vehicle manufacturers will be bound by that cost curve. Once costs come down, Tesla will have many competitors.
posted by eagles123 at 1:50 PM on June 4, 2015


Once costs come down, Tesla will have many competitors.

This is true, and certainly a good thing. But even that will largely be Tesla's doing.

I have a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet, which I could afford only because it was $150 on eBay and also my sister agreed to buy my old laptop. I am grateful for Microsoft pushing the Surface Pro—which I could never afford—because it's largely the reason why my competing tablet exists, and doesn't suck, at my price point. (As far as I can tell, that was much of Microsoft's motivation for getting into the hardware game in the first place.)

If Tesla's doing the same thing for cars, more (renewable) power to 'em.
posted by Shmuel510 at 3:37 PM on June 4, 2015


Tesla is a Battery Company.
[....]
A Battery on Wheels

The major car companies scoffed at Tesla when they launched the Roadster and subsequently when they announced the Model S. How could Tesla possibly compete with the decades of supply chain refinement, product and patent portfolios, dealer networks, and political swagger of the major car companies?

The answer is that Tesla doesn’t need to compete directly, because they’re not playing the same game.

In an ICE-centered automotive world, the engine is the most complicated and important component. As a result of the complexity of ICE engines, most modern car companies maintain ownership of engine design and manufacturing, marketing and branding, sales channels (via their own dealers), and final assembly, but outsource almost all other components of the car.

Electric motors are much simpler than their ICE counterparts. Some estimates place the number of components on an ICE engine at 200+ (including pistons, spark plugs, belts, coils and more), compared to less than 10 on a comparable electric motor. This comparison is a little over-simplified, but the point still stands: electric vehicles are much less complicated than their Internal Combustion Engine counterparts.
posted by Rumple at 4:13 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Regarding walkable cities with cycleways and their effects on the disabled, it is of course fact that mobility scooters are permitted to use Dutch cycle paths. To quote Hembrow paraphrasing a public information pamphlet teaching schoolchildren how to ride safely:
in Dutch law, wheel chair users are also cyclists so should be expected on cycle-paths
Please don't equate testosteragressive bro-merican Sporty Vehicular Cycling culture with what a properly cyclable infrastructure is like. The whole point is to build accessible ways for everybody, with minimised and mitigated conflict-points between modes.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:14 PM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


« Older After Water   |   Do you really need those danceable cables? Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments