How the Tesla Effect Is Hurting Tesla
Noise levels around Elon Musk’s divisive EV company make it almost impossible to appreciate the cars.
cars. It seems like a lifetime since the first Model S showed up. I remember seeing one in the basement of the New York Auto Show. Was that 2012? I can't remember. That was 3,500+-plus press cycles and 5-plus "Tesla Killers" ago. I thought Tesla was doomed. That gratuitous screen. The Fisher-Price interior. The ghetto placement near the retired NYPD cruiser display. There was a Fisker Karma outside. Talk about gorgeous. The Models S? I didn't get it.
But I do now.
(My usual disclaimer: I don't have a position in $TSLA, and never have. I derive no benefit from Tesla, nor from ad sales on this site. I'm paid a flat fee for this column, and don't care what Tesla's friends or foes say about me. Bring it.)
What is the idea behind Tesla? Forget the war being waged in the media. Forget Elon Musk, if you can. He's selling narrative, but Tesla makes cars, and those cars are based on one idea: cars can be better. Start with a clean sheet and zero baggage. Why shouldn't cars be electric? Why can't charging be faster? Why do we need franchise car dealers? Why can't car software be wirelessly updated? Why can't EVs look good?
Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.
In what universe would we better off without Tesla? What happened to the spirit of ingenuity and innovation? Would anyone be happier waiting for the people behind Dieselgate or Takata or GM's ignition switch scandal to actually take a business risk on our behalf rather than at our expense? Hundreds of thousands of people have died from crashes tied to OEMs glacial adoption of safety technologies. How do you like your lung cancer? Take a look at the Diesel smoke-stained exterior walls of every major urban center in Europe and Asia.
Major forces are aligned against Tesla's success, as they should be. If even one OEM had any balls, Tesla would never have existed. But now they do, and it's do or die. Soichiro Honda predicted only six car companies would survive in the future. A lot of companies need to die or get acquired. Business is war. Big business? Nuclear war. There are no nice people launching companies at this level. Rules will get bent and broken until they fail, grow up, or are forced out because the business cannot otherwise graduate.
In the meantime, we have these glorious cars. I'd like to say take your blinders off, but given the BS levels around Tesla, you need to put them on to truly understand them.
Don't tell me I've drunk the Tesla Kool-Aid. I'm a car guy. I still own an '87 Porsche 911, a '00 BMW M5 and a '14 Morgan 3-wheeler. I just sold my '73 Citroen SM and '90 Porsche 928. I love them all, the louder the better. But I also love the cars coming out of Fremont. Forget what Teslas represent. Focus on what they do and how they do it, and you can't help but appreciate the core idea on its merits.
I hate car dealers. I hate gas stations. A big exhaust has its time and place. Quiet is good, especially on a long drive. The base models are quick. The P models will out accelerate almost anything on the road, at any price. Handling? Yes. Track work? No one cares, and nor should you. Massive GPS screen? Love. Voice control? Excellent. I just drove a $200,000 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG; its voice control was garbage, its GPS an embarrassment. If you can't see that Tesla is on to something, you enjoy being insulted by the "innovation" coming out of an industry that was sclerotic until the Model S was in its third year of deliveries.
Except for Morgans, all future cars will be based on the Tesla template. The core idea makes sense, and the cat is out of the bag. If a Space X rocket crashed into Fremont tomorrow, killing Musk and burning down the tent housing the third Model 3 production line, the core idea will survive. The 2019 Porsche Mission-E/Taycan? It exists because of the Model S. The wonderful new Jaguar I-Pace? Birthed by keen observation of the Model X's exotic but flawed packaging.
Exciting stuff, but I can't buy a Taycan today, and I don't want a crossover. Also, I want to be able to go on road trips, so I need a fast charging network. The world's best cruise control would be good, too. Guess where all of that leads me?
Back into a Model S. But you won't hear anyone saying that, because the S is allegedly "old news" and the discourse has shifted to the 3, which, unless you're deaf and/or blind, is either terrible or the best car ever made. How many critics have actually driven a Model 3, let alone been in one? I've put thousands of miles on several different 3's, and love it more each time.
Don't like the 3's center display? Get a used Model S.
Don't like the 3's interior? Don't buy one. There's a waiting list anyway. Womp. Womp.
Defining the Tesla Effect
In the five years since Tesla started delivering the Model S, it's become almost impossible to have a rational conversation about anything they make. Tesla's cars are victims of what I call The Tesla Effect; every Tesla is trapped in a garage of mirrors, surrounded by fans/investors who believe in the Tesla/Musk vision, and foes betting against the stock. What is the relationship between the Tesla discourse and actual ownership?
Let me sum up that discourse for you:
Does Tesla have production issues? Sure. Is Musk a narcissist micromanager? LOL. Should Musk have called Autopilot something else? Yes, but that ship has sailed. Is Autopilot useful if you pay attention and keep at least one hand the wheel? Yes. Is it dangerous if you don't? Yup, just like driving without Autopilot. Should it have a real Driver Monitoring System? Yes, and Tesla needs to resolve this ASAP. Is it autonomous, or semi-autonomous? No, it's semi-automated, and the Autopilot web page is misleading to the uneducated. What is Full Self-Driving? Word soup meant to extract cash from optimists. Can Tesla get to Level 4 autonomy—or what I call geotonomy—without LIDAR? Sure, if you geofence it really tightly. When will Tesla get there? Not before Waymo. Are battery fires a real thing? Sure, but have you seen a gas tank fire? Don't be an idiot. Are Falcon Wing doors dumb? Yes, and awesome too. Are there parts shortages? Apparently. Repair backlogs? IFTTT.
All of these things appear real, but how real? Real enough that real journalists have written about it. Real enough that $TSLA-owning "journalists" are trying to gloss over them. Real enough that people complain on forums. Not real enough to deter happy owners from moving on to their second or third Tesla. Not real enough for me to want anything else when I need a car on the West Coast. Not real enough to deter hundreds of thousands of people from placing deposits on Model 3's, and for the overwhelming majority of them to wait years for their cars.
Because they're Teslas. And no one else makes anything like them.
Worried about reliability? Don't buy one. Worried about them staying in business? Lease. Worried about Autopilot? Don't pay for it. True fact: Tesla was selling cars before Autopilot was available. And people loved them.
Because they're Teslas, and they remain brilliant.
Who is filling up Tesla's garage of mirrors? Pretty much everyone, including Musk himself. You won't find that many car enthusiasts, who should be Tesla's biggest supporters. Funny that, because all the hypercar manufacturers—Koenigsegg, McLaren, Ferrari, Porsche—have pure EVs are coming. Heard of Rimac, the coolest of all of them? Porsche just bought 10%.
Interestingly, most of those packing the garage of mirrors don't seem to know that much about cars. Yes, there are a handful of brilliant journalists at major publications covering the production story, which looks hairy to anyone who can do math, and which always comes back to Elon needs to raise money, but that has nothing to do with the actual cars.
Then you've got the $TSLA shorts, most of whom have never driven one, and who only want to talk about Autopilot crashes and reliability issues. They have to. If they acknowledge any good out of Fremont, they'll lose their shirts. If you want to have some fun, ask one why—despite so much hostility—Tesla topped Consumer Reports' Owner Satisfaction Survey. Again.
Better set up a dummy email address, though.
Then you've got the $TSLA longs, true believers and stock manipulators, who will omit and/or ignore anything that doesn't align with the Elon is God narrative. They have to. If they acknowledge any bad out of Fremont, they'll lose their shirts, too.
The saddest thing about both sides is that neither seems to understand the technicalities of Autopilot or self-driving technology, which are prime movers not only of $TSLA, but of $GM, $FORD and many others.
These are really toxic, deceptive people, all of them orbiting the steaming pile of discourse whose hazy stench obscures the only questions that matter:
Should I buy one? How does Autopilot work?
If you're interested in a Tesla, skip their wonderful stores and go to the nearest Supercharger station during rush hour. Here's a map. Walk down the row of cars and start asking questions. I guarantee you will learn more about the ownership experience than you will ever learn online, from people whose honesty you can gauge. Make up your own mind. If you want a car, buy a car. You don't need to buy into the company, the narrative, or the stock. And you certainly shouldn't trust anyone trying to sell you on anything but the car.
We are not what we buy, nor should we be. But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a really great piece of our automotive future, packed with a lot of good ideas. For now, it still starts with a T.
Alex Roy — Founder of the Human Driving Association, Editor-at-Large at The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver — has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.