Fact Checking Tesla's "Impact Report"
It's no surprise that the electric automaker is having a positive environmental impact, so why does it need to exaggerate the good and gloss over the bad?
Corporate "impact reports" are typically exercises in meaningless image-burnishing, glossing over the toughest realities and highlighting the best-sounding (and often least-impactful) actions taken. In the case of Tesla, such an exercise should be ridiculously easy: since the company doesn't make any vehicles with tailpipe emissions, it's not hard to make it look like a better environmental steward than every other automaker out there.
Really, the only way for Tesla to screw up such a report would be to wildly overstate that impact, exaggerate the comparison to other automakers and gloss over noteworthy environmental news about the company. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much exactly what they did.
The biggest environmental claim Tesla makes in the report is that its cars have "saved" over four million tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere. According to Tesla, that is "the equivalent of saving emissions from being released into the environment from over 500K ICE vehicles with a fuel economy of 22 miles per gallon." Right off the bat, it's not at all clear why Tesla chose that particular point of comparison, given that the average fuel economy of all vehicles in the US hit 24.9 MPG in 2017 according to the EPA, with preliminary data indicating another .5 MPG improvement in 2018 to 25.4 MPG. Later in the report, Tesla explicitly states that "the average ICE vehicle gets around 22 MPG, which is simply not true.
For some time, Tesla has been keeping a real-time carbon reduction counter on its website purporting to show the tons of CO2 emissions saved by its electric vehicles. This counter caught my eye back in 2015, after I spent several days at the company's Harris Ranch battery swap station in hopes of seeing it in action only to find the company instead hooking up backup Superchargers to diesel generators. When I asked Tesla what its Supercharger energy sourcing policy is, after watching those generators spew smoke into the air, here's what a company spokesperson said:
“We aim for carbon neutrality, and where the market allows via wholesale power purchase, we source renewable energy, even though it is slightly more expensive. In Europe, the power for all our Supercharger stations is sourced by renewable energy. Continuing to convert our superchargers to solar power will push us further down that road.”
That stands in fairly sharp contrast with Tesla's implicit claim, both in its impact report and on its website, that its vehicles are powered exclusively by zero-emission power. Though a private Tesla owner could power their electric vehicle with any form of power they want, from solar panels to clean-burning whale oil, Tesla can't even guarantee that vehicles using its own charging infrastructure are getting zero-emission juice. This in spite of the fact that Tesla originally pitched the Supercharger network as being 100% solar powered, a claim that CEO Elon Musk has repeated several times over the years in response to "long tailpipe" criticisms.
Though Tesla has yet to claim that even a single Supercharger station can live up to the promise of 100% solar-power and "zombie apocalypse-proof" off-grid performance, it does have another claim that it hopes will distract from this unfulfilled promise. If you add up all the power developed by all the solar panels installed by Solar City (and after its merger, Tesla), you get 13.25 TeraWatt-hours. That's more than the 5.26 TWh of power consumed by Tesla's vehicles over the years, so the (post-merger) company has theoretically done the equivalent of covering its footprint. More solar is always good, but again Tesla can't let a good thing be enough: it had to promise something undeliverable (100% emission-free cars), imply that it has done so (by counting its cars as if they are zero-carbon) and then pretend that merging with an unrelated solar business somehow delivered on that promise.
Tesla's energy business makes for another opportunity for green credential-polishing that other car companies would kill for but the report has to make do with brief references to just three solar and storage installations, in Australia, Puerto Rico and American Samoa. That may be because Tesla's solar panel market share dropped from more than 30% a few years back to just 9% in 2018, and its much-hyped solar roof is all but AWOL after being whipped up to justify the Solar City merger. Finally, though Tesla did install more than one GigaWatt-hour of utility-level stationary storage projects last year, like the ones highlighted in its report and waves of feel-good media stories, it apparently did so at the expense of Power Wall reservation holders who are being told that Tesla's Gigafactory can't produce enough cells for them.
From there Tesla's impact report moves on to the safety of its cars, where once again the company can't help but exaggerate. The all-five-star crash test rating for Model 3 is a solid auto engineering accomplishment, but the Model S also had top ratings when it came out and has since been eclipsed by newer designs and tougher tests as seen by its non-showing in the latest IIHS Top Safety Picks.
The company also continues to peddle context-free safety statistics, comparing its overwhelmingly young and expensive fleet against an average US car that is 11 years old and cost about $35,000 when new. Tesla also compares crash statistics for Autopilot which, in addition to the comparative distortions mentioned above, is only supposed to be used on divided highways that are about twice as safe as non-divided roads. Of course, Tesla did fail to ensure that owners only use its system where it's designed to be safe, resulting in preventable fatalities that it of course doesn't mention in its report.
Tesla's report continues by expounding on the efficiencies of its manufacturing facilities, which include the use of LED lighting, improvements to various manufacturing systems, local renewable power standards and a "Zero Waste" facility certification for its Fremont plant. This despite numerous images of massive amounts of waste at the Fremont facility, a recent EPA settlement over hazardous waste violations, another fine for illegal NOx emissions, and repeated reports of high scrap rates at its Fremont plant and the Nevada Gigafactory.
Tesla goes on to state that the long and complex supply chains for its battery materials means that "reliably determining the origin [of these materials] is a difficult task, but the due diligence practices required of our suppliers adds transparency to help us and our suppliers adhere to the responsible sourcing principles of our Code." However a 2016 Washington Post story connects Tesla's supply chain to various questionable raw material sources, including dirty sources of graphite from China, lithium mined in Argentina by a company criticized for its treatment of indigenous communities, and cobalt "mined under harsh conditions" in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though Tesla denies that such materials made it into its products, it refused to disclose its suppliers in order to prove the claim.
Finally, Tesla's impact report wraps up by restating its goal of having the safest car factory in the world... but the only comparison it gives is to NUMMI, the predecessor to its Fremont plant. Comparing a modern plant to one operating between 2003 and 2009, when workplace incident reports across all industries were nearly twice as high (and before the government changed how it defines this data), is not wildly convincing. On the other side of the ledger are numerous reports of poor safety performance at Fremont, including allegations of underreporting incidents, a medical clinic seemingly set up to deny worker comp claims, and a far higher rate of OSHA citations than seen at any other modern final assembly plant. Tesla also says it has policies preventing retaliatory actions against employee whistleblowers, despite hair-raising reports of the company going to extraordinary lengths to attack such whistleblowers.
None of these issues take away from the fact that Tesla has done some very real good, specifically by making electric vehicles more desirable than they ever have been. But neither does this positive accomplishment excuse or make up for Tesla's other significant shortcomings, let alone justify the repeated exaggerations and omissions in its impact report. Tesla has shown that it will push its position as far as it can, exceeding even basic truthfulness, if allowed. Like anyone else, Tesla needs accountability to ensure that it lives up to its own image and to achieve its noble goals.
The heart of Tesla's exaggerations and omissions is the culture surrounding the company, which rejects accountability at every turn. Apologists who believe they are helping the company by defending it from even the most valid criticisms are in fact contributing to the environment that allows Tesla to repeatedly fall short of its own standards. What Tesla has set out to do has not been easy, and its accomplishments have been impressive, but that is all the more reason to demand that the company not overstate its achievements and standards. If Tesla is truly dedicated to making the world and the auto industry better, the truth should be enough.