OPINION

Killing Tesla Slowly: Horse vs. Gas vs. Electric and 1 Foolish CEO

I watched in horror last week as Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk attempted to turn a New York Times reporter into the next Ralph Nader and kill his company. It brought back memories of the ChevroletCorvair that died as a result of GM’s decision to fight what turned out to be false allegations instead ofjust making the car better.

Sadly, even though they made the improvements, folks walked away from thecar because they believed it to be unsafe. Technology transitions are painful, and moving from horses tocars in the first place wasn’t easy either — not helped by the fact that there were three core technologiescompeting for that next version of personal transportation a century ago: gas, electric, and steam.

I’mnot expecting steam to come back anytime soon, but in a head-to-head battle, gas did win a century ago,and it is still the most efficient of the fuel sources — just not the healthiest or the most politically correct.

I’m actually a fan of electrics, but I have little doubt they will fail unless something significant is donesoon to change the balance of power — and get Tesla’s CEO to shut up.

I’ll recap our progress from horses to gas cars to electrics and close with my product of the week: a nicelittle tablet from Lenovo that business apparently likes better than the iPad.

Horses vs. Gas

I grew up with horses. One story that has stuck with me was about a caretaker we had on Catalina Islandwho used to drive into town on Friday nights and get plastered. He’d then get back on his horse and itwould get him home. To move him into the 20th century, the company bought him a jeep and retiredthe horse. So he drove it to the bar and awakened later thatsame night (he’d passed out while driving, as usual) with the front of the jeep hanging off a cliff. He never drove it again.

Horses had a numberof huge advantages. They didn’t need roads; they were self-driving (not a lot of collisions on horses); there werevirtually no traffic jams; and they ran on hay. Granted, there were the dual problems of methane gasand horse poop, but both are pretty environmentally safe. (I’ve got a funny story about my wife, a horse andflatulence that she won’t let me tell here.)

Plus, you could grow your own horse if you had a stallionand a mare. (That said, riding a stallion when a mare is in heat — or riding a mare being chased by a stallion — is something you don’t have to deal with in a car.)

Horses back then were cheap and didn’t need much of an ecosystem. You could generally justpull off the trail and let them drink from a spring or eat the local grass. They were good for about20 years if you took care of them.

Compare that to an automobile. Cars tend to get expensive afterabout five years; they are filled with toxic materials; you have to buy gas; they generally require roads; and few can or would ever want to build one.

Oh, and if you’re in a riding accident, there is a pretty goodchance the horse will come over and help you get to safety. If you’re in a car accident, you might need the “jaws of life” to get you out.

Granted, with horses you’re out in the weather, but think of the bar the first cars had to overcome. There weren’t many gas stations, and the things were loud, difficult to keep in repair, expensive and relatively unsafe. (Try to stop a car at 30 on dirt — then do the same with a horse).

Early cars were aboutas sheltered as a buggy or horse-drawn coach, and virtually none of the skills you learned with horsestranslated to cars. They were few in number, and folks lusted after the status they provided.

Today we have gas cars and not horses. Looking back and thinking of all the traffic, roads,pollution, and other petroleum-related problems, I wonder if we were all that smart to take this step.

Electric vs. Gas: Petroleum Has the Power

Compared to the shift from horses to cars, electrics replacing gas should be a walk in the park. Roads, garages, and much ofthe driving infrastructure can be used by both. We can surmise that the initial reason gas cars replacedhorses, prior to the ecosystem for gas being created, was initially status — because early cars were kind of stupid.

Then it became less about status and more about economics. The massive automotive industry was far better funded than thedistributed horse industry, and money generally rules. GM at one point bought up most of the light rail systemsin the country and dismantled them between 1936 and 1950, so that cars would be sold in cities. We’ve spent the last decade or so trying to restore light rail.

Electric cars do impart status; however, the money remains with the gas industry. I imagine that ifRomney had won rather than Obama, then most of the electric subsidies would have evaporated — much like the solarsubsidies evaporated after Jimmy Carter left office — and Tesla would be on life support.

Like gascars, electric cars need a unique ecosystem. Because batteries charge more slowly than gas can flowinto tanks, charging needs to be more — not less — pervasive. The ideal situation likely would be inductivecharging grids near freeways and at parking spaces automatically metered and charged to drivers.

Oncein place, rather than having a fueling disadvantage, electric cars would have an advantage, because as long as you remained in the ecosystem, you’d never have to worry about refueling — well, at least until you got your monthly car power bill.

Here’s the deal though, with the hay-to-gas transition, the farmers weren’t organized and couldn’t fight Standard Oil — because it was arguably more powerful than the federal government at the time.

Making the transition from gas to electric will be different. Electricity is generally provided by utilities, which are regulated and don’t havea lot of extra capital, while petroleum remains one of the most powerful and well-funded industriesin the world.

Unless there is some significant financial offset to cover the building of the needed electrical infrastructure, the petroleum industry likely will be successful in keeping electricity from replacing gas. Should a Republican win the presidency, electrics are likely to die out again.

Wrapping Up

Tesla’s major problem isn’t that it is competing with GM or Ford, which is bad enough, it is thatit is effectively competing with the petroleum industry (list of columns), and the only thing keeping it in the gameis a largely dysfunctional U.S. government split on the idea of electric vehicles.

Electrics are potentiallycleaner, safer and certainly quieter, but so were horses — and they got kicked off the island even thoughthey were initially the dominant form of travel.

The New York Times reporter that Tesla is trying to turn into Ralph Nader is a guy who appears tospecialize in covering petroleum. He was never going to be a champion of electrics, and the failure wasn’t his — it was a review program that didn’t take his obvious bias into account whengranted or staffing the review.

Just as Top Gear — one of my favorite shows — panned an earlier Tesla, folks used to reviewing gas cars are likely to define tests that showcase an electric in its worst light. Like that caretaker with the jeep, they probably aren’t on the short list to buy one anyway.

What’s sad is that it appears the NYT article is badly flawed. Then again, it may not be — no shortage of controversy — but by pounding on it much the way GM did Nader, it is getting wide play and likely scaring buyers away from the car.

If you were to read the last two articles, you’d likely pass onbuying a Tesla, and both resulted largely from Tesla’s dispute rather than from the NYT article itself.

Figuring out a way to overcome the petroleum industry and a century of gas car dominance — and keep theCEO from accidentally torching the company — are Tesla’s big problems. If it can’t solve them, I doubt it’ll makeit, no matter how wonderful its cars are.

Product of the Week: Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2

Product of the Week

The ThinkPad Tablet 2 is Lenovo’s professional answer to the iPad and it contains the latest version of Intel’s answer to anARM processor, the Atom. That means the product runs full Windows 8 and not Windows RT, makingthe US$679 base price for the recommended 64-GB version without 4G support — that support jumps you it to $949 — rather attractive.

Lenovo ThinkPadTablet 2

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2

There is an optional Bluetooth Keyboard that provides near ThinkPad keyfeel, and it has a HD five finger IPS touchscreen. Battery life approaches nine hours, which is in line withthe latest iPad, making this one of the best business oriented tablets I’ve ever carried.

In comparing the Surface Pro and ThinkPad Tablet 2, I think the ThinkPad actually comes significantlycloser to the iPad target. It clearly doesn’t have the power of the Surface product, but it is in line with theweight and battery life folks now expect from a tablet.

I’m a long time ThinkPad fan. ThinkPads have alwayshad the best keyboards and quality, and this new tablet is in line with what I expect from them, so it’s anobvious product of the week.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

19 Comments

  • Great story about the challenges new technologies have in displacing powerful incumbents. It took the automobile companies 30+ years to significantly displace horses.

    The rooftop solar industry has the same challenge in displacing the centralized utility industry business model. Low cost distributed (rooftop) generation is inevitable, but will take time. We still need some centralization of electricity supply, just as we still need centralized servers for data. But the reality is that in many places it is cheaper to generate the electricity you need from your own rooftop solar system. The fact that consumers can generate power more cheaply than the utility can supply it effectively kills the utility business model – with no practical solution in sight.

    I wonder how many of your readers – and fellow electric car supporters – have a rooftop solar system?

    • Laura,

      You better do you’re homework as using electric motors to move vehicles IS NOT A NEW IDEA !

      In FACT electric cars were very popular in the early 1900’s !

      FACT at the turn of the century in 1900 approx 38% of all cars were using electricity while only 22% used gas and 40% used steam

      This FACT provided by the Encyclopdia Brittanica so don’t even try to attack the credibillity of those figures 🙂

      http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/44957/automobile/259061/Early-electric-automobiles#ref=ref918099

      Do us all a favor and please don’t be like Rob writing and commenting on things you do not know anything about it just makes you look bad

      • Folks said the same thing about Solar during the Carter years and lost their shirts. I’m just saying… Those subsidies and incentives do make a difference. But electrics are getting better all the time and it doesn’t look like the Republicans will win any time soon so you’re making a reasonable bet.

        • E2verne: I think you’re referring to General Motors’ EV-1. That was available between 1996 and 1999, not the 1970s. There is no valid connection between Ford deciding to absorb the cost of lawsuits they anticipated with the Pinto’s vulnerable gas tank and GM’s decision to scrap its electric car project. You also might note that GM offers a car intended to run exclusively on electricity now, the Chevy Volt.

          • The point on horses were they were entrenched even more than gas is today. I’ve owned horses, and agree horse poop was/is a big problem. They take daily care as well. But on trails, like they had back then, and without gas stations and hard rubber tires, I’d still prefer a horse.

            GM funded a massive AM ount of anti-Nader work (I’m guessing you forgot) it was the conflict that killed the car.

          • Come on man how can you be so unaware ?

            Inconvienient FACT…. Electricity must come from something and in our case this means coal and fossil fuels for the most part !

            In FACT all "Renewables" combines account for less than 15%

            So are you drinkinng the same Kool Aid Rob is and trying to tell us that Coal is cleaner and more "Renewable" than gasoline ???

          • Hey I still drive that Jag (2004 XKR) fun car. The performance Tesla S would dust it though at least to 60. And no I don’t want to see him fail but I liked the Corvair too.

          • Actually that is incorrect, about 44% is coal and many of those plants are clean, but most of the rest are either nuclear, hydro electric, or natural gas all relatively clean. Their are some dirty oil fired plants that run at peak but cars typically charge at night when there is an excess of power.

            Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_generation

          • A lot of Tesla owners here (and we have a ton of them) also went solar. Not much coal (actually not aware of any) in California, mostly nuclear, and hydro electric, with some oil fired for peak. East coast is different I know. But coal is only 44% nation wide. I will say, where coal is heavy it trends to be colder and cold isn’t great for electrics.

          • Whether it needs to come from some place or not is irrelevant. If we spent some of that 5 billion in oil subsidies on improving solar, or batteries, both of which have been at a near stall for decades, we might not even be having this conversation. The reality is, oil will run out. Its not "replaceable" using bio-fuels at this point, nor does that solve the problem. The environmentalist groups are, sad to say, filled not just with people that are as stupid, in many cases as people that own oil stock, but just as badly informed, so actually appose sound ideas, like larger wind systems – Hint: The smaller you propeller, the faster you have to spin it to either produce/get enough energy from it. So.. a 50 foot wide one will kill birds, since they can’t see it, but a much larger one turns slowly enough they can avoid it. Duh! The same thing can be said about just about everything, including nuclear. A big plant, which has to trade off between stability, structural integrity, etc., and actually doing what its designed for, is dangerous, likely to break easy, and you end up storing the stuff you need to keep safe, like the waste, right next to the bloody stuff that, if the cooling system goes wrong, will turn your waste into just one more source of poison. There are what are called "pebble" reactors. Much lower temps, less complicated, they don’t use rods, so don’t produce the same sort of "waste", and their main issue is they don’t power half a damn state. If you are worried about them being broken, damages, flooded, etc., you could still build a plant the size of an existing reactor, and have like 20 times the space in there to "protect" against any disaster you might think of. But, simplest solution is just to build the thing so that if, somehow, what ever cooling you do need (remember, its not running like a high end, rod based reactor), fails, you could dump stuff into it to shut it down, and just replace the whole thing (which would easily fit into one of those "waste" containers they already use to ship rods), instead of having to both ever taking it apart to repair it.

            OK, maybe some of that is wishful thinking with pebble reactors, but.. the point is, the energy industry wants to get the biggest bang for its buck. They don’t seem to give a crap if the "bang" is 100GW of power, or a 1GT explosion. But if you don’t go for stupid big, just to get more power, with one plant, you don’t need to worry about one big explosion either.

            But, yeah, point is, there is a lot of dumb to go around. I had one clown actually claim that solar concentration systems, which generate steam, like any normal power plant, to power turbines, used the same "panels" as the ones you have on your house, so it makes no sense to build such a thing, instead of spending money on putting them on everyone’s roofs. Uh.. No, those "panels" used in solar "plants" are called "mirrors". The only thing that might use the "same kind of panel" would be, maybe, if one of the workers there was a complete solar nut, and put one on his electric car. Sigh…

            As for the whole Tesla mess. I read one of the articles on it, detailing just what the data recorder itself said. It ***outperformed** its own estimates, based on charging times, distance, etc., in every leg but the last one, where the battery was only actually charged to 28%. The "author" tried to intentionally sabotage the tests, but the Tesla people, having gotten burned before on Top Gear, recorded every single thing the fool did.

            The only controversy here is in why news agencies have to keep making up controversies, instead of reporting the truthful fact that one side has it right, and the other side is lying through their teeth, then claiming they didn’t, or that someone else did, or we somehow "misunderstood" them.

          • The fact that you are missing is that electrics were killed by gas in the 1920’s largely because of range issues and battery development then stalled for nearly 80 years while gas advancements continued. Electrics still have that range problem as a result. Ironically it was Nicole Tesla who died trying to fix that.

            Some irony in the name there.

            Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_electric_vehicle

          • Good point, I have a pretty big solar plant on my roof (about a decade old now). Thanks for the comment!

          • Glad your solar is working 😉 Because rates went up so much your payback was probably even better than you thought.

            There is symbiosis between natural gas companies and EV companies – NG will provide the kWh that these cars need. And NG can displace oil as transportation fuel, at least as long as NG is cheap.

            I think the utilities are very much in favor of EVs – their profits are regulated based on their net assets, and EVs will require a lot of generation, transmission and distribution assets. Nevertheless, the pure oil/coal/gas companies have no role in the EV ecosystem, so they will push back the most.

            Regarding Tesla, the car is good and it was a herculean effort for Musk to get that far. His big mistake is to get in an argument with someone who buys bits by the bucket.

  • Hey Rob thanks for writing a political opinion piece it’s just what we need !

    Now a few questions how is electric better or cleaner than gas when electric uses mostly coal to produce and then travels over wires where much of it is lost overcoming the resistance of the wire ?

    In Rob’s world coal is cleaner and better than gasoline !!!

    Yes everyone Rob lives in a stgrange world and now he or his fellow leftists will come back and say yeah but you can use solar or wind yet solar or wind have never shown to be viable solution to producing large AM mounts of electricity reliably.

    So Rob sounds like you must be a shill for big coal judging things by you’re own methedology used in this article DOES BIG COAL PAY YOU ROB ?

    LOL

    PS I like many Americans are sick of the nonsense politically bent opinions and the politicization of everything please stick to some form of reson instead of opinon based on you’re politics and the monied intrestes who support you then acting all holier than thou attacking monied intrestes as if you have nothing to do with that sort of evil thing PLEASE SAVE IT !

  • I own a Model S and it replaced a super charged jag, that was highly acclaimed by top gear. My other car is an SLS AMG. I’ve been a car buff for 50+ years and owned an array of sports cars and sports sedans. In the past 40 years, the only American cars I owned are a 67 Camaro and a Jeep Wrangler.

    Biggest problem I’ve had with American cars is quality, pure and simple. Poor handling, gas mileage and how they ran after 2 years was icing on the cake.

    Then along comes this guy Elon Musk who re-invents the American automobile, creates a potentially new industry and builds a great looking car that is fast, handles well and fun to drive. I walk past my SLS AMG most days in favor of the Model S. Even putting solar in my home.

    Come on folks, how long will it take to get past the big lies of industries that fail to deliver and tie you to a technology that is unsustainable? Think. Is this the guy you really want to see fail?

  • Rob — interesting article, but you have a romanticized view of the horse as a public transportation model. In fact, manure in city streets was a huge pollution problem that created great concern AM ong city planners. I’m not sure where you get the idea that there was a fight between farmers and the oil industry about the horse vs the car — I’m guessing that is something you invented to make your point about relative power of entrenched special interests.

    The analogy with the Corvair is interesting, but the difference is that in the early 1960s the channels of communication were much more limited than now. Although Elon Musk is not doing himself any favors by being so aggressive toward John Broder and the NYT, he’s being aided by thousands of people who are providing a lot of technical information that potential Corvair buyers could never have received in that era. In short, times change and the rules by which fights are won change. See my blog on this topic: http://mb-bc.com/?p=842

  • The electric car has already existed, won many converts and was going strong when GM squashed the concept back in the 70s. The NYT article reminds me of articles printed back then, not actually telling consumers you will die like they did in the Pinto, but inferring the technology was never going to give the consumer the ease found with an internal combustion engine. They then proceeded to forcibly buy back all the electric cars that had been purchased. But being all techie and all that I’m sure you know all this.

    The Tesla or any other electric based vehicle will always receive negative reviews because the reviewers’ motives will always be to funnel the consumer toward petroleum using products. That’s where the money is, and money talks, etc., etc.

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