Labor-Sucking Devices

Electric cars never really made any sense. They are cloaked in the sanctimony of the green movement, because they don’t use nasty fossil fuels like gasoline. Instead, they use electricity, which is sent out through power lines from big power plants, which generate this electricity—how? Oh yes, by burning fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas. This is known as the “long tailpipe,” which goes from the car charging up in your garage all the way back to the smokestack of a coal-fired power plant. And don’t forget, electric cars also have giant batteries made from nasty toxic metals like lithium and cobalt, the manufacture of which frontloads carbon dioxide emissions.

So the electric car was always more an exercise in green paternalism—it is the future, as selected for us by our betters—than a serious attempt to solve any real or imagined problem.

A new controversy over the Tesla electric luxury sedan reveals that the electric car fails an even more basic technological standard.

The New York Times started the controversy when its reviewer, John Broder, set off to test the Tesla S by driving it from Washington, DC, to Boston, only to encounter persistent problems with the range of the car and its ability to make it from one Tesla charging station to another without running out of juice. He ends us having to drive with the heat off on a cold day to conserve power—some luxury car!—until his battery conks out and the Tesla has to be towed. In short, the review was a PR disaster for Tesla.

But that’s not the end of the story. The folks at Tesla, flunking Public Relations 101, decided that they would respond to this bad review by drawing a lot of attention to it. Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed the review was a fraud based on data taken from the car’s internal logs. Tesla had an unhappy experience with a segment on the British automobile program “Top Gear” that they claimed was misleading. (I am shocked, shocked to discover that Jeremy Clarkson could play fast and loose with the facts.) Ever since, Tesla switches on a monitor whenever they loan one of their cars out to the press. So they claim the Times reviewer purposely drove the car in a way that ran down the battery and then deliberately lied about the results.

Musk’s rebuttal is less than convincing. He brays that the reviewer was lying when he said that he had to drive at 45 miles per hour—and points to logs showing Broder driving at about 50 miles per hour. Similarly, he declares that Broder turned up the heater to 74 degrees at the very point he supposedly had to turn it off—but the graph he uses to verify this shows that Broder did turn the heater way down a few minutes later. In other words, Musk is seizing on technicalities, while the data he presents more or less verifies Broder’s account.

I’m all for never trusting the ink-stained wretches of the press. But if you read through Musk’s argument, the real heart of it is that Broder took too many detours between charging stations and didn’t wait long enough at the stations for his battery to take on a full charge. In other words: the car is OK, it’s just that you drove it wrong. Excuse me? Is Tesla really marketing a product which relies on the consumer to coddle it to get it to perform just right?

Well, yes they are. Another reviewer describes his own, more positive experience with the Tesla S but adds this qualification:

I also knew where I was going, knew how I was going to get there, and knew how long that was going to take. In other words, I had a planned route, and I gave enough of a cushion that I was still safe even should I need to make a detour. In fact, I did make a major detour when the Model S’s GPS caused me to miss my correct exit. Despite having to go 40 miles out of my way, I still made it to my destination—with a somewhat scary 10 miles of range remaining.

This is, of course, very different from how I plan a trip in a conventional car. This requires a lot more work up-front, work that is just fine by me. I’m okay with such investments if it means covering 165 miles in a 416-horsepower luxury car for just 10 bucks’ worth of electricity.

This reviewer may have good technical qualifications, but he should not try writing about economics. When he talks about saving a few dollars on gasoline, surely he is aware that the Tesla model he and Broder were testing costs about $100,000. If you’re concerned about saving money, you might want to consider spending “only” $45,000 on a traditional luxury car—maybe a nice BMW—and putting the extra $55,000 into a gasoline fund. Even at today’s prices, that ought to last you—let’s see—a couple of decades. So much for the economic argument for an electric car.

As to the Times reporter, John Broder issued a point-by-point reply to Elon Musk, which basically boils to blaming his problems on bad advice he got from the technicians at Tesla, whom he repeatedly contacted by phone during his trip.

But this misses the biggest point: since when is driving a car supposed to be so complicated? The whole point of technology is to use the machine’s energy and yes, to burn up natural resources, in order to save human effort. The machines are supposed to work for us; we don’t work for them. This is especially true of the automobile, which is all about freedom, independence, going out on the open road and deciding on the spur of the moment where you want to go—not about filing a flight plan and having technicians talk you through your trip.

I understand that the first round of a new technology doesn’t always work well and early adopters may have to make tradeoffs and accept limitations. But the Tesla is supposed to be the electric car without tradeoffs. This is supposed to be a mass-market car, the first wave of electric vehicles that can be manufactured and sold in truly industrial-scale quantities. It’s not supposed to be for hobbyists who don’t mind tinkering around with an experimental vehicle for the sake of technology curiosity.

But the folks at Tesla have gotten swept up in the quasi-religious hype of environmentalism. They’re not just manufacturing a curiosity for hobbyists. They’re saving the planet, one preening and sanctimonious upper-middle-class driver at a time.

In service to this environmentalist posturing, they’ve turned the whole purpose of technology on its head. We have to use more of our, human resources—more of our precious time and effort—in order to save natural resources. The machines can’t serve us, because we have to serve nature. Instead of making labor-saving devices, they’re making labor-sucking devices. And if we complain that the new green technology isn’t good enough, we’re told that it is we who are not good enough for the technology.

That’s why the electric car, in its current incarnation, is a technological abomination.

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4 Responses to Labor-Sucking Devices

  1. John Pryce February 16, 2013 at 4:11 AM #

    This story is very strange, because I was under the impression that Elon Musk was a rational person.

  2. Katarina February 16, 2013 at 10:45 PM #

    Very good article.

    I like elon Musk. The man advanced internet commerce with PayPal and is doing great work with his other company, SpaceX, launching cargo into orbit dependably and cheaply. But I was uneasy about his involvement with electric cars.

    Not to tie this with the article series on the Bible, but driving an electric car strikes me, a bit, as the equivalent of the Christian notion of penance. Hopefully it’s just a coincidence.

  3. Leaf Driver February 22, 2013 at 2:24 PM #

    The article is at times funny, but generally wrongheaded.

    Mr. Broders drive which ran out of juice, according to the NYT Public Editor, was sloppily documented and included poor judgement calls.

    Any vehicle requires proper fuel management, no matter how it’s fueled.

    As RT points out, it is early in the mass-market EV life cycle. Imagine how difficult it was to take long road journeys in the early 1900’s. You don’t have to imagine because those are documented.

    Also gasoline isn’t cheap. It’s just massively subsidized by the government. You don’t pay for the costs of oil wars when you fill the tank. If you did, gas would not be cheap.

    Where does RS get the idea that Tesla is supposed to be a car *without tradeoffs*? There are tradeoffs with every car ever made.

    Truth be told, with current battery ranges EVs are better suited as commuter cars, and it’s better to retain an oil car for long trips. This is how I do it. My oil car doesn’t suck my wallet dry driving back and forth to work 5 days a week. The EV does that and costs just $25 a month to fuel.

    Of course, there have always been luddites and reactionaries and those who criticize any attempt to improve anything. Had RT been around in 1898, he’d have harried Henry Ford, saying his funny looking bicycle-wheeled contraption requires far more work than a horse, requires exotic and difficult to obtain fuels, unlike readily available horse-chow.

    But this isn’t really about cars. It’s about politics. Oil funds Republicans, cars that don’t need oil represent a symbolic threat to the power and control of the oil barons. Therefore they must be bad, so lets brainstorm up as many arguments as we can think of to say why they’re bad. Every improvement in EVs occasions new and different criticisms.

    Progress is when we make things better in spite of such people.

  4. Kevin February 25, 2013 at 1:58 PM #

    Sanity. Except no sane environmentalist should be promoting electric cars unless and until the electric supply is transformed to mostly renewable sources. Otherwise, as you state at the onset, one only has purchased a very long (and very inefficient) tailpipe.

    I once had the dubious privilege of test driving a Tesla — one of their 1st generation Lotus copies. It impressed me as a really cool golf cart but nothing more. During the test drive, I asked lots of questions about range, electric charge demand, etc. I then computed the equivalent fossil fuel consumption (using rather favorable assumptions). Mileage was the equivalent of 50 mpg gasoline after correcting for generation and transmission losses, except the fossil fuel generating the electricity was not oil but a mixture of 70% coal and 25% natural gas. This is a tiny car, lighter than a Prius, which gets about 50 mpg in the city, or a Civic Hybrid, which gets about 45-50 highway (in my personal experience).

    I consider myself an environmentalist, and I’ve done lots of research and work on energy policy and utility economics. But any environmentalist who promotes this technology ought to have his or her head examined.