I've got this sneaking suspicion that the Tesla Model S is a great car. Throw out all of the questions about the car's underpinnings, the conditions of range, and the prospects of selling 20,000 of these a year and it probably is great. I know I'm excited to drive one at some uncertain point in the future.
But, as journalists, it isn't our job to throw out questions. It's our job to ask them. When I complained that reviewers were only going to get ten minutes with the car and then weren't going to acknowledge that fact I hoped I was wrong (I wasn't). I said I hope Dan Neil from the Wall Street Journal gets a full drive it because "If it was a bad car we think Neil would tell us."
Neil's review is out, and he loves it, but even he didn't get more than "an hour-plus" test drive, and his review just creates more questions.
Why harp on Tesla? We were mostly alone in questioning the practice of giving ten-minute drives (Mark Rechtin of Automotive News, to his credit, wrote a column calling it "shilling") and we're one of the few to say in print what many journalists are only willing to say out loud in private.
If Elon Musk is Tony Stark as he styles himself then we're the angry legislator who wants to get him to tell us about his crazy device and he's the one true genius who knows he needs to keep the secret safe from our bumbling incompetence and lack of vision. We are in this scenario, and it's not fun to say, Garry Shandling.
Are we just being jerks? Read through what we've written and we come off sort of like jerks. Elon Musk has told me, essentially, that he sees us writing exclusively negative criticism and that if we ask for a response it's usually to fit in to some "polemic" we've already written. That's not entirely true. Our limited review of the Tesla Roadster Sport is very positive. And then we drove it again and still liked it.
I don't see us as being jerks, though, I see as helping.
(Pause for laughter)
If Tesla were just content to build a small amount of cool cars as a private company — be a Pagani or a Hennessey — then we'd happily back off a bit because people doing small awesome things deserve a break. But that's not what he's doing. This is a public company. He's taken $465 million federal dollars (if not more) and says he needs to sell 8,000 to make money and expects to sell 20,000 next year.
Regular automakers are mostly tip-toeing into the water with "compliance cars" — only built to meet California's requirements for zero-emissions requirements — but Elon Musk has jumped into the deep end. It is a bold move and we have, as a society, cannonballed with him.
The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are both earnest attempts at something different, but the soul of the electric car community seems tied up with Tesla and its project. It's not a terrible bet. Elon Musk just sent his own private spacecraft into space. He achieves things.
But if he fails it'll be devastating. It could be like the EV1 all over again.
"Even the great Elon Musk couldn't make it work" they'll moan.
If Musk is going to succeed he needs more than cheerleading. He needs criticism. Maybe not our brand of criticism. But something.
People have tried to make us feel ashamed for critiquing Musk. They've said that "Preston Tucker is ashamed." As if the cause of Tucker's failure was a critical press and secret leg breakers from the big automakers who were afraid of them.
That's a great story, but it's mostly myth. Tucker had a big idea that impressed a lot of people. He got from the government a big plant in Chicago that used to be run by an automaker (sound familiar?), sold a lot of stock (sound familiar?), got the public really excited about a new futuristic sedan and then bungled it with mismanagement.
Tesla, already, has a step up on Tucker and it's also created technology it seems willing to license to others. But what if someone asked Tucker if he should, you know, produce blueprints for the car? What if someone, early on, had asked John DeLorean how the car would perform with an emissions-restricted motor or what would happen if exchange rates made building the car in Europe a bad idea?
To go back to Dan Neil, let's read between the lines a bit. If you casually consume the full review it's glowing with praise for its "Lambo-like" performance and "dream quiet" sound. Let's Jefferson Bible it a bit and expunge the miracles to focus on the hidden critiques.
"At the time, Tesla was building, rather badly, small numbers of the all-electric Roadster, which was based on a modified Lotus chassis, and losing money like mad. In terms of mass-production car building, Tesla didn't have a stick in the ground three years ago."
"if everything works as advertised-something I couldn't discern in an hour-plus test drive in Los Angeles last week-"
"the uniquely un-sourceable Model S"
"The outcome of Mr. Musk's grand experiment in vertical integration is far from certain."
"The Model S also offers optional and quite novel kids' jump seats, for seven-passenger seating, though about that I remain dubious."
"And yet, given the constraints of our test drive, I can't really describe the car's handling. I'll need at least three months to be sure."
(That reads partially like a joke)
"It's the attack of the iPhone, if you like. This is the one stumble in the Model S's draftsmanship. While this panel works beautifully-the navigation map display is especially nice-the display is embedded rather gracelessly into the leather-and-carbon trim dash."
"Don't get me wrong. I'm prepared for disappointment."
That's a lot of questions and doubts. What is the basis for the Tesla Model S, really? Is it a reengineered Mercedes? When is someone going to get a full drive? How much range does the car get when driving it while utilizing its full Lambo-like acceleration? What's the car like with a full seven passengers? How does the screen work long-term?
And even he couldn't get more than an "hour-plus" drive of a car that's so important despite being buddy-buddy with Musk. What does that say?
My message to Elon Musk and Tesla is that you're not a private company anymore. The tech media you're ensconced in will fellate you until you die, just like they did before the Dot-Com bubble burst. You need to invite criticism, not constantly deflect it if you want to be a success.
You think we're tough and unfair? Wait until someone like Darrell Issa and his House Oversight Committee starts asking questions. Wait until your big-time corporate partners and stockholders start demanding your results. You'll be begging for the day you had to deal with pushovers like us.
We have questions, and we invite Musk or anyone from Tesla to come in and answer them. We also invite Dan Neil to come in and explain fully why he's "prepared for disappointment."
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