There’s no denying that there’s a story to be told about Tesla. The challenge comes when you need to distill the hype, the hope, and heartache of the company’s 16 years into a digestible narrative that doesn’t read like hagiography or a how-to manual for the shorts. But journalist Ed Niedermeyer gave it a shot, and the result is a mostly even-handed account of how we got from an electric Lotus prototype to the Model 3.
Niedermeyer, currently a reporter at The Drive, set out to write this book after a tenure at The Truth About Cars. That site had tasked him with running their Tesla Death Watch column during the automaker’s earliest years. The series followed the trials and travails of Musk and his young company through the company’s search of capital and initial production challenges.
But Niedermeyer left feeling the story was bigger than some blogs, and his final product is pretty compelling. In Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, he manages to strike an excellent balance between two rhetorical goals.
The book is an account of the establishment of the most successful electric car manufacturer to date, tracing the company from Elon Musk’s entry through the challenges surrounding the launch of Tesla’s Model 3. In between, Niedermeyer makes sure to describe the way that the company utilized fundraising techniques from Silicon Valley to finance its transition from boutique sports car manufacturer to large-scale automaker, the challenges of building cars that bucked engineering benchmarks honed in Detroit simply because they weren’t disruptive, and the attempted pivot to autonomous driving.
While I consider myself a pretty diligent watcher of Tesla’s, I learned a lot about how Musk has run the company from Ludicrous, particularly when it comes to the development and introduction of new components of Tesla’s business plan. Niedermeyer is careful to follow the many subplots of Tesla’s rise, like Musk’s brash assertions regarding the gradual increase in affordability of Tesla’s offerings and his claims about the “autonomous” capabilities of the company’s cars.
Niedermeyer does a great job of not just telling the impressive story of a company built by larger-than-life personalities that has indeed made important contributions to the entire automotive industry, and certainly to electrification as a whole. He also succeeds in couching this narrative in analysis that pushes readers to consider both the challenges that Tesla has faced as a new automaker with varying degrees of success as well as (and perhaps more importantly) the phenomenon of Tesla boosters and detractors battling it out online and in the press.
This analysis is particularly good because of Niedermeyer’s wide knowledge of the car industry, particularly the economic and managing considerations behind production and development (a challenge for Tesla, which has always tried to buck the industry’s established wisdom.)
Niedermeyer goes back again and again to Toyota, a company that built an ethos around understanding the challenges of production, as a sort of foil to Tesla, which strived to position itself as a Silicon Valley challenger to not just internal combustion vehicles but the car business as a whole.
In getting to the heart of the popular conversation around Tesla, Niedermeyer was able to speak to a really impressive set of sources for this book, including an engineer involved with developing production practices for the Roadster who was fired when he couldn’t square his experience at the start-up-like Tesla with how things worked at the automakers who had employed him previously, and Peter Cordaro, whose post on a Tesla fan forum about a manufacturing defect would spark a conflagration of challenges to Tesla’s PR and customer service practices. These first-person accounts help ground a discussion about Tesla’s norm-breaking that has taken on a life of its own online, and helped me in particular understand just how Musk’s public bombast translates into day-to-day operations.
When describing the build-up of the confrontation between Tesla’s bullish backers and the growing community of those shorting the stock in Chapter 8, Niedermeyer spoke with a number of investors to get a sense of what they saw (and didn’t see) in the company from the perspective of professionals in public finance. By getting these sources on the record about their experiences, Niedermeyer is able to demonstrate how the hype that we all see on social media around Tesla is matched by similar patterns amongst “grown-ups” with real skin in the game.
While the book is an impressive and informative account of the early years of Tesla, it must be said that Ludicrous, like the line of cars that come out of Tesla’s plant, is not going to be the answer for everyone. If you came looking for an in-depth review of Tesla’s pattern of growth or a definitive assessment of Musk’s management decisions that could inform an MBA course, this isn’t the book for you. That said, we are still very early in the history of Tesla and the fields in which it operates.
It’s hardly reasonable to expect a book written so soon in the company’s life to provide that kind of depth, but that’s really not what this book is for. This book, with its clear account of how the company overcame its fundraising issues and faced production challenges, is aimed at identifying what differentiates the Tesla story from other automaker origin myths. With clear comparisons to the rise of Detroit’s Big 3 and early innovator Citroën, Niedermeyer has provided a model for understanding how a company like Tesla maneuvers amongst established players and what the rhetorical landscape surrounding such a company shapes and is shaped by that process.
Additionally, Niedermeyer’s account of the confrontation between Tesla’s hardcore supporters and its skeptics is compelling, but it’s important to remember that anyone who has been involved in covering Tesla has been pilloried for positions taken both in favor and against the company’s decisions. Even the hardcore fansites are often slagged on these days for not being positive enough on Tesla.
That kind of pressure is real, and as such I think it is difficult to maintain true neutrality when exposed to it. In the book, Neidermeyer recounts how his critical coverage of Tesla at The Truth About Cars lead to him being branded a “short” by Telsa itself. Niedermeyer maintains that he has never taken a stock position on $TSLA of any kind, but nonetheless it is important to keep the impact of the caustic nature of the discussion around Tesla in mind when reading this book because no one covering Tesla is immune to it.
Still, Niedermeyer’s book really does shine when it comes to organizing what has happened so far into a cogent narrative that can serve as a basis for some more more attempts to understand what exactly Tesla is doing and how we’ll see it later on, when the field gets a little more crowded and the competition gets a little stiffer.
If Niedermeyer is up for it, I’d love to see how the narrative he has woven here holds up once Tesla’s competitors from Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen and others join them on the market.