Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Is Tesla Innovative?

Posted in botch, business, technologies by commorancy on July 16, 2021

I’ve been confronted with this very question many times on Social Media, specifically Twitter. Many people who own Tesla vehicles vehemently insistent that Elon Musk and Tesla’s products are innovative. But, is Tesla really innovative? In short, no. Let’s explore why.

Innovation

via Oxford Dictionary

As a first step, we need to define the word, innovation. As you can see from its definition from Oxford Dictionary, it is defined as ‘a new method, idea, product, etc’.

The difficulty with this definition is that it doesn’t go deep enough to explain what the word new actually means in this definition’s context. This definition assumes the reader will understand the subtle, but important distinction of using the word ‘new’ in this definition.

Many people will, unfortunately, conclude that ‘new’ means ‘brand new’ as in a ‘just manufactured’ new model car. Simply because something is brand spankin’ new doesn’t make it innovative. However, a ‘brand new’ car model might contain some innovative elements, but the technology behind a car’s functional design may not be innovative or new at all… contrary to Oxford’s complicated use of the word ‘new’. As an example, both random cars in general and specifically electric vehicles are not new. In fact, mass produced cars have been the norm since 1901 and electric cars have been prototyped since the 1830s. While those electric prototypes weren’t truly cars in the mass produced sense, they were functional prototypes which showed that the electric vehicle technology is possible, functional and, most importantly, feasible.

You might then be thinking that Tesla was the first to create mass produced electric cars. Again, you’d be wrong. In fact, the first mass produced electric car was General Motor’s EV1, produced in 1996. The EV1 appeared 12 years before the first electric vehicle rolled off the assembly line at Tesla… and Tesla’s cars appeared 178 years after the first electric car prototype appeared. That’s a long time… definitely not ‘new’.

Electric vehicle technology was not at all new when Tesla decided to roll out its all electric vehicles. The only claim to fame that Tesla can profess is that they were able to sort-of Apple-ize their car in such a way that it warps the minds of buyers into believing it is ‘the best thing since sliced bread’. Ultimately, that defines an excellent sales strategy… what Elon Musk is actually known for.

To Tesla’s credit, they were the first viable luxury class vehicle to also claim the electric vehicle moniker. That claim doesn’t necessarily make the vehicle innovative. It makes Tesla’s sales and marketing team innovative in that they can make electric vehicle technology ‘sexy’ for the well-to-do crowd. Before Tesla, luxury car brands mostly avoided making electric vehicles. Even then, being able to successfully market and sell a product doesn’t make that product innovative. It simply means you’re good at selling things.

For example, Steve Jobs was the master at selling Apple products. To be fair, Steve Jobs didn’t really have to do much in the way of hard sells. When Jobs was at the helm, many of Apple’s early products were indeed innovative. If you need an example of innovation, Steve Jobs’s products mostly epitomize it.

Tesla, on the other hand, absconded with several key things to produce its Tesla electric vehicles: 1) Luxury car designs (which already existed), 2) electric vehicles (which already existed) and 3) standard off-the-shelf battery technology (which already existed). None of these three ideas were new in 2008. That Tesla successfully married these things together isn’t considered true innovation. It’s considered incremental innovation. Taking already existing pieces and putting them together to make a successful ‘new’ product is common in many industries. This is incremental in that these things already existed and it was only a matter of time before someone put them together in a cohesive way. Is that innovation? No. Why? If Tesla hadn’t done it, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Bentley or another luxury brand would have at some point. Though, Tesla’s early claim to fame wasn’t even luxury, it was sports cars. However, Tesla has dropped the sports car idea in lieu of being a luxury brand.

Product Innovation Types

I’ll circle back around to the above, but let’s take a break here to understand the two primary types of innovation.

The first type of innovation is breakthrough innovation. This rare type of innovation offers a concept the world has never seen and usually results in a paradigm shift. Example: The Wright Brother’s first flight which brought about the paradigm shift into commercial aviation… a whole new industry emerged as a result.

The second type of innovation is incremental innovation. This much more common type of innovation takes existing ideas and marries them into a single new product. Example: The iPhone.

Some might consider both the iPad and the iPhone as breakthrough innovation. Instead, the first Apple computer would be considered breakthrough innovation and ultimately what, in part, lead to the iPhone and iPad. However and to be fair, both the iPad and iPhone products are technically incremental innovation. Prior to the iPad, there had been several tablet style computers (e.g., GRiD and even the Apple Newton) that, for whatever reason, never really took off. Handheld PDAs were actually a form of tablet. Cell phones were very popular long before the iPhone arrived. The iPhone, like the Tesla, successfully married three concepts: a computer, the cell phone and PDA into what became the smartphone.

However, even though incremental, both the iPhone and the iPad were responsible for a technological computing paradigm shift. The primary innovation seen in these devices was not from the marriage of existing technology, but from the speed, size, weight, high res screen and functionality that the devices offered… particularly when combined with the app store and a reasonable price tag. It’s much more convenient and fast to grab a tablet to quickly search the web than sitting down at a desk and powering up a desktop computer. It is the internal functions and features and flexibility that set these devices well apart from their earlier computer brethren which offered slower computing experiences at higher prices.

Steve Jobs was a master at miniaturizing computers into much smaller versions with reasonable price tags and which included high end features. This strategy is what set Apple, then NeXT, then Apple again… apart from the rest of their competitors. That was with Steve Jobs at the helm. Since Job’s passing, Apple is still attempting to ride Steve Jobs’s coattails, but those coattails are getting raggedy at this point. If Apple doesn’t come up with something truly breakthrough innovative in the next few years, they’re likely to begin losing sales in larger and larger quantities. Even more than this, another upstart company in similar Tesla form will step in front of Apple and usurp the industry. A business cannot keep selling the same devices over and over and expect success to continue. Apple needs another paradigm shift device to keep its success streak going. I digress.

Tesla’s Innovation

Circling back around to Tesla, we should now be able to better understand why what Tesla includes in its vehicles, while luxurious and technologically interesting, is nothing actually very new. It’s new in the sense of being recently manufactured, yes, but the technology itself is old from an innovation sense. In other words, Tesla had no hand in that technology’s development. An example, Tesla’s choice to place a large touch screen panel in the middle of the dashboard, while interesting, is simply considered luxury as touch screen flat panels are not technologically new. What about the all electric car itself? It’s not new either. Remember the 1830s? Remember the EV1? Not new.

What about the battery that powers the car? That battery technology is not new either. Technologically, it’s simply a standard lithium-ion battery built large enough to support operating a motor vehicle. Tesla didn’t design that technology either. Tesla might have had a hand in requesting the battery’s size, weight and power requirements, but that’s not innovation… that’s manufacturing requirements. The lithium-ion battery technology was created and produced much, much earlier in the 1980s. In fact, Akira Yoshino holds the 1983 patent for what is effectively the lithium-ion battery technology still being produced today… yes, even what’s being used in the Tesla.

You may be asking, “So what is innovative about the Tesla?” That’s a good question. Not very much to be honest. The car body’s design is at least proprietary, but functionally utilitarian just as most car bodies produced today are. The pop out door handles might be considered somewhat innovative, but these are born out of luxury, not out of necessity. They look cool, but don’t really serve a truly functional purpose. In this sense, while the handles might be considered innovative, they’re incremental and don’t serve a true purpose other than for aesthetics. The same statement of aesthetics can be said of a lot of both the interior and exterior of the Tesla. Functionally, the Tesla vehicles are cars.

The Tesla cars are designed to give the owner a luxury driving experience both inside and out. The all electric drive train helps reinforce that luxury function due to its torque, performance and acceleration power. Even the charging stations were built out of sales necessity, not out of innovation. You can’t exactly sell many electric vehicles if you can’t charge them easily. The proliferation of the recharge stations was, as I just said, born of necessity. Yes, this infrastructure is important to all future electric vehicles. However, Tesla built them coast to coast to ensure that Tesla owners could at least make a trip cross country without running out of power.

All of what Tesla has built I actually consider ‘smoke and mirrors’ or the ‘Hollywood Effect’. These luxury inclusions are intended to make the buyer feel better about the high purchase price. That the car acts like a highly paid butler, helping do a lot for the driver while on the road is what buyers see and feel. It’s that very luxury experience and those visual seemingly high-tech aesthetics that lure would be buyers into the brand. Buying a car from Tesla is like buying a new iPhone. It gives buyer that same endorphin rush, being able to say you have one. It’s also affords bragging rights because it’s a car brand that is relatively infrequently encountered and, at least according to Tesla buyers, is highly enviable.

People tend to buy Tesla for the same reason they buy and consume Cristal or Dom Perignon. They purchase these expensive brands not because they’re exceptional quality products, but because they afford a certain level of bragging rights because the item can be afforded. As a side note, Cristal and Dom Perignon are decent sparkling wines, but they are not worth the price tag based solely on taste alone. There are much less expensive Champagne and sparkling wines that are equal or better in taste. I’ll let you make of that statement what you will when it comes to Tesla.

Driver Assist

This leads us into the assisted driving feature. This feature is not innovative either. Driving assistance has been available on cars as far back as 2003 with the IPAS feature available on the Toyota Prius and Lexus models. This feature automatically parallel and reverse parks the vehicle. While this is not true assisted driving while on the road, the IPAS would definitely drive the vehicle into the parking space hands-free. IPAS was an important first step in proving that computer assisted driving could work.

Other driving systems which have contributed towards fully assisted driving is lane change detection, collision avoidance, traction control, distance detection, automatic braking and the backup-camera.

Tesla has taken all of these prior computerized driving innovations and, yet again, combined them into a computerized assisted driving. This technology is markedly different from full autonomous self-driving. Assisted driving utilizes all of the above detection systems to allow the driver to remove hands from the wheel, but not remove the driver from the driver’s seat. The driver must still watch the road and make sure the car’s detection systems do not go awry when the driver must be willing to reassert manual control. Because these limited detection systems aren’t fail proof, a driver is still required to take control over the vehicle should the system fail to detect a specific condition that a driver can see and avoid.

Self-Driving Vehicles

Tesla doesn’t presently offer a fully computerized autonomous self-driving vehicle for its consumers. Only driver assist mode is available. Self-driving vehicles do not require a driver. Self-driving autonomous vehicles have an advanced computer system and radar system mounted on the roof. These vehicles are continually scanning for all manner of conditions constantly. The computer is constantly able to correct for any conditions which arise or at least which have been programmed. Self-driving vehicles are substantially less prone to errors than assisted driving, primarily because of Google’s self-driving vehicle efforts. Self-driving types of vehicles do not need a driver sitting the driver’s seat, unlike assisted driving vehicles which still require a driver.

One might think that Google invented this technology. However, one would be wrong. Self-driving vehicles were introduced in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair using a system that required road modification to keep the vehicle situated.

Google was able to, in 2009, adapt this prior concept by using the then computer, current radar technologies and detection systems to allow the car to function autonomously without the need to modify the road itself. However, even though Google was able to create cars that do function properly and autonomously, this technology has yet to be manufactured into consumer grade vehicles…. mostly out of fear that it will fail in unexplained ways. That and that driving laws (and insurance policies) have not yet caught up to the idea of autonomous driver-free vehicles. For example, if there’s no driver and an autonomous car injures or kills someone, who’s at fault? Laws are slowly catching up, but this question still remains.

Tesla and Driver Assist

Let’s circle back around. The reason Google’s autonomous driving technology, now called Waymo, is mentioned in this article is that it began one year after Tesla began operations in 2008, long before Tesla began including assisted driving in their vehicles. Tesla, once again, adopted an already existing technology into their vehicle designs, likely based in part on Google’s successful autonomous vehicles. They didn’t design this mode. They simply adapted an already existing technology design to be useful in a more limited fashion. Again, this isn’t breakthrough innovation, it’s incremental innovation. There is no paradigm shift involved. It’s a utilitarian luxury inclusion in an attempt to allow Tesla to prove how modern and luxurious their vehicles are compared to other luxury brands. Basically, it’s yet another ‘feather in their cap’.

Innovation is Innovation

Unfortunately, no. It’s far, far easier to adapt existing technologies into a design than it is to build a new idea from scratch. For this reason, nothing of what Tesla has built is truly groundbreaking or ‘breakthrough’ in design. More than this, Tesla is a car. A car is a car is a car.

The point in a car is to transport you from point A to point B and back. You can buy a car that’s $5,000 to perform this function or you can buy a car that’s over a $1 million. Both perform this same basic task. The difference in price is the luxury. Do you want to do this task in a thinly walled, loud, tiny bucket of a car or do you want to do it with every creature comfort using top speed? Comfort and performance are the primary differences in price.

With Tesla, there’s nothing truly innovative included in their cars. Luxurious? Check. Performant? Check. Bells and Whistles? Check. Miles per gallon? Whoops.

Distance Driving

One of the great things about gasoline powered vehicles is the ability to travel great distances without stopping too frequently. When you do need to stop, the existing gas station infrastructure is practically every place where you might travel. Granted, there are some dead stretches of roads were you might need to plan your car’s fillups accordingly, else you might be stranded. For the vast majority of roads in the United States, finding a gas station is quick and easy.

With the Tesla, finding recharge stations fare far worse. While the charging infrastructure is improving and growing around the country, it’s still much more limited than gas stations. That means that when distance driving in a Tesla, it’s even more important to plan your travel routes to ensure you can charge your vehicle all along the way.

You have a Model 3 and you say it charges to 100% in about an hour? Sure, but only if you happen to find a V3 Supercharger. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Superchargers available are V2 chargers or older. Even then, the amount of kilowatts of power available to charge your Tesla may be artificially constrainted. The V3 chargers offer up to 250 kW. The V2 chargers offer around 150 kW. Many random chargers you find (not Tesla branded) may only offer between 6 and 20 kW. Considering that 20 is only a fraction of 250, you’ll spend a whole lot of time sitting at that charger waiting on your Model 3 to charge up. It’s great that Tesla has built the faster V3 charger, but you can’t bank on finding these when you need one most. With gas stations, you can at least get some kind of gas and fill up the tank in minutes. With a Tesla, you could be sitting at a charging station for hours waiting to get to 50%.

Around 60 minute charge times sound great for the Model 3, but only when the infrastructure is there to support it. Currently, the V3 chargers are still not the norm.

What does all of the above mean for distance driving? It means that for long distance road trips while in a Tesla, you’ll need to not only plan each charger stop carefully, you’ll need spend time locating the fastest chargers you can find. This allows you to calculate the amount of time it requires to charge your car to 100% at that charger. If you don’t properly plan for where and how long, you could spend way more time at places than you think.

Run out of charge in the middle of nowhere? With services like triple-A, you won’t find them coming to top up your charge. Oh, no. They’ll come grab your prized Tesla, place it on a flatbed and then you’ll be riding in that tow truck to the nearest charge station… which could be hundreds of miles and one very large tow cost away. Once you get there, you’ll be sitting waiting for the charge to complete… and/or attempting to find a motel. Costly. Even with Tesla’s included roadside assistance, don’t expect miracles and you may even be required to pay for that tow.

If you had been driving a hybrid, triple-A could have given you a few gallons to get you to the nearest station to fill up… and then you’d have been on your way quickly.

What are the charge costs?

Honestly, if you have to ask this question, then a Tesla is probably not the right car to buy. However, for the curious, it’s still worth a deeper dive. Unlike gasoline prices which are clearly and conspicuously visible with large price signs towering high above the gas station, neither Superchargers nor standard electric chargers give you this visibility.

In fact, to find out what it will cost to charge your vehicle, you’ll have to visit the recharger and begin poking your way through the touch screen. There are some apps and web sites you can pick a charger location and review its then electric rate, but you might not want to bank on that if you’re planning a trip. Instead, because electric prices can vary dramatically during seasons and demand, you’ll need to check the pricing just before you reach the charger or, better, directly on the charger when you reach it.

Unlike gas stations which allow you to shop around for the best price, chargers don’t really offer that convenience. You pay what you pay.

For a Supercharger, the prices are based on how the energy is doled out to your car. The two methods are kilowatts or kilowatt-hours. Whichever rate system you choose, the energy will work out to the same cost in the end.

If you choose to charge per minute, it is $0.26 per minute above 60 kW. Under 60 kW, it is only $0.13. If you charge by kWh, it is $0.28 per kWh drawn from the charger.

https://www.motorbiscuit.com/how-much-does-it-cost-tesla-supercharger/

In case you’re wondering… No, it is not free to charge up your Tesla. However, Tesla does sometimes offer free limited time charging incentives at Superchargers when attempting to up quarter sales. You’ll need to discuss these kinds of incentives with Tesla before you sign on the dotted line.

Superchargers and Battery Wear

Battery technologies are finicky. It’s well known that the faster you charge a battery, the faster it wears out. Yes, this goes for Tesla car batteries. What that means is that while visiting a V3 Supercharger is convenient for topping up your battery quickly, it’s not so great on the battery itself. The more you visit these fast charge ports, the quicker your car battery may need to be replaced. This means you should temper your exuberance for fast chargers and utilize much slower overnight charging whenever possible.

How much is a replacement battery pack? Well, let’s hope you bought the extended warranty because here’s where things get really pricey. Obviously, under warranty, there will be no cost. If the warranty has expired or if you have bought a used Tesla without a warranty, you’re on your own. The cost to replace a battery pack can range from $3,000 to over $13,000 sans labor. If you’re considering buying a used Tesla, you should confirm if any existing warranty is transferable to the new owner and confirm how much is left. You shouldn’t confirm this with the seller as they can tell you anything. Instead, confirm this information with Tesla directly by calling and asking.

If no warranty is available, you should contact a third party warranty company (i.e., CarShield) and discuss whether the battery is a covered part under that warranty before you buy the car. Being required to spend $16,000 after buying a used Tesla (or any electric car) is not really a pleasant surprise. You’ll want to make sure you can acquire some kind of warranty that covers that battery part as soon as you buy that Tesla.

Commuter Vehicle

Let’s discuss a situation where Tesla does function decently enough. A Tesla is a reasonable, if not somewhat costly commuter vehicle. It’s great to get around town, drive to work, run errands, pick up the kids and take them to soccer practice. For long distance driving, owning a Tesla is unnecessarily more complicated, particularly if you choose to tour remote areas of the country without access to charge stations. All of this complication can be easily avoided by choosing a gas vehicle or a gas hybrid. As a commuter vehicle, a Tesla is an okay choice. However, I’d suggest there are plenty of other vehicles, gas, hybrid and even hybrid / electric, that suffice for commuting. Many of these choices are not nearly as costly as the purchase of a Tesla. But, of course, you won’t get all of the Tesla niceties with those other vehicles.

A Green Company?

With the recent trend toward companies seeking to being green and offering green technologies, it’s funny (odd) that Tesla chose not to be very green. There are a number of problems that prevent Tesla from being a green all around company. By green, let me define that.

I know, you might thinking, “How can an all-electric vehicle not be green?” Bear with me.

A Green company is a company that implements processes to reduce waste, to offer more compostable materials in packaging and implement processes to reduce its own waste and offer designs which help reduce carbon emissions and other environmental pollutants. Apple is a good example of this. Apple moved from using plastic packaging materials to paper materials which compost more fully. Though, even Apple isn’t all that green considering the eWaste afforded by Apple’s insistence at replacing iPhones every single year.

One might further think, “Well, isn’t Tesla green by using batteries instead of gasoline?” You would think that would be true, wouldn’t you? Let’s examine.

What about those Li-On batteries? The secret involving these batteries is that to manufacture that one battery, it produces 74% more emissions than a standard car does. Once the battery is manufactured, the consumption of greenhouse gasses drops to zero for that specific battery, but the manufacturing of each battery is very dirty. I guess Tesla car buyers don’t really care much about how much of a carbon footprint was required to build that luxury Tesla? It gets worse.

Power Grids derive most of their energy from fossil fuel sources. Up to a max 20% of all grid energy generated is from clean renewables such as Solar, Wind and Water. Nuclear energy further makes up another 20%. The remaining ~60% is still generated from fossil fuel sources including coal, natural gas and burning petroleum products. That means that every time you plug your Tesla into a grid charger, at least 60% of that energy consumed is contributing to greenhouse gasses.

Your Tesla doesn’t have a tailpipe, but it grows one while your Tesla is charging from the grid.

Tesla and the Power Grid

With both California and Texas now experiencing regular power problems due to various politically motivated reasons, it is also becoming obvious that the aging United States power grid infrastructure is in need of a major overhaul. For every plug-in electric car sold (not just Tesla), this puts another car onto the grid to suck even more energy. As more and more all electric cars are manufactured and sold, that only means even more added load to that aging power grid. Tesla is a heavy contributor to this problem due to its much faster (denser) powered requirements for fast charging.

At some tipping point, there will be too many cars charging for the grid to handle. The formerly off-peak hours in the wee morning hours will become the peak hours because that’s when all of the cars will be charging. Eventually, all of these charging electric cars will be drawing more current than homes draw in the middle of the day. This will be compounded by Tesla’s ever more ravenous need to speed charging up. Right now, the V3 chargers pull 250 kW. The V4 chargers will likely want to pull 500kW. V5 chargers maybe 1000kW?

When will this need-for-speed end? This is the same problem that Internet Services faced in the early 2000s. The infrastructure wasn’t designed for 10GB to every home. It still isn’t. That’s why broadband services still don’t offer 10GB home speeds. They barely offer 1GB.. and even if you do buy such a link, they don’t guarantee those speeds (read the fine print).

The point is that the more data that can be pulled in an ever shorter amount of time, the more problems it causes for the ISP over that very short time. The same for energy generation. The more energy consumed over an ever shorter amount of time, the more energy that must be generated to keep up with that load. There is a tipping point where energy generators won’t be able to keep up.

Is Tesla working with the energy generation companies? Highly unlikely. Tesla is most likely designing in a bubble of their own making. Tesla’s engineers assume that energy generation is a problem that the electric companies need to solve. Yet, energy generation has finite limits. Limits that, once reached, cannot be exceeded without expensive additional capacity… capacity that the energy companies must pay to build, not Tesla. Capacity that takes time to build and won’t come online quickly (read years). Capacity costs that will be handed down to consumers in the form of even more rate increases. Yes, all of those Tesla vehicles consuming energy will end up being the source of higher energy rate increases. Thanks, Elon!

It’s highly unlikely that Tesla knows exactly where those energy generation limits are and they probably don’t want to know. It’s also the reason many recharge stations limit power consumption draw current to around 6-10 kW max. Those limits are intentional and are likely not to be lifted any time soon. If Tesla can manage to get even a handful of V3 Superchargers set up around the United States, I’d be surprised. Even then, these rechargers may be artificially limited to significantly less than the 250 kW required for that 60 minute rapid charge in a Model 3. Power companies may simply not be able to provide that charge rate for perhaps hundreds or thousands of rechargers.

Hope meets Reality

The difficulty is that Tesla intends to build these ever faster rechargers, but then may not be able to actually get them functional in the wild due to the overly rapid amount of energy they can consume. This is where reality meets design… all for Tesla to attempt to get close to the 5-8 minutes it takes to fill up a tank of gas. Yes, let’s completely stress our aging power grid infrastructure to the breaking point all for the sake of trying to charge a bunch of Teslas in 5 minutes? Smart. /s

Instead of producing ever faster and faster rechargers, Tesla should be researching and innovating better battery technologies to reduce power consumption and improve driving distance through those improved batteries. How about hiring battery engineers to solve this difficult problem rather than taking the easy route by simply sucking down ever more energy faster from an already overloaded power grid?

With better batteries, instead of Tesla contributing to the problem of global warming by forcing ever more energy generation faster, they could be innovating to reduce this dilemma by making more efficient and faster charging batteries using lower power consumption rates. Building better and more efficient batteries? That’s innovation. Faster recharging by overburdening infrastructure? That’s callous and reckless… all in the name of capitalism. I guess as long as Tesla can make its sales numbers and Wall Street remains happy, it doesn’t matter how non-green Tesla really is.

Pollution

One thing I’ve not yet fully discussed is, you guessed it, pollution. This aspect is part of being a green company. Yet, instead of trying to make Teslas charge faster and drive farther by innovating improved battery technologies, Tesla builds the low-hanging fruit of faster 250 kW rechargers to improve the speed of battery charging by consuming ever more grid energy faster.

Let’s understand the ramification of this. The faster the batteries charge, the more power must be generated at that point in time to handle the load. The more power generated, the more concentration of pollutants that go into the air to support that generation. That doesn’t say ‘green company’. It says callous, reckless, careless, dirty company in it for the money, not for helping the planet.

Overtaxing the power grid is a recipe for disaster, if only from a climate change perspective. There are plenty of other ways to look at this, but this one is the biggest problem against what Tesla is doing. It’s also, again not innovative. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Renewables

Energy sources like Wind, Solar and Water are great generation alternatives. But, they’re not always feasible. Texas is a very good example of how these renewables can fail. The mass array of Wind Turbines in North Texas and the panhandle were found to be easily damaged by both freezing temperatures and excessive winds. Clearly, these expensive turbines need to be weather proofed and managed accordingly.

For example, to avoid the freezing conditions, the motors needed heaters to keep them from freezing up. It’s not like some of the energy generated from these turbines couldn’t be used and stored locally to keep heaters operating. Additionally, high wind detectors could move the blades into a neutral position so there’s less of a chance of high wind damage. Because Texas apparently didn’t implement either of these two mitigation strategies, that left a large amount of these wind turbines damaged and out of commission. This fact meant the Texas power grid was unable to serve the entire state enough energy… thus, blackouts.

Solar, on the other hand, requires a large amount of land to “farm.” What that means is that land needs to be allocated to set up large amounts of solar panel arrays. Last time I looked, land wasn’t cheap and neither are those solar panels. This means a high amount of expense to draw in solar energy.

Unlike wind, which can potentially blow 24 by 7, if you can get 5-6 hours of solid sunlight in a day, that’s the best you can hope for. This means that a solar panel can only capture a fraction of the amount of energy that a 24 / 7 wind turbine can continuously capture and provide.

Water energy can also be harnessed, but only using large dam systems. This means, once again, specific land and water requirements. For example, the Hoover dam provides about 458,333 kW continuous, which is enough continuous power to operate around 1,559 V3 Superchargers concurrently, taking into account a 15% power loss due to transmission lines and transformers. This also assumes that dam’s power is dedicated to that purpose alone. Hint: it isn’t. Only a fraction of that power would be allowed to be used for that purpose, which means far fewer Superchargers. That power is also combined with other power generation types, which makes up the full power grid supply.

The point here is that renewables, while great at capturing limited amounts of energy, are not yet ready to take over for fossil fuel energy generation. In fact, the lion’s share of energy generation is still produced by burning coal, natural gas and petroleum… all of which significantly impact and pollute the environment.

Dangerous

One thing I’ve not yet discussed is the dangers of owning an electric vehicle. One danger that might not seem apparent is its battery. These lithium-ion batteries can become severe fire hazards once breached. If that Tesla lands in an accident and the battery ruptures, it’s almost assured to turn into a Car-B-Cue. If you’re pinned in the vehicle during that Car-B-Cue, it could turn out horrific. Lithium-ion fires are incredibly dangerous. Though, while gasoline is also highly flammable, a gas tank is much less likely to rupture and catch fire in an accident.

Innovation Circle

To come full circle, it’s now much easier to understand why Tesla is less an innovative car company and more of a sales and marketing gimmick. After all, you could buy plenty of other luxury car brands offering sometimes better bells and whistles. Luxury car brands have been around for years. Tesla is relatively new car company, having started in 2008. It’s just that Tesla has built its brand based on it having “sexy” technology that other brands didn’t have, but have since acquired.

Both gas and hybrid vehicles offer better distance and more readily accessible infrastructure to get you back onto the road when low on fuel. It is this feature that is still a primary motivator for most car buyers. Trying to finagle where and how to charge an electric vehicle can be a real challenge, particularly if you live in a condo or apartment and not a home. It’s worse if you choose to live in the boonies.

Where does Tesla stand?

The question remains, what does a Tesla vehicle do well? As a short distance commuter car, it’s perfectly fine for that purpose. It’s a bit pricey for that use case, but it functions fine. The convenience of being able to plug it in when you get home is appealing, assuming you have a recharge port installed at home. If you are forced to leave it in a random parking lot to charge overnight, that’s not so convenient. How do you get home from there? Walk? Uber? It kinda defeats the purpose of owning an expensive Tesla.

When purchasing a Tesla, you have to consider these dilemmas. What’s the problem with living in a condo or apartment? Many complexes have no intention of setting up rechargers, thus this forces you to leave your car at a parking lot charger perhaps blocks away. If the complex offers garages with 110v circuits, you can use these to charge, but extremely slowly. This means that to own a Tesla, certain things need to line up perfectly to make owning a Tesla convenient. Otherwise, it’s an expensive hassle.

Innovation isn’t just about the product itself, it’s how the product gets used in a wide array of use cases. If the product’s design fails to account for even basic ownership cases, the design wasn’t innovative enough. That’s where the Tesla sits today. That’s why Tesla is still considered niche car and is not generally useful across-the-board.

Calling Tesla and, by extension, Elon, innovative gives that company and Elon way too much credit. Elon’s claim to fame is that he picked a business that happened to receive a lightning strike. This is mostly because he’s an excellent sales person. Some people can sell pretty much anything they are handed. Elon is one of those people. While he’s an excellent salesman, he’s not so much of an excellent innovator. Slapping together a bunch of existing off-the-shelf technologies shouldn’t be considered innovative, particularly when you forget to take into account too many ownership cases where the final product is inconvenient to own and operate.

Home Use

The kind of buyer who can afford to buy into a Tesla is typically affluent enough to afford a home. For these people, more convenience is afforded owning a Tesla. Not only can you spend the money to install a home charging port that charges at whatever rate you can afford, homeowners can choose to park and charge their vehicles at will. This is important to understand.

Homeowners with acreage, can also choose to set up such renewable energy sources as wind turbines and solar panels. These energy generation systems can offset some of the power consumed while charging up an electric vehicle.

About renewables, one residential based wind turbine may produce a maximum of 10 kW of energy during optimal conditions. That’s about the same amount of energy provided by most third-party non-Tesla recharge ports found on parking lots. While it may take 60 minutes to charge a Model 3 using a V3 250 kW recharge port, at 10 kw or 4% of that 250 kW charge rate, it would take many hours to charge. In fact, at that much slower recharge rate, it might take 8-16 hours to fully charge.

To offset that, you would need to buy and install multiple wind turbines to increase the energy generated. Wind turbines are not at all cheap to buy or erect. Having enough land to line them up may be even more of a problem. In other words, you’d probably spend way more than the cost of your Tesla just to build enough infrastructure to support charging that car in anything close to timely. Is it worth it? Depends on the person.

To even approach the 250 kW level of charge rate, you have to rely on the power grid or install a diesel or natural gas generator. However, installing a fossil fuel generator is no better or cheaper than using the power grid.

As I said above, a Tesla grows a tailpipe the moment it begins recharging from fossil fuel sources.

Is a Tesla vehicle worth it?

As a car for car’s sake, it’s fine. It does its job well. It’ll get you from place to place. It has all of the standard amenities needed, such as heating and air conditioning and it keeps you out of the rain. It has luxury bells and whistles also, such as the touch screen panel and assisted driving.

Everyone must decide for themselves what they consider whether a product is “worth it”. Owning specific cars is mostly a subjective experience. Does it feel right when sitting in the driver’s seat? Is it comfortable? Can you see easily out of the windows? Do the mirrors offer safe views all around the vehicle? As a driver, only you can sit in a car an decide if the car is the correct fit for you and your family.

I’ve personally sat in cars that while they appeared roomy from the outside, caused my knees to bang up against the dash or door frame or other areas upon entry, exit or while driving. It’s no fun exiting a vehicle to scraped knees or banged up shins.

Car buying is an experience that can only be described as trying to find a glove that fits. Once you find the right glove, the deal is done. I would never buy a car based on brand alone. I buy cars that fit all manner of criteria, including comfort, budget, safety, warranty, reviews and cost for maintenance. Nothing’s worse than taking your car to the dealer only to be slapped with a $1000 fee each and every time.

I’m not saying that owning a Tesla isn’t “worth it”. It may well be “worth it” for specific reasons. It’s just that the one reason to own a Tesla should not be innovation. The car truly offers few innovative features. Another reason is its alleged zero carbon footprint. Yes, it has a zero carbon footprint as long as you never charge it. Can’t do that and have a functional car. As soon as it begins charging from the power grid, the car is no greener than a gas powered car. Because a Tesla must charge for hours at slower recharge rates, that’s way longer than most 2-4 hour daily commutes to and from work in a gas powered vehicle.

Simply because you don’t see the pollution going into the air out of your car doesn’t mean it’s not happening while that car sits in your garage charging.

Product Innovation

As I said above, you shouldn’t buy a Tesla because you think it’s innovative. It’s not. However, it goes beyond this. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a car because it was “innovative.” I choose cars based on other more important criteria, such as gas mileage, comfort, warranty, performance, ease of maintenance and other functional criteria. This typically means I’m also not brand loyal. I find the car that fits what I need in the budget that I can afford. That could be a Ford, Chevy, Toyota or whatever car that works best. Every model year yields new cars that offer different features.

Tesla believes that they can craft a brand like Apple, with brand loyal fans also like Apple. Apple is a unique beast. Their brand loyalty goes very, very deep. These brand loyal folks will buy whatever Apple releases, regardless of whether it’s the best value. Likewise, Tesla hopes to build their company based on this same type of year-over-year brand loyalty. Except there’s one problem: who buys a new car every year?

However, Tesla has not proven itself to be an innovative car company. They can make cars, true enough. But, are those cars truly innovative? Not really. Even Apple’s product innovation has come to a standstill. The latest iPad, for example, removed the TouchID home button in favor of FaceID simply to remove the home button from the bezel. So then, along comes COVID-19 and thwarts FaceID by wearing a simple mask. TouchID is a better COVID alternative because you don’t need to cover your fingertips. FaceID seems like a great idea until it isn’t.

Tesla needs to consider more breakthrough innovation and less incremental innovation. Hire people with the chops to build superior battery technology. Hire people who can design and build more efficient drive motors. Hire people to figure out how to embed solar panels into the paint so you can have both an aesthetically pleasing paint job and charge your car while sitting or driving in the sun.

There are plenty of ways to recapture small amounts of energy, such as wind, solar and regenerative braking to extend the driving distance. These don’t need to fully charge the battery, but instead are used to extend the charge of the battery and add distance. Heck, why not install a simple generator that uses gasoline, propane or even natural gas? This generator doesn’t need to charge the battery to 100%. Again, it is simply used to extend the range to get more miles from the car. These are just a few simple, but profound improvement ideas. There are plenty more ideas that can be explored to make the Tesla cars, not just technologically luxurious, but truly innovative.

These more breakthrough innovative designs are missing from the Tesla. These are ideas that would make a Tesla car much more functional in all areas of driving, not simply commute driving. In fact, I’d like to see Tesla build a gasoline powered vehicle. Stop relying on electric and take the dive into building cars based on all fuel types. Does Cadillac keep its car line artificially limited to one type of motor? No. How about Bentley? How about Porsche or Lamborghini? No. These car companies innovate by not artificially constraining themselves to a single type of technology. This gives those car companies an edge that allows them to install whatever technology is best for a specific model vehicle. That Tesla is artificially constraining itself to electric only is a questionable, self-limiting business decision.

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Can Tesla survive?

Posted in business, california by commorancy on March 28, 2018

Investors have been overly exuberant about Telsa. By that I mean, because Tesla set up shop in Silicon Valley rather than Detroit, many investors see Tesla as a ‘tech company’. Folks outside the Bay Area, however, see Tesla as a car company. Let’s explore.

Car Company vs Tech Company

For whatever reason, too many people see Tesla as a tech startup. The fact is, Tesla is in no way a tech startup. It is a car company. Tesla has, so far, provided no new tech to the world. Cars, in fact, are not in any way new technology. Worse, there’s nothing new about Tesla’s cars that have not been done before. The only claim to fame that Tesla has is its partnership with the Lotus design team to design and help produce the Tesla Roadster. If the Roadster looks amazingly like a Lotus Elise, now you know why. But, paying for someone else to design your vehicle’s interior and exterior isn’t innovative, it just means you have money.

Let’s also consider even though Tesla decided to go electric in its vehicles early on, it is by no means the first electric vehicle to market. Tesla’s decision wasn’t without a significant amount of peril or adversity, adversity that continues to this day. For example, gas powered cars have huge infrastructure around the globe to buy fuel. In 5-8 minutes, you’re fueled up and ready to go again for hundreds of miles on a single tank. Unfortunately, charging electric vehicle batteries is a laboriously slow process by comparison. Sure, even with a Tesla Supercharger, you’re still stuck charging your vehicle for at least 30 minutes to get a 65% charge (about 170 miles). If you want a 100% charge, you’ll be there a whole lot longer. If it’s not a Supercharger, then plan to spend a whole lot more time there.

If the 30 or so minutes you must wait is at a time when it’s convenient (i.e., you’re stopping for dinner anyway), then that’s great. If it happens to be when you’re pressed for time, you’re not going to be a happy camper. If you don’t plan your trip properly or if you get tripped up by construction, you may find yourself off course without a charging station handy. Then where are you?

So far, all of the things I’ve mentioned above have nothing to do with tech and everything to do with usability. Specifically, car usability. More specifically, car usability with regards to electric vehicles which charge slowly and offer very little nationwide infrastructure. This is the adversity that Tesla is up against.

Pushing Boulders Uphill

Tesla has a long way to go before the US has electric infrastructure at a saturation where electric cars can even come close to replacing gas powered cars. That’s not to say it can’t happen sometime in the future, but Tesla is pretty much alone in this and has given up several times along the way. Yes, Nissan, Toyota, Mini and Chevy have all introduced electric vehicles, but they are the outliers. They aren’t pushing for nationwide charging coverage. These vehicles have not yet become the bread-and-butter vehicles that keep these brands afloat. Every car manufacturer, other than Tesla, sells gas powered vehicles. With Tesla’s electric-only approach, it is sink or swim… and currently, Tesla is pretty much just treading water. Tesla hasn’t even tried hedging its bets by producing an alternative fuel assist hybrid to augment its slow recharge times and offer a vehicle with much longer distance. In fact, by not embracing such a strategy seems to be terribly remiss on their part.

For Tesla, this should be considered self-imposed adversity. Why not invest in producing a car that accepts natural gas, gasoline, alcohol or even hydrogen? I think we’ve already seen that Tesla has pretty much pushed the limits of its electric vehicle paradigm as far as it can go.

Expensive Bells and Whistles

I can hear the throngs of Tesla owners now… groaning at this article. Wake up! You bought a $100k commuter car. Sure, it has that nice 17″ (now dated) display in the middle of the dash and a few interior niceties, but it’s a car. A car is a car is a car. It takes you from point A to point B. Does it matter what bells and whistles it offers inside? You’re not buying the functionality of the technology, you’re buying the functionality of the car. Worse, it’s not that this technology hasn’t already existed in a car before Tesla and it will definitely exist in many cars in the future. Just look at the Prius. It’s not 17″, but it definitely had an in-dash display from the beginning.

Don’t be fooled by the Silicon Valley hype. Tesla isn’t a tech company, it is a car company. They don’t offer innovative technical solutions or innovative technical products. They offer a car (or rather, many models of cars). A car, I might add, that is from a brand that has yet to prove itself as a long term car brand. Let’s take the Saturn car brand as a prime example. When Saturn came about, its claim to fame was all of the hand-holding and attention they gave new car owners. Where is Saturn now? Dead. The company ceased producing cars in 2009 and closed its doors in 2010. Its sales model wasn’t sustainable. Its cars were mediocre.

Can Tesla Survive?

Is Tesla’s model sustainable? That depends on Elon Musk. Once Elon finally admits to himself, his employees and the rest of the world that Tesla is, in fact, a car company and not a tech company, he will be able to realize what he needs to do to take Tesla to the next level. The problem right now is that many investors in Tesla see them as a tech stock, not a car company. Tesla is not a tech stock. Let me repeat that. Tesla IS NOT a tech stock. Don’t fool yourself that Tesla is anything other than a car company, like any company out of Detroit or Japan or anywhere else in the world where car manufacturing exists.

Fundamentally, Tesla has been battling the infrastructure issue. Elon simply hasn’t been able to gain any substantial traction for Tesla’s electric plan throughout the continental United States. Sure, there are Tesla Supercharges in select areas, areas requiring you to plan your trip well in advance to ensure you can find chargers all along the way. If you find yourself off the Supercharger path, you could literally end up stranded in the middle of nowhere with no way to get a charge. If your car happens to break down, then what? Better have AAA with its longest distance towing option as you might find yourself sitting in the cab of a tow truck being hauled to the next Supercharger station.

Infrastructure has not been a friend at all to Tesla. Let’s understand a little better why. Electric cars, while they are clean vehicles, are not clean on the environment. Instead of pushing the pollution out of the tailpipe, it is now being pushed out of the exhaust stacks at electric generation facilities. Tesla (and other electric car makers) need to understand that the pollution doesn’t stop, it just moves to a different location. If California’s electricity were produced from 100% clean, renewable resources, I’d be writing something different here (at least for California). Instead, that’s a pipe dream. California still receives much of its electric generation from fossil fuels which is used to charge up a Tesla (or any electric plugin vehicle), less than ideal for pollution. This is why the government hasn’t hopped on board with bringing electric infrastructure to the forefront. On top of that, there’s no incentive from gasoline producers to push this agenda. So, where would those incentives come from? The government (and ultimately, all of us via our tax dollars). I don’t want to have to pay to build a huge electric infrastructure raising my taxes.

Tesla’s Failures

Ultimately, Tesla had planned to introduce a battery swap program to help reduce charge times. However, Tesla had to admit that this was a failed pipe dream. They were forced to drop the idea entirely. This is where Tesla made its first and most important mistake. Apple releases products that it feels are good for users. They don’t care if people like or dislike them. That was Jobs’s MO. He decided on behalf of the public what we should like. If you didn’t personally like it, you went someplace else. Tesla should have introduced the battery swap option in spite of the complaints, costs or problems. Push the idea out regardless. Drive the market to adopt the idea instead of caving into market pressures. This is where Elon completely differs from Jobs and Apple. Though, Jobs was arguably a marketing visionary. Elon is, at best, a huckster. There is literally nothing visionary at all about the Tesla cars being produced. Modern yes, visionary no.

Once you understand the difference between the words “modern” and “visionary”, you’ll quickly understand that what makes a Tesla vehicle attractive is its amenities. These same types of amenities are those that drive the sales of Lotus, Lamborghini, Maserati, Bentley, Cadillac, Mercedes Benz and even Lexus… i.e., luxury car brands. Tesla is less about being an electric vehicle and more about becoming a luxury car brand. Luxury is why you buy Tesla. That’s why you buy any type of luxury car. Again, don’t kid yourself. It’s not the technology, it’s the luxury. Luxury, I might add, that comes with a fairly steep price (both monetarily and time wise). Yes, it costs around $60k-$100k, but that’s not the half of it. You also spend a fair amount of time not even being able to use the vehicle because it’s hooked to the charger. With a gas powered vehicle, its downtime is measured in minutes. With Tesla, its downtime is measured in hours. When I say downtime, I’m strictly talking about the time it takes to ‘refuel’ it, not mechanical breakdowns which are a whole different bag.

Since most people don’t have Superchargers available at their homes, they are subject to longer charge cycles. This means you need to plan for this. Don’t come home on low charge and forget to charge it. You’ll be in a world of hurt the following day when you need to get to work. Tesla is a car brand that isn’t completely worry free. You must take the time to plan your day and when to charge. If you forget even once, you’re going to be late for work.

Tesla as a Commuter Car

Considering all of the above and the ~256 mile range on a charge makes Tesla not ideal for long distance travel, at least not without proper trip planning. It’s a great about-town car, but for long distance travel, I’d suggest owning a vehicle with a gas charger. A gas charger vehicle means you can stop at any gas station to refuel the power generator. Our alternative fuel infrastructure may not be optimal today, but it is the infrastructure we are stuck with for the moment. Trying to find alternative fuels like propane, hydrogen or natural gas could leave you just as stranded as electric alone. With a gas car, you can travel anywhere there is a gas station and refuel in minutes. This infrastructure is far and wide and everywhere.

Ultimately, this lack of electric infrastructure relegates Tesla vehicles to commuter cars as their best use case. For me, justifying spending $60-100k for a commuter car is way too much. Consider that for those of us who also live in apartment complexes means leaving our expensive Tesla vehicles sitting idle on dark parking lots to fully charge, then walking away. Not ideal. You pretty much have to own a home and install a Tesla specific charger to get decent charge times and know your car is safe. It’s also fairly inconvenient leaving your car sitting on a parking lot for several hours only to have to go back when it’s done and pick it up.

Many apartment complexes are way behind the times, but they are not the exception. Let’s consider the infrastructure that Tesla has built since the first Roadster was introduced. Let’s just say, it’s not much. It’s better than it was, but it is no where near where it should have been at this point. This is the primary reason Tesla will fail, unless they change their ideas and embrace the fact that they are not only car company, but a luxury car brand. This is the reason other car companies will do better than Tesla with their everyday electric vehicles. Tesla is a luxury brand that only families of a certain affluence can afford. Vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are the everyday electric cars. These are vehicles that are both affordable and offer better value for the money than Tesla’s short distance expensive luxury vehicle.

Oh, but the Model X has gull wings you say? Really, that’s something you’re going to argue? Ok, let’s argue it. If you have kids, these doors are entirely unsafe for little fingers. Sure, Tesla may claim safety features, but do you really trust your kid’s little fingers against an electric door closing mechanism? Go ahead, I dare you.

Safety Track Record

Tesla is a fairly new car company founded in 2003. It never produced cars before 2006. Its first vehicle is the Tesla Roadster. Tesla has had difficulties keeping up with demand for the Roadster. Its first commercially successful vehicle was the Model S introduced in 2008, Tesla’s second model vehicle. Other models have since followed. And yes, I realize the ~$33,000 Model 3 is on the way… but they’re having production problems with this model. It could be years before you see your preorder.

Basically, what Tesla is making is all new without the benefit of years of manufacturing experience. This means that testing safety features in its vehicles may not be a top priority. Let’s consider the safety of lithium-ion batteries when in a crash. Actually, let’s scale that back a little. Just by poking a hole into your cell phone’s lithium-ion battery will cause noxious fumes, possible fire and/or explosion. Let’s scale that up to electric cars. If the battery in your Tesla is compromised due to an accident, you could easily find your car on fire, electrocuted or in an explosion. While this is not exclusive to Tesla’s electric cars, the size of Tesla’s batteries could make them particularly unsafe. It could also mean that if you’re injured in a Tesla, first responders may need to secure their own personal safety against your vehicle’s battery before using the jaws-of-life to extract you from the vehicle. This precious time lost could mean the difference between life or death.

You’re exposing your family’s safety to Tesla each and every day you drive it. Ford, Chevy, GM and even Toyota are brands that have existed for decades. These companies fully understand the concept of proper safety design and of recalls, lawsuits and defects. Unfortunately, Tesla has only had just a few years to gain this knowledge. Yes, they have hired seasoned industry vets to help get their vehicles to be their safest quickly, but the question isn’t what they added, but what they missed. They’re a new car company with new growing pains. Sure, you can hire expertise, but can you be sure of what you missed? Who really knows? Tesla has been relatively lucky that they have not yet seen an egregious safety failure on all of their vehicles. The question is, have they done it right or have they been lucky or it is just a matter of time?

Worse, could Tesla survive such an huge safety recall in all of their vehicles? Who really knows? Sure, their company is highly valuated, but that doesn’t mean they have the cash to support a massive lawsuit or an expensive recall. Ultimately, when you buy into Tesla, you’re buying into all of this. You should think long and hard about whether this is the car for you. Don’t buy it because it drives nice or because the seats are comfortable or because dashboard looks cool, buy it because it makes the most sense for your budget, the way you intend to use it and your family’s safety.

Can Tesla survive? This depends on whether they can truly get beyond their ‘tech company’ mentality. Tesla is a car company. At some point, they’ll have to admit this. Once they admit this, then they can truly begin to take their cars to the next level. If not, then perhaps Tesla is just a flash in the carburetor.

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