On Tesla, Electric Cars and Sustainability
The planet is in an ecological crisis. Global warming, pollution, plastic in the wild, wildlife extinction and many other environmental issues are the symptoms of a society that is living beyond its means. Generally speaking there are three main ways we can tackle this existential crisis. I would generally say that most people fit into three categories with regards to our environmental issues. The largest and most important set mostly ignores the crisis and keeps on living. Eventually something will break and civilization will no longer be able to maintain its current level of quality of life, but until then all is honkey dorey. The second and perhaps most vocal set of people are the degrowthers. This group believes that the solution is to consume less goods and services, live in smaller homes, eat organic and even have less children. This group is small as a percentage of the population but they often get the most media attention and draw the most ridicule from the first group of people. The third set are the technologists or high modernists who believe that technology can solve our problems. This set points to our transition away from whale oil, coal heating other outdated technologies to show that yes, we can make a transition to clean and efficient technology. This last group is probably the smallest, but has the most power to move society forward.
People are change averse. For a variety of biological and societal reasons most people lean towards conservative policies. I do not mean right wing policies, though the two can be conflated, but rather maintenance of the current system. The vast majority of the population looks at the way things were, the way things are and can extrapolate a bit – but they cannot see very far past a short term change. We have only to look at all the industries that have been upended in the last 20 years – digital cameras, music (iPod), retail stores (Amazon), cars (Tesla), movies (Netflix), to see that despite clear signs of potential applications of technology – most people and companies did not see these radical changes coming.
Not not only do people resist change, some people actively resist it. In the case of Tesla and electric cars it has completely blown my mind the levels of active resistance to electric vehicles. I have followed Tesla very closely since its inception in 2006. The resistance to Tesla, especially between 2006 – 2017, was ENORMOUS. I cannot stress this enough. Tesla was undercut by the media in a famous article in the NY Times as well as on the popular car television show Top Gear. These two articles (and others like it) were hit jobs on Tesla and aimed to destroy the credibility of Tesla and more generally, electric cars. I do not think they were in cahoots with the oil industry, but the authors certainly demonstrated active resistance and a desire to destroy an idea. In many ways, this hit job was reminiscent of what the media, public and government did to the first mass market electric car, the GM EV1. The death of that electric project was well documented in the film, “Who killed the electric car?“.
While the media was attacking Tesla an even greater foe tried to kill it. The finance industry took unprecedented short positions against Tesla. They sold Tesla stock without owning it in an attempt to crush it. I ask, what is more evil than crushing a sustainable future for our children using your financial power? I had numerous arguments with short sellers including friends and family who all bet and hoped that Tesla and electric cars would fail. It drove me completely insane. Who is against progress you ask? The culprits start with financial interests but extend to a more general conservative public. This aversion to change and lack of imagination is the primary force that has held up most of human progress.
To overcome these massive obstacles there were two options – government support and building a dramatically superior product with impeccable strategy. The only country that has taken an aggressive pro-EV position has been China. Many countries have offered a variety of tax credits,loans and subsidies to the electric car industry, but no country has done as much as China. Today, China has millions of EVs on its road and number is growing very fast. Their policy forces companies to produce and import EVs and local governments have strong incentives to deploy electric buses. In general, the EVs in China have not been of the quality of a Tesla, but they have produced much more – from scooters to articulated buses. That being said, companies such as Nio and BYD are fast catching up to Tesla. Tesla’s strategy was outlined very clearly in Elon’s ten year plan (original (2006), part 2 (2016)). Their plan to build high performance electric cars that were sexy and that had fast recharging stations has worked, but it is only just a start. The larger effect of Tesla is that it forced the biggest producer to commit to EV (Volkswagon) and has pushed others (GM, Ford, Hyundai) to head in that direction too. Tesla also encouraged a series of startup car companies with great promise (Rivian, Nio, and others). In short, China and Tesla are responsible for converting all transportation to electric vehicles. I believe that most new cars will be electric by 2035 and thank god/Elon/XiJiping for that.
Electric cars alone cannot save the planet (they will likely reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14% and improve smog and respiratory issues in cities dramatically), but they are a key driver. We also need to switch energy production to clean energy (mostly solar + batteries) and improve conservation of wild spaces and wild life. We also need to make our food chain more sustainable (less meat) and convert our homes to the Passiv high energy efficiency standard. The broader point is that we need to develop technology to allow all humans to live sustainably with high quality of life.
Beyond greenhouse gas benefits, a shift to clean transport and energy would dramatically improve air quality and reduce respiratory illness. The World Health Organization estimates 7 million people die of air pollution related disease every year and millions more suffer respiratory illness – especially children. Despite the obvious benefits of switching transport and energy production to clean energy, it is has been remarkably difficult for the public to grasp this benefit. The battle to remove lead from gasoline was a agonizing fight by a small group of scientists. Lead causes brain damage in children. Despite overwhelming evidence that lead was being emitted on a massive scale by cars, the car manufacturers and oil industry and the government did not want to remove lead from gasoline. Only after a massive fight was this important environmental and human health milestone accomplished. It still boggles my mind how many obstructive cranks there are in positions of power (maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise).
The other proposed solution to our environmental problem is to reduce consumption and return to the earth. While we could do this – almost no one wants to. Civilization is cool. I personally enjoy the benefits of modern medicine, air travel, large well heated homes and all the other benefits of civilization. The hard truth is that humans want an continuously improving quality of life and any philosophy that goes against this will never take off with the general public. It is perhaps for this reason that the fight against climate change has struggled to take off – it is too often conflated with a reduction in our quality of life. Authors such as George Monbiot and Naomi Klein do not help. They highlight the problems and propose solutions such as population reduction, vegetarian diets and no air travel. That ain’t going to fly. The most poignant example of the lack of viability of such a strategy is the famous implosion of Jimmy Carter’s presidency when he implored Americans to put on a sweater during the Oil Crisis of the 1970. Instead of putting on a sweater, they massively voted him out.
The battle for human progress is long and painful. Tesla shows that is is possible to change one of the largest industries in the world – but it takes superhuman effort and a certain alignment of the stars. If Tesla did it for cars (and solar roofs and backup battery systems), then we can do it for the other areas that need to be made sustainable. To me at least, this is a deeply emotional challenge – we are genuinely talking about the future of humanity on planet Earth!Published on March 14, 2021