Was The Tesla Story 'A Joke?'

DN Staff

September 30, 2009

3 Min Read
Was The Tesla Story 'A Joke?'

Design News reader Murat Okçuoğlu, an automotive engineer in Santa Barbara, CA, recently sent the following e-mail to us about our September cover story on Design News Engineer of the Year, JB Straubel.

I thought your September cover was a joke.

Tesla has received over $50 million from customers, over $187 million from investors and over $500 million from US government including subsidies but delivered just over 500 cars. This comes to significantly more than $1,000,000 per car.

I agree that emerging technologies need investment and sacrifice, but electric car is not at its infancy, the technology is actually older than gasoline engine variant.

            I though engineering was about reason and feasibility. I am afraid without common sense anywhere on the horizon, US auto industry is heading rapidly to where the British auto industry went, to oblivion.

Since Mr. Okçuoğlu sent the e-mail to me, and since I wrote the cover story in question, I think it’s appropriate that I respond to him, which I’ll do here.

Dear Mr. Okçuoğlu,

Thanks for your e-mail. I enjoyed reading it, even if you did call my cover story a joke.

            Before I address your issues, though, I need to say this: If you’re trying to provoke an argument, you’ll have a hard time starting one here. Right now, my e-mail queue is packed with between 800 and 900 angry notes that I’ve received over the past four years, largely because I’ve argued that electric cars aren’t ready for prime time. Three years ago, after I wrote a column saying how much I disliked the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car?, I even ended up in an uncomfortable public battle with my then-chief-editor, who was a lover of all that’s green. You see, I still believe that the energy density of today’s electric car batteries is too low, the re-charge times are too long, and vehicle costs are too high to make a big impact on today’s market place. And – based on the comments of battery experts I’ve talked to at MIT, the University of California Berkeley and elsewhere – I don’t believe there’s a magic bullet on the horizon. Getting to Electric Car Paradise is going to require a lot of hard, tedious work.

            So why would we choose a Tesla engineer for the magazine’s top award? First and foremost, because our readers voted for him. Second, because I think our readers were right. Third, because Straubel did some of that hard, tedious work.

            In your e-mail, Mr. Okçuoğlu, you mentioned reason, feasibility, and common sense. By traditional measures, there would be nothing reasonable or feasible about spending $1 million per vehicle. But traditional measures aren’t at work here. We’re worried about wars in the Middle East, reliance on undependable sources of oil, and something now called Climate Change. So we need another way to power our vehicles – if not today, at some point in the future.

            From what I can tell, JB Straubel’s helping us get there. The best battery people I know were shocked that the Tesla Roadster got 244 miles to a charge. Most experts believed Tesla would do good to get half that. Even Bob Lutz of GM admitted to being impressed. And Tesla’s engineers did that work before the U.S. government laid $465 million on them.

            So, Mr. Okçuoğlu, I do understand your concerns. I even share many of them. But I’m afraid our old, hard-headed methods of cost-benefit analysis don’t apply here. Straubel won for a good reason: He stretched the state of the art in technical arena that’s important to the country. That’s what makes an Engineer of the Year.

            Now I’ve got to go tend to my e-mail. There’s a cold wind blowing, and I have a feeling the queue’s going to be filling up again.

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