Driving and Thriving

Tesla showroom in Santa Monica, Calif. (Valentin Armianu/Dreamstime)
Tesla has its critics, and they miss the point.

It’s a funny old world: I’m idling in a pretty thick mess on the freeway and trying to keep in mind the relevant modern proverb: “You are not stuck in traffic — you are traffic.” In front of me is a Tesla Model S. Behind me is a Tesla Model S.

My day requires a trip to the local mall, where there is valet parking — in which several Teslas are parked with some pride of position. Inside the mall is a Tesla showroom, where men in expensive jeans and women in hijabs gush over the falcon-wing doors of the Tesla Model X SUV.

This is Houston, the place where gasoline comes from, not Palo Alto.

Elon Musk, the force behind Tesla, has a verifiable hit on his hands. The Model S has had a few bugs and bumps, but there are many in the automotive press and among car enthusiasts who declare it to be the best car ever built. The people who own them love them: Two summers ago in Montana, an entrepreneur whom I had known for literally less than five minutes handed me the keys to his $100,000 Model S with a slightly goofy smile: “You have to try it.”

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You have to try it.

“The only problem,” says one right-wing friend and Tesla owner, “is that I feel like I should go out and burn a few gallons of diesel, and I mean just set fire to it, just for the sake of keeping up my carbon footprint.” We lament the fact that it is so very difficult to run over a Delta smelt in a high-end electric car.

Tesla’s new Model 3, the electric car for those of you looking to spend less than $100,000 on your next conveyance, has received more than 325,000 pre-orders, and there are more than a few professional Tesla-watchers who doubt that the firm can deliver all of those cars on schedule. Starting a radically different automotive company from scratch and then having more orders than you can reasonably fulfill: That’s something close to the definition of a high-class problem.

#share#Great success stories attract a great many debunkers, nitpickers, and naysayers, and of course Tesla has more than its share. Free-market men complain that Musk’s various enterprises — Tesla, Space X, his solar-power businesses — have benefited from billions of dollars in direct and indirect government subsidies. This is true. Musk’s personal politics are hard to pin down — he has said a lot of nice things about Margaret Thatcher and carbon taxes — and one gets the impression that government relations are for him a business question rather than a philosophical one. It is worth noting that Charles and David Koch, who have put a great deal of money and energy into opposing business subsidies across the board, benefit from some of those subsidies, which is not, adolescent foot-stamping notwithstanding, hypocrisy. It is simply living in the world that exists rather than the world they would prefer. I oppose Social Security, but in the unlikely event that both I and the program survive long enough, I’ll happily cash those checks. I think we can safely assume that an Elon Musk–designed U.S. government would look radically different from the one that exists.

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The politics is not trivial, but neither is the big picture, which is this:

The best car in the world is built in a factory in Fremont, Calif.

Ten years ago, if you were holding a contest for the best car in the world, it would have featured more intense German-on-German action than Albert Speer’s porn collection. Unless you were a sadist with too much money (in which case the Italians have a standing invitation), you were looking at Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Porsche at the high end, while the affordable end of the market was (and is) dominated by the Japanese. The only world-beating American cars were specialty tools such as the Ford F-Series pick-up truck (which is as much of a modern design classic as a Mies van der Rohe chair) and nostalgia items such as the Jeep Wrangler. If you wanted something ludicrous, it said “AMG” on the back. Tesla, whose creators can be giddy about their product, added a feature labeled “Ludicrous Mode.”

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Elon Musk, 44 years old and worth more than $14 billion, is an immigrant (South Africa by way of Canada), a Californian, and a Stanford dropout. (Graduate school in physics — he did finish his undergraduate physics and economics degrees at Penn.) He is a practitioner of what we might call California capitalism: It isn’t enough to make enormous sums of money — the point is to do something cool. In Musk’s case, that’s dividing his time between starting an automobile company from scratch and dreaming of a Mars colony, and maybe a hyperloop that could move people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes.

Debunk all you like, but the best car in the world is built in a factory in Fremont, Calif.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.



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