The New Yorker’s Tad Friend does a superb job this week in profiling Tesla’s mercurial founder, Elon Musk — and what he and his Washington friends call the “automobile of the future,” the electric car. To begin with, Friend notes that battery power is actually the technology of the past:
At the turn of the 20th century, electric vehicles outsold all other types of cars. “Electric road wagons” and “Electrobats” were popular with women, because, unlike gas-powered vehicles, they required no strenuous cranking to start. (The Columbus Buggy Company proclaimed, “A delicate woman can practically live in her car yet never tire.”) Cars with internal-combustion engines gradually took over, because they were easier to refuel and they cost less, as Henry Ford’s assembly line breakthroughs made his cars cheap enough for nearly everyone.
EVs tried to wedge their way back into the market over the ensuing century, continues Friend, but were always tripped up by their Achilles Heel: “a charging infrastructure . . . that feels as ubiquitous as the country’s hundred and sixty thousand gas stations.”
Now along comes Musk with his own business plan for reinventing the automobile and “saving the (human) species” from global warming. Having gained “first-mover advantage” with Tesla’s very quick, very expensive Roadster, Musk’s plan is to cut the price of each of Tesla’s succeeding models and seize the market from the top down.
But rather than emulate Ford and convince investors that his plan will actually work, Musk has hired a Washington lobbyist (Diarmand O’Connell, formerly of the State Department) to squeeze money out of good ol’ Uncle Sugar. Most American don’t know it, but today they are venture capitalists funding the development of the PayPal multi-millionaire Musk’s next automobile — the Model S — to the tune of $465 million. The money will be used to build $50,000 cars sold to Silicon Valley’s jet set, who will be helped by another subsidy from the U.S. taxpayer, a $7,500 tax credit for each electric vehicle purchased.
One of ’s clients who has put down his deposit on a new Model S is multi-millionaire Rick Rubin, co-head of Columbia Records in L.A. “The quiet feels really good, just taking off without a sound.”
But whether anyone but multi-millionaires — with multi-vehicles to choose from in their car barns — are willing to put up with the Model S’s four-hour refueling time remains to be seen.