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Congress Buys a Lemon

December 1st, 2008 by Bill Brown · 8 Comments · Politics

There is no question that the Tesla Roadster is an impressive, amazing car. If I was able to afford a $110,000 car, I would order it without hesitation. If it is a viable business on the cusp of introducing an affordable, all-electric sedan, then it should have no trouble attracting investors.

The fact that it is having trouble is indicative. The fact that its founders are now seeking federal subsidy tells one everything one needs to know about the viability of an all-electric car.

Taxpayers as individuals have only invested $145 million and have only bought 80 of its expensive sports cars. Why should taxpayers as a group be compelled to pay for what they wouldn’t pony up for individually? This bailout—as well as every bailout before and to come—violates the rights of every individual American taxpayer. We must oppose it any way we can or every faltering company will beg Congress until we the people have nothing left to steal.

8 Comments so far ↓

  • Inspector

    Oh, I’ll actually question the supposed amazingness of the Tesla.

  • Bill Brown

    I think electric cars are the future, though not for the conventional “save the earth” reasons normally cited. They’re whisper-quiet, very efficient, and lack a significant number of moving parts. I think that the market should decide when “the future” is, though.

    It’s not the most powerful sports car by any stretch. But it has a “the future is now” quality that I’m sure would add to the effect of driving it. I’m far too poor to be able to afford one so I don’t know that for certain.

  • Inspector

    Bill, where I’m going with this is from a here-and-now reality check perspective. The geek – the early adopter – in all of us wants to look at anything new and bask in the newness of it all.

    I’m speaking as the necessary counterpoint to that voice. Let’s not look at the *idea* of the Tesla – at the potential that they keep gushing and promising about – but rather at the actual, the existing and, let’s be frank: at what they stand a chance in hell of really delivering on at any point in the foreseeable future, rather than just promising.

    If you look at what the Tesla actually *is*, minus the hype, it’s completely unimpressive. They deliberately compare it to cars outside of its size and weight class. But when you put it up against a Lotus Elise, which is basically the same car with a gas engine, it gets its automotive posterior handed to it on a platter. The Elise is $47,000. The Tesla is $110,000. Doesn’t that tell you something? You say you can’t afford it – doesn’t that tell you something, as well?

    It’s a car that runs on electricity. Yeah, I get that. But the elephant in the living room here is: *so what?* They’ve had cars running on electricity since the 1830’s. The trick is to make them practical – which is to say more practical than other alternatives such as gasoline. I.e. cheaper, faster, stronger, better – having these qualities in some combination so as to be superior. The Tesla fails this test. It isn’t faster. It isn’t cheaper. It isn’t more “efficient;” it is *less* so.

    That is, if one looks at efficiency from the right perspective.

    Unfortunately, many people these days don’t do that – they just assume using less gas is better – this equals “efficiency.” I’m here to question that assumption. Efficiency can’t be measured in gasoline used, as that would be begging the question. And it can’t be defined from a pure laboratory perspective, either, (i.e. the amount of energy lost to heat/friction). Superconductors are very energy-efficient, but are too heavy to move under their own power.

    Efficiency must be defined in terms of the real factors of car production and ownership: money, time, and effort. I.e. what it takes to produce and use a product.

    Gasoline hasn’t been our main means of transportation for a century for nothing. It is so because it contains a vast amount of energy for its weight – few substances can match it in this regard. Batteries are a horribly inefficient way to store energy – from the perspective of weight, that is. Do you know how much of the Tesla’s weight is devoted to batteries versus how much a tank of gasoline weighs? I don’t have exact figures for you, but I do assure you it is an unflattering comparison for the Tesla. That’s not the only way that gasoline is more efficient, either: it is portable and it is malleable – you can quickly and easily transfer it from container to container, unlike electricity where you have to spend time charging. Even the best and most expensive of quick charging schemes can’t come close to the speed of simply pouring a liquid.

    These are the measures of real efficiency: how expensive is it and how convenient is it to use? Gasoline wins in this regard, hands down. That’s why the gasoline-powered car has dominated the electric one since the former’s invention. (Which actually came several decades after the first electric cars. Literally speaking, electric cars aren’t the future: they’re the past!)

    Gasoline gets a bad rap because of the current so-called “geopolitical” problems that its production has become entangled in. It is vitally important, however, to not confuse our current political situation with the technology itself. If you’re going to ask yourself which technology is objectively superior, you have to remove considerations of which power source works better for a nation that refuses to fight its enemies and surrenders fuel production to them. Because gasoline didn’t cause those problems, nor will switching from it solve them.

    If we never surrendered the oil fields to the middle eastern savages and if we never de facto outlawed its domestic production and refining, thus ensuring the necessity of its importation, and then on top of that hyper-inflated our currency so as to make said importation expensive, can you imagine how cheap gasoline would be? We’ve just recently seen the price fall from $150/bbl to ~$45/bbl. How would $20/bbl sound? $10? In other words, how would $0.25 per gallon gasoline sound to you? Would you still look at a slow, impractical, $110,000 electric toy in the same light under those circumstances?

    Basically I’m saying let’s not confuse a positive sentiment for futurism – certainly something we can all sympathize with – with an actual achievement in that direction. Let’s be hard-nosed here: “the future” isn’t defined by something’s superficial resemblance to The Jetsons. It’s not defined by what emotions or fantasies the driver can live out. It’s not defined by being whisper-quiet, as that’s not actually useful for anything (it’s actually a bit of a hazard, so they’re working on giving it speakers to make some noise. True story!). It’s defined by real, actual superiority in the attributes that make cars, cars. And by that sort of measure, the Tesla fails badly and across the board.

    After all, if it were an actual achievement and not just a specious and over-expensive gadget, they wouldn’t need government handouts and they might have, you know, actually built some of the things!

    I know that’s a lot to take in. It’s certainly the popular perspective to view the Tesla as “impressive.” And to an outsider it can easily seem that way. I don’t blame you for having thought that way – I’m just saying: there’s a lot more to judging a car and hopefully I’ve been able to present a part of that.

    And maybe I won’t change your mind on that. But can I at least change your mind on the idea that there is “no question” on the subject?


  • Bill Brown

    As I said in the entry, the fact that it isn’t a viable company is indicative. Thus far, it has only managed to attract Silicon Valley startup geeks and that is a market category that oozes early adopter status. And like its audience’s propensity to start interesting companies without thought of a business plan, I’m not sure that Tesla Motors was ever intended to be commercially successful. That, to my mind, is a damning statement.

    I think that electric cars are the future, but that they’re a long ways off from being the present. Storage of electricity is the nut that hasn’t been cracked and Tesla’s use of thousands of conventional batteries is not an innovation so much as a cop-out.

    I don’t disagree with any of your points about its practicality. I think that electric cars in general and electric sports cars in particular aren’t going to be practical—read affordable—for decades unless the price of gasoline spikes to European levels. But it is an achievement: there have been faster electric car prototypes, but none are production-ready or affordable for the average rich person.

  • Bill Brown

    And, fair enough, there is some question as to its impressiveness. I can gladly concede that.

  • Inspector

    Thanks Bill. And I understand certainly the appeal of gadgets and the early-adopter. Oh so many delicious toys and so little time/money!

    Oh but one small point – it’s not so much an “until” as it is an “if” gasoline spikes to euro-levels. There’s absolutely no shortage of the actual stuff and no prospects of running low for over a century, even with increases in demand from China, etc – that is, unless its production is stifled by still more government intervention.

    Hm. I suppose that *is* sort of inevitable at this point, isn’t it?

  • Bill Brown

    Peak oil is something I’ll be writing a long blog entry about pretty soon. But I think a significant spike in gasoline prices is inevitable given the current climate: carbon taxes, OPEC manipulations, and the decrease in inflation-adjusted gasoline taxes. Heck, the coming rampant inflation will move gas prices upwards alone.