Tesla Model S - the MOST AMERICAN of autos

Tesla Model S - the MOST AMERICAN of autos

First, a little history: Back in the early 1900s, the gas auto, the electric, and the steam car all competed pretty evenly. Then - as we all know - the gas auto won out. There had to be a reason for that - and while much of it was cost, I think it also came down to daily practicality. The gas auto’s fuel was easily transported, easily stocked, easily sold, easily and quickly replenished; its range depended only on the size of its gas tank; and it didn’t take hours to recharge, or minutes to get up steam. Once Henry Ford built a cheap and practical gas auto, the writing was on the wall, and steam and electric cars became museum pieces. And so matters remained, for about a hundred years.

Since then, we’ve seen sporadic attempts to revive the electric, most notably from the Seventies onward. Some of them, like the three-wheeled, futuristic-looking Aptera, have been interesting, but none have entirely succeeded. Even the Nissan Leaf hasn’t – at least not when it comes to taking on gas autos head-to-head. And, frankly, most of them haven't been all that much of a car.

Why not? There’s many reasons. But three of them, I think, predominate:

  • First, designing and building an electric car involves unavoidable trade-offs of range versus performance, versus bulk, weight, expense, and charging time. Specifically, you can’t raise performance without cutting into range, and you can’t raise either of those two factors without also raising at least some of the others. It’s a complicated, relatively narrow, and constraining curve, and to create a usable product, you have to figure out some way to balance those attributes. All of which means that it’s a bit harder to make a convenient, flexible, and satisfactory electric than it is to make a gas auto.
  • Second, for most of those hundred-odd years, the only real choice for power was the simple, reliable, but very heavy lead-acid battery. Only in the last twenty-to-thirty years have alternatives with a superior energy density come along. And you will notice that most attempts to revive the electric date from those same last twenty-to-thirty years.
  • And third, most of those previous recent attempts at electric cars seem to have been designed by Greens - at least from what I've seen. And I suspect that even when they set themselves to designing a car, many Greens can't help thinking of how selfish and wasteful it is to have everyone out driving their own cars - even non-polluting electric cars running on renewable energy. And how we all really ought to be taking the train or bus like civilized people. So pretty much every one of their designs has occupied the bottom end of that curve - small, relatively light, not very fast, with limited capacity and limited range, and not good for much more than short commutes and shopping trips.

The people behind Tesla, however, took a different approach. An ingenious, out-of-the-box, and quintessentially American approach: They realized that while everybody else was looking at the bottom, there was also a possible slot at the top of that curve. Rather than thinking small, they thought BIG. Really BIG. Almost Texas BIG. Yes, their approach amounted to a brute-force solution - but it was a very smart and considered version of a brute-force solution. And while the original Tesla Roadster may have not been a large car at all, it was the product of thinking BIG in almost every other way.....

  1. You need lots of batteries to get a halfway-decent range? Use lots of batteries.
  2. Lots of batteries are heavy? Put in a big motor.
  3. A big motor takes lots of power? You’ve got lots of power with all those batteries. And the fuel is cheap. Really cheap, compared to gas.
  4. Lots of batteries are expensive? Build an expensive car.
  5. The car's too expensive for most Greens? Sell it to rich people - the ones in Hollywood should do nicely. Your neighbors in Silicon Valley as well.
  6. How do you make something that rich people will want to buy? Make it fun to drive.
  7. And then, when you build a model to sell to more than just a few hundred hip Hollywood millionaires, don't build a squirrelly little runabout -
    • Build a 21st-Century version of the classic rear-wheel-drive Big American Sedan, with lots of room and lots of power, the kind of car that GM and Ford don't even make any more - a big-block Impala, or 428 FE Galaxie 500, or Six-Pack Plymouth Fury for the new century.
    • But make it a bit less bulky on the outside, because bulky is out of fashion.
    • Ensure it can handle in more than a straight line, because you’ll be competing with the top-drawer Europeans, and all of them can handle.
    • Build it as a giant hatchback so the sedan is the wagon, too, and you don't have to bother with two versions.
    • Since you’re selling it on high-tech, give it an interior like being inside an Apple Mac.
    • Make it seat seven, because you've got the room for that.
    • Oh, and put an extra trunk in the front because you've got the room for that, too.
  8. And finally: Batteries take a long time to charge? Offset that, as much as practicable, by building a nationwide network of your own proprietary high-voltage, high current chargers. Charging will still take a while, but a lot less of a while, and the trade-off of very inexpensive fuel will make that acceptable to many.

Incidentally, all of the preceding might explain one slightly surprising fact: why Greens - or at least some of the more extreme ones - aren’t particularly enamored of the Tesla Corporation. Or of anything that it makes.

  • First, Tesla is a Big Corporation. A number of Greens don’t like or trust Big Corporations. Even ones that are just medium big.
  • Second, they don’t like or trust Big Businessmen. Especially not successful Big Businessmen. Even more especially not ones with king-sized personalities.
  • Third, the Tesla Co, can be arrogant, as some of you have pointed out. Or, at least, have a tin ear with regard to how people will take some of their statements.
  • Fourth, the very rational strategy of first building a toy for the rich, then bootstrapping up to build a usable car for doctors and lawyers and management, then finally bootstrapping up from that to build a practical car for almost anybody with a reasonably well-paying job rubs them the wrong way. It smacks of elitism.
  • And finally, the considerable size and weight of a Model S really rubs them the wrong way. Because it’s the product of thinking BIG. Not small.

Apropos of all this, Tesla’s somewhat surprising statement that they “don’t make electric vehicles” might make a little more sense. Because in a way, they don’t. They don’t make something like the Nissan Leaf, or little Chinese tin-can runabouts, or oddball three-wheelers, or indoor forklifts, or golf carts, and don’t compete directly with any of those. They make Big American Sedans. And when it comes to first-rate cars, they compete head-to-head with the best that Detroit, or the Germans, or the British, or the Japanese have to offer.

jkn | February 5, 2014

That's what I have tried to explain people. Some understand, some don't. New product is expensive. Prize can come down only with very large production. A small new company cannot start with large production. First successful electric car must be very good.
I disagree in two minor points: Tesla is a small company. Nummi plant used to produce 400000 cars/year. It was only one factory.

Lead acid was not only choice 100 years ago.

Time durability 30 – 50 years
Charge temperature interval min. −40 °C – max. 46 °C
Energy/consumer-price 1.5 – 6.6 Wh / US$
Self-discharge rate 20% – 30% / month

It cannot be used as a start battery for ICE. (Power density is too small.) After reading 12 V battery problems with MS: Tesla should use 12 V Nickel-iron_battery.

Anti-car greens might get a shock soon. Private electric car is more energy efficient than public transportation outside densely populated areas. (Imagine almost empty bus driving around countryside collecting passengers.)

Car t man | February 5, 2014

Extremist green is just another interest group and another ideology. Any kind of extremism, with absolute claims of something, is wrong by default, it its optic and understanding of the world.

I am referring to the deranged niche, not informed, environmentally conscious crowd.

drax7 | February 5, 2014

"Have you ever created anything in your life? " Steve Jobs

Mathew98 | February 5, 2014

@Baribrotzer +1 Great summary. Which media outlet do you work for?

Brian H | February 5, 2014

And then there's the Model X. BIGGER.

MezzaLuna | February 5, 2014

@Baribrotzer, nice writeup, thanks. I would quibble with your generalizations about "Greens"; I think of myself as one of the more, um, committed ones, which is why I own a Tesla. But that aside, it's an interesting reminder of where we are and how we got here.

lolachampcar | February 5, 2014


I'm not sure a media outlet is capable of digesting a concept to the degree Baribrotzer has Tesla.

Baribrotzer | February 5, 2014

@ JKN –

True, Tesla is small compared to Amazon, or GM, or Sony. But it’s publicly traded, and has a capitalization of, what, 20 billion? That’s pretty big compared with a corner café’. So to some it might count as a Big Corporation, if only by extreme Green standards.

@ Drax7 –

Your comment is brief and pithy to the point of being slightly hard to understand.

@ Mathew98 –

Thank you. None of them. I just don’t always sleep well, so I get up and write about something that interests me. My last such essay, for example, had nothing to do with this subject at all and was about a semi-obscure NYC rock band called The Knells.

@ VIN256XX –

You’ll notice that I said some committed Greens. You do not belong to those particular “some”. You clearly belong to other committed Greens.

@ lola –

Thank you.

diegoPasadena | February 5, 2014

I'm glad I read your piece. Well thought, well written - a good read all the way around. Thanks

AmpedUP | February 5, 2014

@Baribrotzer ... interesting thought about "Greens" dictating design over the years. I think this might be tangentially true, in that so many designs have been created as merely California "compliance" cars. That said, I think there have been other forces at work in making sure that EV designs have remained as merely interesting science projects rather than really useful transportation. For instance, the literal destruction of the EV-1 cars by GM certainly was not spear-headed by a bunch of Greens. While there is no real "smoking gun" associated with the ending of the EV-1 program via crusher, one can only assume that some powerful interest group was getting very nervous about an electric car that was both competent and popular. I believe that this same interest group was fine with projects like the Volt or the Leaf, but was caught completely off guard by Tesla. Ultimately, I think the notion of direct current fast chargers spreading rapidly throughout the world will prove to have been the greatest surprise for this interest group.

cvalhalla | February 5, 2014

I have ordered a Model S. I lease a Leaf and I am a "committed" green. Not on the fringe by any means. The Leaf is surprisingly roomy and useful but the range is very limiting. There is definitely more headroom in the Leaf than the MS.
Tesla's big advantage is range. If Nissan could pull their heads out of their behinds and sell a Leaf with a 150 mile range there would a lot more of us staying with Nissan and not stretching themselves financially for the MS.
But in the end the Tesla grin is what really won me over.

Captain_Zap | February 5, 2014

@lorenfb - OT: Do/did you race GT3? West coast?

Captain_Zap | February 5, 2014

@lorenfb- or PCA?

Miggy | February 5, 2014

You call cars running on Petrol "gas cars", so what do you call cars that run on gas as in LPG and CNG ?

lorenfb | February 5, 2014

Yes, I'm involved/work with many Porsche people/dealers/shops in SoCal
and am also in PCA. But the Loren you are probably thinking of is
Loren Biggs who owns a race shop (off 10 fwy) and preps race cars.

Captain_Zap | February 5, 2014

Yes, Loren Beggs is who I was thinking of. Nice guy. Raced with him in California and Oregon. I don't remember if he was at Road America.

Loren helped us out a couple times when we had a break downs or mishaps with the when we were racing in California. There are very few Lorens out there so I had to ask.

Baribrotzer | February 6, 2014

@ DiegoPasadena –

Thank you.

@ AmpedUP –

I agree with you about “other forces”, and have, in the works, some comments on exactly that.

@ lorenfb –

I don’t have answers for all your criticisms.

But I’ll give a general answer: Yes, Tesla’s “Think Big” approach involved nothing more than existing technology – however, the particular deployment. of that technology was innovative, which can count just as much in the long run. And note that even with the common availability of LI-ion batteries, no one else seems to have hit on that approach. At least not on a production level – a few hobbyists like John “Plasma Boy” Wayland did something similar on their own, but not in any widespread way.

@ cvalhalla “But in the end the Tesla grin is what really won me over.” –

And that’s exactly my point: Just above, lorenfb commented on “the overall BEV market”, which I take to mean that the existing EV market is for small runabouts. The Leaf is quite a fine electric runabout, and does that job well. However, Nissan and most of the other EV manufacturers were still thinking “inside the box” of that existing market.

Tesla wasn’t, and that’s their innovation. The Model S is a Real Car, and a very good Real Car.

jkn | February 6, 2014


Tesla created new segment in BEV market. Tesla competes head-to-head with the best that Detroit, or the Germans, or the British, or the Japanese have to offer in 100000 $ price class. That is rather small class, but right place to start for a small company.

Tesla is a small company. Market value is high, because investors believe it will become big company.

Perhaps MS is Apple Lisa and gen 3 is Mac. Although if I remember correctly, Lisa was economical failure. It was too expensive (too good). Tesla cannot make cars any faster, so S is not too expensive.

Before Roadster people claimed that EV with practical range is impossible. Making 'impossible' is a technology achievement. Not any new science though.

lolachampcar | February 6, 2014

It is entirely too easy to say an elegant, obvious "Think Big" or whatever else solution that turns out to work wonderfully is not an achievement. It has been my experience in the past that people making these statements have not achieved anything remotely close to the degree of difficulty of that they are passing judgement on.

Loren, your voice of authority in this thread leads me to wonder if you have accomplished enough in the realm of "achievement" to accurately judge what Tesla has achieved. I must admit bias as I was never competent in a tin top and tend to hold those that pursue them in disregard (arrogance on my part).

Lastly, I'm not really in the know on compliance cars but are not most, if not all, the rest of the BeVs out their sized to meet the requirements for the Federal Tax Rebate and comply to CA's requirements for ZEV credits? Is this not what is really determining the size of their batteries?

lolachampcar | February 6, 2014

there.... need edit.

AmpedRealtor | February 6, 2014

Apple took existing technologies and combined them in a novel way to create a compelling product. Tesla has done the same thing with Model S. Instead of inventing a whole new battery technology, they took thousands of laptop cells and combined them into a single logical battery. Each of our cars contains what, 7,000-8,000 or more of these cells? Multiply that by how many cars are being sold and you've got some large volume to (hopefully) help bring down the costs.

jjaeger | February 6, 2014

I have never laughed so hard on a thread than the last half responses. A classic and eerily silent since...

Baribrotzer | February 7, 2014

@ AmpedRealtor -

The batteries are another example of a smart brute-force solution. From what I understand, the original engineers for the Roadster investigated several battery options. They came to the surprising conclusion that, in spite of looking like the brilliant flash of some fictional Boy Genius, the "6831 laptop batteries" solution actually worked best in the real world. A lot of it had to do with efficient cooling, I believe, plus battery-management issues, and the use of a standard, well-proven product.

By the way, the current Model S batteries are NOT laptop batteries, although they're about the same size. They're custom-made for that application, are the product of considerable research at Tesla, and are ordered and manufactured in bulk.

Brian H | February 8, 2014

On a KISS principle, smaller size means maximized surface area which makes efficient cooling, providing you have circulating heat transport medium bathing that surface. Done, and done.

wcalvin | February 8, 2014

Tesla has followed the traditional strategy of most automotive innovations. First they appear as expensive options on high-end cars, then become standard there and options on mid-range cars, and so on to standard.

Who pays the development costs? The high-end buyers. Who gets the debugged version at a small profit margin above cost? The mid-range buyer(albiet with a five year delay).

Who has ever designed an innovative de novo car for the mid-range buyer without some of this top-down history? Especially with a profit margin in mind? Could they ever get funding for it? Would it become a top-5 brand name in cars without major advertising campaigns?

Tesla is at least aspiring to a midrange car in the 3rd generation, which the compliance cars are not.

Brian H | February 9, 2014

Commented elsewhere, the ad industry must hate TM's word-of-mouth and free publicity success. Of course, inferior products like ICEs will have to spend more and more to try and combat it as time goes on.

lolachampcar | February 9, 2014

I suspect Tesla views ads as a crutch for lazy people that can not produce a compelling product. Is that not just like an engineer?....

NKYTA | February 9, 2014

@lola, you nailed that one. +1

Baribrotzer | February 9, 2014

@ lolachampcar: "I suspect Tesla views ads as a crutch for lazy people that can not produce a compelling product. Is that not just like an engineer?...."

Maybe, but that's also like the old line about the "self-made" rich guy who was "born on third base and thinks he hit a home run." Of course the Tesla Co. has a compelling product: It's The First Really Good Electric Car. Plus a compelling story of being a bunch of Silicon Valley computer industry types, not car guys, who managed to build the first successful* new American auto company in some ninety years. And, their CEO is The Real Life Tony Stark, and Joe Sixpack - who probably knows nothing else about Elon Musk - knows that. That's new, it's man-bites-dog, and it has people paying attention. It's compelling by its very nature.

Jaguar, in contrast, is in the unenviable position of having an entire line of cars of which none of them do anything better than their competitors. Maybe they look better, but that's about it. Otherwise, they're second or third best at everything. Porsches handle better, BMWs go faster, MBs are more comfortable, and all of them have reputations as better made. So Jag has to find those who prefer their particular combination of attributes, and that takes advertising. Lots of it.

- JH

*Relatively successful - to continue the baseball metaphor, they're rounding second base at this point and things look very good, but they haven't crossed Home Plate yet.

jbunn | February 9, 2014

Excellent write-up, but I bleed green. Vote based on green, work within the political system to educate local candidates on the issues, support solar, wind, café standards, energy compliance codes for appliances and building efficiency, home offices, sustainable organic farming, you name it.

I also drove a truck, but after 14 years it needed to be replaced. My only possible decision was to buy a pure electric, and I ended up waiting 2 years for my Tesla. I plan on keeping it for a long time and did not want to be tied to gasoline into 2025. My wife asked "What's your plan B if Tesla can't pull it off"? I said "I have no plan B". We sold both gas cars. She walks to work, and I work from home as an ugly investor capitalist speculating in electric cars (ahem), solar leasing companies (go figure), and bio-tech.

So I'm a big green ball of contradictions. Meat eating, former SUV driving, green lunatic.

I suspect most greens are. We are not one dimensional, and your oversimplification really isn't up to the high bar of the rest of your article (again, which was excellent).


Baribrotzer | February 10, 2014

@ Jbunn –


What I meant was Green extremists. But I didn’t say it very well – I tried to imply it, rather than saying so straight out. (I’ll change that.) Their resentment against Tesla is something I’ve seen, can’t quite figure out, and was trying to. Living in Oregon, I’ve met people of that type: A couple who obsessed about saving water, for example – while living in a state where it literally falls from the sky for nine months out of the year. Such characters are part of the political landscape here.

Or, for another example, that columnist on Watts Up with That – there’s a thread about him here: He seems to resent beyond all measure that Tesla Motors knows how to play the politics game and win, and aren’t above being slightly tricky at it. Or he resents the politics game, which I can understand. Or he’s a free-market purist – which seems unusual for a writer on a Green website – and resents the California laws enabling TM to play that game.

Anyway, the extremists’ attitude seems to come down to this: Tesla Motors is a success in the real world, so it HAS to be dirty. Nobody can set out to do what Elon Musk has done and actually do it, so he MUST be a con man on the Bernie Madoff level. Tesla stock has GOT to be a classic “pump, dump, and skedaddle for Costa Rica” trick. The whole Tesla brand and long-range plan HAS to be a scam for assuaging the environmental guilt of Hollywood types and other rich liberals, because the only purpose of a business is to make as much money as possible as fast as possible and by any means necessary. And where would the money be in building up from the Model S and going on to produce a much-less-profitable mass-market electric?

And I don’t understand that. Sure, none of what’s Tesla is doing is perfect, but it’s pretty good. And in this world even “pretty good” is a rare accomplishment.

I think the extremists’ real problem is that Tesla aren’t purists: They’re dealing with the world the way it is, doing that as a working business rather than some idealistic non-profit, making the compromises they must, playing politics and the media like a fiddle, and leveraging every bit of government help they can find. And doing all of them pretty successfully. In short, they’re doing the right thing the “wrong” way - and you can’t do that, because if you do, it becomes tainted by those impure, less-than-perfect means, and ipso facto ceases to be the right thing.

Mark2131@CA-US | February 10, 2014

@Baribrotzer: Excellent analysis. Couldn't agree more.

I just walked in the door from a round trip LA> Palo Alto, hitting three superchargers along the way.

I want to take your "American Car" theory and take it one step further: The Tesla Road Trip experience . with it's "enforced" rest stops at Superchargers is actually giving Tesla drivers a "trip back in time" to when people actually got OFF the highway and visited little towns along the way.

Example: On highway 101 here in California, one of the superchargers is in the town of Atascadero. It's a lovely town. THe county Seat. But in my numerous trips up and down the 101 over the years, I've NEVER stopped there. I DID stop there today! Had a wonderful hamburger at "Sylvester's Burgers". And here's the thing. After a road trip in a Tesla, I swear I'm NOT as tired after a day's drive. THese stops along the way make for a much more pleasant trip. It may have taken an hour longer door to door, but I don't feel exhausted from the day.

So: From an engineering standpoint, I think Baribrotzer has nailed it. But… the supercharger/road trip experience is the UNEXPECTED icing on the cake. If anyone on this board has a Tesla and hasn't hit the road for an extended trip…. get going! You'll love it.

Brian H | February 12, 2014

Hate to mess with your thesis and worldview, but WattsUpWithThat is the world's most prominent sceptical anti-green website, triple- (and therefore lifetime) winner of Best Science Blog Bloggies Award, and then last year's Best (overall) Blog Award. That said, the guest article was an OTT rant with lots of erroneous assumptions and therefore conclusions.

Brian H | February 12, 2014

Hate to mess with your thesis and worldview, but WattsUpWithThat is the world's most prominent sceptical anti-green website, triple- (and therefore lifetime) winner of Best Science Blog Bloggies Award, and then last year's Best (overall) Blog Award. That said, the guest article was an OTT rant with lots of erroneous assumptions and therefore conclusions.

Baribrotzer | February 12, 2014

@ Brian H: "Hate to mess with your thesis and worldview, but WattsUpWithThat is the world's most prominent sceptical anti-green website," -

You're not messing with my worldview at all. I didn't know about WattsUpWithThat before I read that guest article, and didn't know it was a skeptics' site. Are they full-out climate-change skeptics? Or are they more about putting Green fads under the microscope, applying some rationality, and seeing how Green they really are in the long run? Either way, it makes sense they'd be skeptical about Tesla Motors and its doings.

Even if Alberto Zaragoza Comendador is standing there on a hot day shouting "The emperor has no clothes", when the emperor is wearing a perfectly good t-shirt, running shorts, and track shoes.

jordanrichard | February 12, 2014

Mark2131, I completely agree about people just whizzing by on the highways and byways and not realize what they are missing. It's ironic that one of the fastest cars on the road, is perhaps making us slow down a bit.....

jbunn | February 12, 2014


WattsUp is a climate denier web site, but the site owner is also a mess of green contradictions. He has solar on his house, has an electric vehicle, promotes CFLs. By vocation he is a TV meteorologist.

In my case, my conservative Fox watching family members are the Tesla haters. Big government/Solyndria/fancy toy arguers. I haven't met any greens that don't think my car is cool. Met a lot of conservatives though.

Brian H | February 14, 2014

The owner, Anthony Watts, is a published and respected professional meteorologist. Many articles by "consensus" sources are reproduced verbatim, with minimal editorial intro or commentary, but the bulk of the material is full-on AGW sceptic. Moderation is light, with few triggers for holding for examination (addressing the owner by name, using >3 live links, etc.) and only repeated and insistent trolling has ever resulted in banning.

It gets far more traffic than any similar or competing sites, with far longer visit times. It has extensive libraries of available technical sources and reference material. Diss it at your peril.