Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO, saw its latest creation, the Model S - and himself - criticized by traditional media. Now, Tesla just scored its first profitable quarter and Consumer Reports put the Model S at the top of its rankings, making it possible for Musk's company to become more than a niche player.
Palo Alto is known, primarily, as the cradle of high-tech. Its birth registry stretches from pre-World War II Hewlett-Packard, to Cisco, Sun Microsystems (after Stanford University Network), Logitech, and on to Google and Facebook.
But there's an aspect of the town that's rarely remarked upon. As a happy Palo Alto resident for 25 years as well as a half-century regular at the Café de Flore and Au Sauvignon, I can attest that Palo Alto vies with Paris' Left Bank as the cynosure of the Gauche Caviar -- the Caviar Left, the Volvo Liberals as they were known eons ago. Palo Altans, like the residents of the sixth arrondissement, have money and they're willing to spend it (this isn't constipated New England, after all) -- but they only spend it in the proper way. And there's no better way to demonstrate that you're spending your money in a seemly fashion than to be seen driving the proper car.
The combination of tech culture, money, and sincere (if easily lampooned) social/ecological awareness make Palo Alto an interesting place to watch automotive fashion wax and wane.
Walking Palo Alto's leafy streets in the early 2000's, I witnessed the rise of the Prius. Rather than grafting "green" organs onto a Camry or a disinterred Tercel, Toyota's engineers had designed a hybrid from the tires up...and they gave the car a distinctive, sui generis look. It was a stroke of genius, and it tickled us green. What better way to flaunt our concern for the environment while showing off our discerning tech taste than to be spotted behind the wheel of a Prius? (I write "us" without irony: I owned a Gen I and a Gen II Prius, and drive a Prius V in France.) Palo Alto was Prius City years before the rest of the world caught on. (Prius is now the third best-selling car worldwide; more than a million were sold in 2012.)
The cute but artificial Volkswagen Beetle came and went. The Mini, on the other hand, has been a success. A coupling of British modesty and German engineer (the car is built by BMW), the Mini proved that Americans could fall in love with a small car.
The Smart, an even smaller car, hasn't fared well at all. There are now more older Citroëns than Smarts on our streets. I also see some tiny Fiat 500s, but too few so far to call it a durable trend.
Then there's Tesla. In 2008, when the Tesla Roadster came out, I watched it with mixed feelings: some in my neighborhood ended up on flatbeds, but I smiled as I saw Roadsters smoothly (and silently) outrun a Porsche when the traffic light turned green.
As much as I admired Elon Musk, Tesla's founder and a serial entrepreneur of PayPal fame, I was skeptical. A thousand-pound battery and electric drive train in a Lotus frame...it felt like a hack. This was a beta release car, a $100k nano-niche vehicle. It wasn't seemly.
Musk muscled his way through, pushed his company onto firmer financial ground, and, in June 2012, Tesla began delivery of the Model S. This is a "real" car with four doors, a big trunk (two, actually, front and back), and a 250 mile (400 km) range. Right away, the sales lot at Tesla's corporate store in nearby Menlo Park was packed. I started to see the elegant sedan on our streets, and within a few months there were three Model Ss in the parking garage at work. With their superior range, they rarely feed from the EV charging stations. (The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, is a constant suckler.)
This was a big deal. The company had jumped straight from beta to Tesla 2.0. The bigwigs in the automotive press agreed: Motor Trend and Automobile Magazine named the Model S their 2012 Car of the Year.
Actually, not all the bigwigs agreed. The New York Times' John Broder gushed over the Model S's futuristic engineering ("The car is a technological wonder"), but published an ultimately negative story titled Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway. The battery wouldn't hold a charge, the car misreported its range, Tesla support gave him bad information... The car ended up being hauled off on a flatbed.
Broder's review didn't evince much empathy from Elon Musk, a man who clearly doesn't believe the meek will inherit the Earth. In a detailed blog post backed up by the data the data that was logged by the car, Tesla's CEO took Broder to task for shoddy and fallacious reporting:
As the State of Charge log shows, the Model S battery never ran out of energy at any time, including when Broder called the flatbed truck...
During the second Supercharge... he deliberately stopped charging at 72%. On the third leg, where he claimed the car ran out of energy, he stopped charging at 28%.
More unpleasantness ensued, ending with an uneasy statement from Margaret Sullivan, The NYT's Public Editor: Problems With Precision and Judgment, but Not Integrity, in Tesla Test, and with Musk claiming that the NYT story had cost Tesla $100M in market cap.
Other writers, such as David Thier in Forbes, rushed to Broder's defense for no reason other than an "inclination":
I'm inclined to trust the reporter's account of what happened, though at this point, it barely matters. The original story is so far removed that mostly what we have now is a billionaire throwing a temper tantrum about someone who said mean things about him.
In "Why the great Elon Musk needs a muzzle" (sorry, no link; the article is iPad only) Aaron Robinson of Car and Driver Magazine condemns Musk for the sin of questioning the infallibility of the New York Times:
(There's no need to pile onto this argument, but let's note that the NYT's foibles are well-documented, such as, I can't resist, its tortured justification for not using the word "torture" when dealing with "enhanced interrogation".)
None of this dampened the enthusiasm of customers living in our sunnier physical and psychological clime. I saw more and more Model Ss on the streets and freeways. Most telling, the Model S became a common sight in the parking lot at Alice's Restaurant up the hill in Woodside, a place where bikers and drivers of fashionable cars, vintage and cutting edge, gather to watch and be watched.
Publishing deadlines can be cruel. A few days after Robinson's story appeared in Car and Driver, Tesla released its quarterly numbers for Q1 2013 (click to enlarge):
Tesla's $555M in revenue is an astonishing 20x increase compared to the same quarter a year ago. Tesla is now profitable; shares jumped by more than 37% in two trading sessions. On Wall Street paper, the company's $8.77B market cap makes it worth about 20% of GM's $42.93B capitalization... Musk got his "lost $100M" back and more.
Curiously, the numbers also show that while Operations were in the red, the company recorded a Net Income of $11M. How is that possible? The explanation is "simple": If your car company manufactures vehicles that surpass (in a good way) California's emissions standards, the state hands you Zero Emissions Vehicle Credits for your good behavior. You can then sell your virtue to the big car companies – Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda -- who must comply with ZEV regulations. For Tesla, this arrangement resulted in "higher sales of regulatory credits including $67.9 million in zero emission credit sales".
Tesla is careful to note that this type of additional income is likely to disappear towards the end of 2013. (For a more detailed analysis of Tesla's numbers see this post from The Truth About Cars, a site that recommends itself for not being yet another industry mouthpiece.)
The numbers point to a future where Tesla can leave its niche and become a leading manufacturer in a too-often stodgy automotive industry. And, of course, we Silicon Valley geeks take great pleasure in a car that updates it software over the air, like a smartphone; that has a 17" touchscreen; and that's designed and built right here (the Tesla factory is across the Bay in the NUMMI plant that was previously occupied by Toyota and GM).
A last dollop of honey in Elon's revenge: Coinciding with the Car and Driver screed, Consumer Reports gave the Model S its top test score. After driving a friend's Model S at adequate freeway speeds, I agree, it's a wonderful car, a bit of the future available today.
Some say the Model S is still too pricey, that it's only for the very well-off who can afford a third vehicle, that it will never reach a mass audience. It's a reasonable objection, but consider Ferrari: It sold 7318 cars in 2012 and says it will restrict output in 2013 to less than 7,000 to "keep its exclusivity" – in other words, it must adapt to the slowing demand in Europe and, perhaps, Asia. Last year, Land Rover sold about 43,000 cars in the US. By comparison, Tesla will sell about 20,000 cars this year and expects to grow further as it opens international distribution.
One more thing: Elon Musk is also the CEO of SpaceX, a successful maker of another type of vehicles: space-launch rockets.