Tesla Motors is an Environmental Fail (and More!)

by Benjamin Jones on April 1, 2009

Tesla Roadster

Note: This post is not an April Fools joke

For a while now, Tesla has been all the rage in the green automotive community. Not only is the car sexy and fast, but “green” and “the cure to all our woes.” With the long awaited release of the Tesla Model S, all sorts of expectations for a quasi-affordable, electric family car came to a head.

If you read the title, I’m sure you can tell I’m disappointed. If you wonder why I haven’t caught Tesla Fever like everyone else, just give the following point some consideration.

Tesla’s Hyped Up Track Record

  • The Roadster is just a Lotus: Just look at the above picture. Beautiful car, right? Well, Tesla didn’t design it, Lotus did. However, whenever you see that car from now on, you will be thinking Tesla and not Lotus. Lotus designed a sexy, comparatively fuel-efficient, and relatively inexpensive sports car long before Tesla came along to claim the styling for itself. Sure, the Model S (below) may look good too, but it’s hardly visionary.

  • Tesla’s Rocky Track Record: First they couldn’t get the transmission right. It took so long that they started shipping out cars without the promised transmission, hoping to swap them for upgraded versions later. Then the company laid out grand plans for new manufacturing facilities and jobs, only to roll them back later when they couldn’t come up with the money. So far, the only tangible thing the company has done is stick an electric plant in 250 cars, as many as had been ordered as this time two years ago. The release of the new Model S is far in the future, and little more than a pile of promises floated on the hopes of receiving $500 million of funding from an outside source.
  • The Roadster is a sports car: The cornerstone of any honest environmental movement is that conservation is necessary. We may be increasing the percentage of wind power in the grid, but globally power use is ballooning. Continuing to hype the dangerously fast, unnecessarily expensive, and wasteful cars in the world, whatever they are powered by, will not cut to the great issue of actually saving energy. At most, Tesla makes cars for millionaire yuppies to drive around, wasting twice as much energy as a more sensible electric car. Besides, do you really need another two fridges running in your garage?
  • The Tesla Model S is disappointing: Maybe I am asking too much. It seats seven, after all! As long as you pop the hatch and shove the kids in back like a couple of golf bags. Not to mention your 50″ TV and mountain bike. The thing sounds like a land boat, or perhaps an electrified tank. Let’s not forget that it will handily beat most of the cars in a Gran Turismo game and capitalize on federal rebates. This car has it all. It can even talk to your iPhone! But what is it? A luxury car. They quote a price of $50,000, after a rebate that will likely disappear before many people even have a chance to buy an electric car. Just like the Roadster, this is not a car for the mass market.
  • Fleecing the federal government: Ever heard people complain about the home business owner that buys an Escalade and writes it off on their taxes as heavy duty work vehicle, claiming big bucks from the government? Seems similar to the rich car collector buying a Tesla and collecting $7,500 cash back on their luxury car. Usually such an expensive, flashy car would have higher taxes, not lower.
  • Tesla’s deceptive advertising: “With a 300-mile range and 45-minute QuickCharge, the $49,900 Model S.” The Model S has consistently been advertised as a $50,000 electric car that will do 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and get 300 miles per charge. However, that price is after tax rebates, and will not be the price for the model getting 300 miles per charge (and perhaps the 5.5 figure is only for a sports version, we don’t know). Tesla claims that you can drive cross country while stopping to charge the batteries. According to the company this only takes 45 minutes. However, that is with the (expensive) 440 volt plugs, which you won’t be able to find anywhere you don’t have it specifically installed. This time figure is also likely for the smallest battery pack size. Do you even want to stop every 2 hours for 1 hour to charge your electric car? I’m not bashing electrics, but Tesla shouldn’t pretend the car is what it’s not.
  • Tesla is not zero emissions:Zero Emissions Equals Zero Guilt” Tesla wants you to believe that their car uses no energy and has no environmental impact. This is a lie. Not only should you feel guilty for wasting over $100,000 on a car (like the Roaster), but doing so shouldn’t absolve you of any responsibility to the environment.
  • Who’s in charge?: Tesla has gone through 3 CEOs in its short period of time. Now the company has Elon Musk at the helm, a man who not only relentlessly pushes the PR envelope, but tries to trap his employees in an effort to oust leaks. Perhaps I am being pessimistic, but who knows who will be in charge next year or the year after? It’s difficult to trust a company that keeps changing direction under new leaders.

My rebuttal to some of the common claims supporting Tesla

  • Battery prices won’t drop: Support is always drummed up for Tesla because of the thought that the company’s effort will help drive down the prices of Lithium Ion technology. This may be true in quantity, but I doubt the 250 battery packs in the Roadsters sold so far will do much when compared to major efforts from GM, Mitsubishi, and others that plan to sell EVs in the 10s of thousands in the coming years. The key to driving down costs is quantity, which will never come with expensive sports cars.
  • Consumer acceptance: People like to think that fast, sporty electric cars will make people like the idea of electric a lot more. This may be true, Tesla has gotten lots of positive press. But how many people have to crash their Roadsters until owners get the same sort of reckless, we-own-the-road-and-you-don’t attitude that Hummer drivers are famous for?

What do you think? Do I have a weak case or is anyone else fed up with the tremendous amount of hype surrounding this company?

Popularity: 8% [?]


1 1337 April 1, 2009 at 8:26 am

april fools!

2 Benjamin Jones April 1, 2009 at 8:31 am

Actually, not an april fools joke.

3 Geo April 1, 2009 at 8:37 am

Let’s not forget that Tesla is currently the only US company who is actually shipping highway-capable electric cars. That’s one huge thing they’re getting right, and it counts for a lot, considering most other major manufacturers are promising EVs but not delivering.

4 Benjamin Jones April 1, 2009 at 8:44 am

Hi Geo,

This is a good point. However, this bit of “practicality” doesn’t outweigh how unpractical the price tag makes the car, in my mind. The i MiEV can do highway, it just isn’t on sale here yet.

5 Geo April 1, 2009 at 9:46 am

Just isn’t on sale here yet… where have I heard that before? And how much will it cost? Mitsubishi hasn’t let us in on that secret yet.

The bottom line is that a highway capable EV with decent range will be expensive, simply because the batteries and other parts are expensive. Tesla concedes this point and is selling expensive cars to people who can afford the expense.

The bottom line is that an EV with decent performance requires expensive batteries. In a smaller economy car, that cost can double the price. In a luxury car, it may be only a 20% premium. Cars like the iMiEV are nice in concept, but if the final price is too high, people won’t feel like they’re getting enough for their money.

6 Benjamin Jones April 1, 2009 at 9:54 am


It is on sale in Japan. For 4 million yen. It isn’t for sale in the US yet, because the production capacity isn’t high enough to need to sell units in non-domestic markets to sell the car.

Not only are sales exceeding expectations, but the car is been fleet tested in California, London, and around the world. This is a car and an effort I would credit with doing something. And with the US tax rebates it would only cost ~$32,500.

I’m not saying Tesla is all bad, I’m just presented all the bad in response to what I consider to be overwhelmingly positive press everywhere else. If you notice I did excitedly cover the Model S unveil, but in 2013 when it is supposed to come out, the i MiEV will have been on sale in the US for 2 years, and for less.

7 Jimbo April 1, 2009 at 12:19 pm

You know, I picked adult oppositional defiant disorder as the neurosis of the new millennium. Glad to see some folks are finally warming up to it. CHOCOLATE ISN’T DELICIOUS!

In other words, this post is “no” just because someone had to, I guess.

Rebuttal to rebuttal point 1: congratulations, you found the first industry, ever, that won’t obey the supply-demand curve.

Rebuttal to rebuttal point 2: fess up, you’re Sarah Palin in disguise! Because I have no idea what the h*ll you’re talking about.

8 Benjamin Jones April 1, 2009 at 12:27 pm


Thank you for your comment. If you want to respond with more substance about Tesla Motors or their products, I will respond. I do not respond to sarcasm or personal insults on the blog. Thanks.

9 Ratcrib April 1, 2009 at 3:07 pm

So how is electricity getting to the “green” ELECTRIC car?

By magic?

Electricity is one of the dirtiest industries today, made by burning toxic, ozone-depleting COAL.

Electric Cars, unless solar powered, are a HOAX. An oxy-moron.

10 Benjamin Jones April 1, 2009 at 3:20 pm


Actually, electric cars are more energy efficient. Not only that, but the pollution from the grid is almost always less than that of individual cars creating the same amount of energy. So no, they’re not a hoax. But yes, the source of energy is still incredibly important.

11 Aaron April 1, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Three things to remember:
1) How much did the first USEFUL home computers cost? About the same, relatively, as a Roadster. They’ve delivered on an actual, working, real life model of their car, not some pipe dream.

2) Tesla makes batteries for more than their own cars. They’re currently contracted with Daimler and Zapp as well.

3) “Fleecing the Federal government” implies two things: WE actually OWE them something and THEY are actually ENTITLED to something of ours. Neither is true. Tax writeoffs are not TAKING from the federal government, they are reducing what you PAY them. If it’s so wrong to write off things on your taxes, then why is the writer blamed rather than the government who allows the writeoffs?

I’m no huge Tesla fan either, but they have their place in the market and are doing better than many other companies with highway-ready vehicles. At least they aren’t riding their whole future on promises based on vaporware pipe dreams like some other American car companies have been…

12 Wowbagger April 1, 2009 at 7:59 pm

The hoax is that we don’t need cars, just better urban planning. With, the 20% of of GDP spent on an inefficient transportation system, it’s fair to assume we could have built a few archologies by now…

13 Benjamin Jones April 1, 2009 at 7:59 pm

Hi Aaron,

Thanks for the comment.

1.) I largely agree with you here. But the first home computers were not unnecessarily fast or powerful. Cost is kept down in order to facilitate purchase. Sure, a 200+ mile EV is expensive, but if it did 0-60 in 10 seconds and not 3.9, it would be a lot more affordable.
2.) This is a good point, and something that I overlooked. Thanks for reminding me.
3.) The intent of the rebate is to help the environment, just as the write offs for large trucks are to help small business owners. Neither were intended for purchasing luxury vehicles. Sure it’s legal. It’s a loophole. But it’s sad.


14 Aaron April 1, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Thanks for the quick response. The first home computers were as fast and powerful as they could make them and still find people to buy them, though. Cray didn’t stop making supercomputers just because the average home owner didn’t want one, after all. 🙂

Well, I’m one of those “throw out income taxes altogether” freaks, which would, of course, make this part of the discussion pointless. 🙂

Forgive my anti-government behavior, I live in Wyoming, where people are still free. 😉

15 Benjamin Jones April 1, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Okay. I won’t argue the point that they will be bought. Maybe they deserve some latitude for leading the way. I just wish we were leading the way with something like an EV2 instead.

16 Pedro April 3, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Benjamin, so what you’re saying is that tesla has to make cheap low-performance cars just because they are the first american company to make electric highway capable cars? That doesn’t make sense, Tesla decided to make fast luxury cars, that is the market they’re after. it’s like saying that Ferrari should make affordable cars, they don’t make it because they don’t want to, simple as that. Also, like every other technology, it will eventually become cheaper and have a wider array of options, in various price ranges. The example of personal computers was the first thing that popped in my head, but there are examples that are probably closer to you, such as air bags, abs, automatic transmission, etc., all those things were used on luxury cars first, and then, as companies developed cheaper ways of producing it, those things started to show up on more affordable cars. and the same will happen with electric motors, in a few years more and more affordable models will start to appear, until some day it will become a standard.

17 Eco_generator April 4, 2009 at 2:10 pm

Good post to get people to look at Tesla (and whoever) realistically. 🙂

Even if some of the points are a little off-base as was seen in the rebuttals, I think it still has accomplished its purpose.

18 1337 April 5, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Tesla sees an untapped market segment, and it’s filling it. *shrug*

I think a factory-built electro-metro would be a better deal, per dollar. Even so, I still lust for a Tesla.

19 Rich April 13, 2009 at 6:03 am

What do all startup companies need? Capital. What do automotive start-ups need? Gobs of capital. Crash testing along costs millions of dollars. Tesla elected to start out in the segment of the market that they reasoned would give them the most money quickest. You might have started out trying to sell smaller EV’s at a higher volume. That would have been your path.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that Tesla is challenging the stereotype that electric cars are underpowered. This is a good thing for the EV industry in general. This is a strategic move that’s working according to the press that I’ve seen.

In terms of “Tesla’s Rocky Track Record” – it’s normal to have to go through design challenges during the development of a new product (yes, a high performance EV sports car is a new product). Tesla is certainly not the first (or last) company to experience design challenges. The major car manufacturers have been refining the same designs for a hundred years, but they still have recalls.

In terms of the cost of the batteries, Tesla’s roadmap goes from:
– A few expensive, sporty cars
– More less expensive, more consumer friendly cars
– Commidity cars – the segment it seems that you want. This is also the segment that I want, and this is the segment that will drive down the costs of batteries.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the EV industry won’t be either. It takes time. So yes, it is going to be a while before the price of battery technology takes a dive. The ends don’t always justify the means in terms of achieving a goal, but in this case I think they do.

Oh – and what car companies do you trust? Tesla is still a startup. It’s going to take us a all a long time to have as much faith in them as we do in GM. Oh wait – GM probably isn’t a good example. Did consumers trust Ford day one? Did companies like Kia have issues with quality / reliability out of the gates? Of course.

Advertising… Really? Tesla is just playing the same game that the rest of the auto industry plays. For how many years have the EPA MPG ratings been completely misleading consumers? So is your problem with Tesla or automotive advertising in general?

Tesla is taking a different route than you would have. That’s fine. What path are you taking? That’s not a sarcastic question – if there’s a more practical, achievable way (and better urban planning is a great idea, but reinventing where and how people live is going to take longer than making batteries cheap) to reduce our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, I’m all ears. Oh – and it has to be more than an idea / roadmap. Tesla is actually making it happen.

20 Aaron April 13, 2009 at 9:32 am

So what you’re saying is that all of us need to move to the big city (ala Brave New World) and ride the bus?

Sorry, pal, not gonna happen. I live in the country and I refuse to live in your crappy urban environment full of Starbucks and crime. Where I live, there were 3 violent crimes committed last year and all three of them happened in the town bar and involved only fisticuffs. How much crime did you experience in your city? How many muggings take place on the subway, at the bus stop, or on the rails?

Urban planning my foot. Keep your ghetto, I’m staying here where I can be free.

21 1337 April 13, 2009 at 9:35 am


You have faith in GM? Wow, just wow.

I have little reliability data on Tesla (except for a few transmission shenanigans). I have boatloads of negative reliability data on GM.

22 Benjamin Jones April 13, 2009 at 9:36 am

Aaron –

To be fair, Japan has followed this principle of urban planning and their cities are much safer than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

Rich –

While I do agree with much of what you say in principle, it comes down to this: a handful of electric cars are not going to change the world. The EV1 showed that back in the day. However, Tesla has in effect priced itself out of the hands of most owners, meaning that it will never have a larger share than a handful. The i MiEV, on the other hand, is something I look forward to.

23 Rich April 13, 2009 at 9:42 am


It looks like the sarcasm of picking GM as a model of reliability didn’t come through (I didn’t word it very well). I drive a Nissan for a reason.

24 theunchosen April 16, 2009 at 8:12 am

I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about what they spend their fortunes on. IF I had a mil I would definitely buy an import exotic that doesn’t get good mileage. I would also tweak out my Sol to get ridiculous mileage with all the pet projects I haven’t done.

They should feel ashamed of propogating the lie that its green and they are saving the world by buying it.

I’m not really impressed by Tesla at all considering people here have achieved better cost/range EV. Yeah its a sports car but if you went out and bought huge electric motors its got and dropped them in your metro it would do 0-60 in less than 5.5.

25 Dave June 24, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Benjamin seems to be overlooking the obvious here. The Tesla Roadster was not designed for economy or practicality. Questioning its validity based on those merits alone would be missing the point entirely. It was created to make people pay attention to EVs and make consumers stop thinking that electric cars are like golf carts. You have to hit North American car buyers over the head with a sizable mallet to overcome the years of deceptive advertising out of Detroit that told us that BIGGER = SAFER. The Tesla roadster is that big mallet. You get a nicely styled little sports car (thanks Lotus) with face-ripping performance that little boys of all ages can lust after. If that does not drum up interest in your company I don’t know what will. Proof of the success of this approach comes by way of the fact that the approximately $130,000 car is selling used in the $160,000 range. It comes down to savvy marketing and a sound business development plan by a company that wants to be a big player in the car business, not a company that wants to save the World from Big Oil. Do you seriously think that Tesla would have advanced the cause of electric vehicles as much as it has if they were making an electric version of the Smart Car?

PS – You are now officially wrong about the Model S. Tesla got their money from the feds and will be selling the Model S to the public by 2012 for about 60 grand, which is about the same as what you would pay for a similar luxury performance sedan based on a gasoline or deisel powertrain. BMW should be starting to get nervous about the future of its 500 series right about now. Same goes for Lexus concerning their IS and GS series.

26 Optimist September 2, 2009 at 5:33 am

Wow, the article written by the same guy that didn’t want to get into digital photography at Kodak!! Must love to drive your gas guzzler while petroleum reserves deplete and the ozone keeps getting worse. Me though, personally, I think Tesla has a winner on their hands, while it might be true prices and are high now, as the experience curve for the company increases and market picks up it will get better and more commercial. As for the charging on cross-country trips…I mean really, how many gas stations do you think were around when the Ford Model T first came out?

27 Izzy July 15, 2010 at 2:13 am

Sure, some people won’t like Tesla’s cars – after all, that’s why there are hundreds of companies making cars all over the world. Different strokes for different folks. But I think it’s just plain silly to bash such an innovative product like that. Yeah, electricity is largely generated by dirty sources – but it doesn’t HAVE to be. Try powering your gas car with a wind turbine… Yeah, the roadster is expensive at $100k. But to purchase a conventional gasoline car with the same performance will set you back closer to half a million bucks!!! It’s a STEAL at that price! Just because the Tesla battery packs are not mass produced doesn’t mean that the mass produced cells they are created from won’t get cheaper! New types of batteries have greatly fallen price in the last decade, and it seems obvious they will continue to. Yes, Lotus builds the body – but that’s just the shell. Tesla designed the drive train. So Tesla had a few snags in startup, and the roadster took a while to get rolling. They’re still moving WAAAAY faster than GM is with the Volt! And lastly, while they do advertise only the best aspects of the car (300 miles per charge advertised, while the base model doesn’t come with that enhanced battery pack), how many companies do you know of that DON’T advertise their products in the best light possible? Why attempt to stifle innovation by slamming the folks at Tesla for trying to bring alternatives to the market?

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