Tesla and the Future of American Automobiles

While the Big 3 American automakers ask the federal government for billions of dollars to save them and the economy and workers depending on them, Tesla Motors, producer of an all-electric roadster, has asked for $400 million from the existing federal Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Incentive Program (ATVM), created by Congress in 2007 to support the development of next-generation automobiles.

For more, see the DealBook blog and Tesla’s own blog.

Should Tesla get the money?

For the view that the Tesla roadster is, in effect, a DeLorean for the 21st century, a millionaire’s plaything that isn’t like to produce any durable benefits, read Randall Stross’s New York Times piece from last week.

For the view that the Tesla roadster is, in effect, a moon shot for the 21st century, an advanced technology development program whose direct and indirect effects may be profound, read Jason Calcanis’s Fisking of Stross.

For the view that direct government support for technology innovation is unwise because the patent system exists to do this sort of thing, hmm, I haven’t found that one yet.

Is the Tesla roadster another example of conspicuous consumption and waste dressed up in green clothing?  I visited the Tesla dealership in Menlo Park last summer.  It’s not a temple to excess, but it is a temple to elite, expensive technology.  Even the ballcaps were astoundingly expensive. 

But — and here is an ironic detail lost amid most of the contemporary shouting — the Tesla dealership occupies a facility that for many years housed the local Chevrolet dealership.  In 1970, I accompanied my parents to that dealer on a trip to order, and then take delivery of a ’71 Chevy Chevelle Concours 4-door full-size station wagon (the 307 cc V-8 base engine; Classic Copper with black interior).  That car was conspicuous consumption of its own sort, though it was a heart-of-the-middle-class suburban automobile.  I haven’t looked into the scope of the various direct and indirect government subsidies that enabled GM to produce that thing, but I suspect that they were enormous.  (Corrections on this point are welcome.)  The car handled superbly, by the way, especially for a station wagon.  It had power to spare.  It ran on regular (leaded) gasoline.  And it got pathetic mileage.

Buttressed by my interpretation of my own, anecdote-driven history, I side with Calcanis.  The ’71 Chevy and the 21st century Tesla are not, to my mind, radically different vehicles.  They are both, and neither, vehicles (the non-automotive kind) for conspicuous consumption, products at the end of one era (the Chevy) and the beginning of another (the Tesla).  I’m heartened that my friend Chris Paine, the filmmaker responsible for the hit documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006, is now filming a sequel, featuring the Tesla, among other vehicles.  Revenge of the Electric Car is slated for release in Spring 2010.