Tesla — Spaceship of a Revolution

I didn’t get into this career in cleantech via engineering, business, or battery chemistry. My first degree was a dual major in sociology and environmental studies, which somehow led to CleanTechnica through a wildly meandering route.

I love sociology and still consider it the heart of my career, and the heart of my work today. So, I’m surely a bit biased in how I view Tesla — which is often through the lens of a sociologist. That said, I’m pretty sure I have the right view.  I view Tesla not simply as a business or the center of a tech transition. (Though, its corporate culture and approach to innovation is certainly an interesting sociological topic as well.) My first inclination when thinking about this was to call Tesla a revolution, but that’s not quite accurate. Tesla is, in essence, the spaceship of a revolution.

The key behind a revolution is not a product. It is an idea, and a mission. A revolution, typically, is about righting an injustice.

The injustice at hand today is the injustice we are committing against future generations. It is the injustice we are committing against human society as a whole.

Through a bit of excessive comfort as well as cultural and technological inertia, we are guaranteeing a more difficult life for millions or billions of humans. That includes premature death via natural disaster, disease, poverty, drought, famine, fire, heat, and war. Anyone with even a half-decent understanding of climate science puts catastrophic climate change as one of the three biggest threats to the human species, and they often consider it the biggest.

Air pollution costs the US billions of dollars a year in health costs, but air pollution is nothing compared to the existential societal threat of climate change.

Million, tens of millions, or hundreds of millions of people who know this are eager to do something about it. Policy is a hard matter to have much influence over, but personal purchases and energy choices are not. By and large, three major parts of our lives are causing the globe to heat up — energy use within buildings (electricity & heat), energy use for transportation, and deforestation related to meat and dairy consumption. Thus, many people understand that renewable energy, electric transport, and vegan/vegetarian diets cover the bulk of what they can do to help stop global warming.

Tesla’s products are extremely compelling for many reasons. As millions of people know, they are totally awesome machines to play with. But the heart of the company and the essence of why so many people love it is its passion to help address the global climate crisis. In fact, for a long time, Tesla did not seem like a very rational business venture. It definitely did not seem like a good way for Elon Musk or others to get richer, as Elon Musk has said many times. It was more likely to cost a handful of individuals small or large personal fortunes. But people passionate about helping the world went forward with it anyway, because the mission was that important.

Consumers today appreciate that. Tesla fans appreciate the David vs. Goliath mission, appreciate the risk-it-all-at-the-slim-chance-of-success effort, appreciate the compassion and honor underlying the entire company. Consumers appreciate that Tesla’s goal is to help humanity in one of the most critical of ways.

Many people honestly decided to buy Tesla’s cars mostly to “do their part” (not that the consumer experience doesn’t make it all highly enjoyable), and many Tesla shareholders say that all of the money they’ve invested in Tesla is worth risking simply in order to help the cause. In other words, helping to save the world is fundamentally part of their investment rationale. (After all, what is money worth if the planet has turned into a warring fireball?) I have heard or read such claims in some form or another not just once but many, many times — and I subscribe to it myself.

One company is not going to solve the global climate crisis by itself, and I don’t think many Tesla fans think that’s the case. However, it is hard to think of a company doing more for this cause than Tesla. I can’t think of one. Depending on how you calculate it, transportation is more or less one-third the cause of global warming. Even if transport will shift to nearly 100% electric transport eventually, the important thing is that we need to speed up the transition. Tesla is speeding it up in multiple ways.

Automakers have explained time and time again that transitioning quickly to electric vehicles is difficult for them financially. They want the transition to happen slowly, and they lobby like hell to slow it down. Tesla does a few things that significantly speed up the transition.

First of all, Tesla has quickly made gasmobiles much less competitive. Actually, it has embarrassed gasoline “competitors” in the classes it serves and it even gives popular cars in lower-end classes a run for their money. The best thing other automakers can do in response is create decent electric competitors as quickly as possible.

Secondly, one of the key talking points automakers have long used to push back on cleaner car regulations is the claim that “consumers don’t want these cars.” Tesla has completely blown that claim out of the water, which allows or even encourages policymakers to say, “Hey, this is bullshit — of course consumers want electric cars. Look at the insane demand for Tesla’s vehicles.” The Model 3 was the biggest product launch (of any kind) in history from a financial perspective, and the Model Y could be even bigger. Tesla has emboldened climate-concerned and health-concerned lawmakers and has almost certainly stimulated stronger vehicle regulations and incentives in China and Europe (and maybe the US someday, if we can only kick the pollution party out of power).

Low solar and wind power costs are transforming the electricity sector, but there is no company in those industries that stands out as so singlehandedly hastening a transition to clean electricity. Without Tesla, the automotive industry and our future would look much more depressing. On the other hand, if we lost any single solar or wind power company, the effect would be dramatically smaller. Furthermore, Tesla is also supporting those industries with world-leading battery storage technology.

Millions of people understand this. Most of them are part of the cleantech or even broader green revolution to save our climate and society as we know it. The revolution would exist without Tesla, but Tesla is one of the premier spaceships in the fight.

As a result, revolutionaries appreciate Tesla a great deal and will do what is necessary to protect it and improve it. Tesla, after all, is their spaceship as much as it is Captain Musk’s.

Get too cheesy for you? Apologies, but it is hard to think of a better metaphor.