Journalist Ed Niedermeyer remembers exactly the moment he became a Tesla skeptic: Memorial Day weekend 2015. It was when Niedermeyer traveled to the Tesla Supercharger plant in Harris Ranch, California to see Tesla's first (and, it turned out, only) battery replacement.
At a live demo two years earlier, Tesla CEO Elon Musk had shown that a Model S received a 90-second replacement battery pack ̵
"I was down there for three or four days," Niedermeyer recently told Ars. "There was lots of traffic and lots of lines for Superchargers." Some people faced several hours of waiting. Tesla picked up extra superchargers powered by diesel generators to speed things up. But the battery replacement system was closed.
A few weeks later, Elon Musk announced that Tesla would not extend the service because it was "not very popular." This explanation made no sense to Niedermeyer.
"There was definitely demand there," Niedermeyer says. He spoke to a number of Tesla owners who regularly traveled between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some would gladly pay a premium for the battery replacement service if it had been available. But at least that weekend wasn't.
So what happened? Niedermeyer believes Tesla played cynical California's system with Zero Emission Vehicle credits. In 2013, California began to give car manufacturers extra credit for selling electric cars that can be recharged in 15 minutes or less. Supercharging is not fast enough to qualify. Battery replacement is.
But crucially, automakers do not have to prove that customers actually used fast-charging capabilities. As long as a car manufacturer could demonstrate that vehicles were theoretically capable of fast charging, they gained extra credits – even though most customers never used the opportunity. Niedermeyer estimates that Tesla raised tens of millions of dollars in extra credit revenue with this gimmick (Tesla did not respond to emails seeking comment on this).
"That's when I decided it was worth digging in," Niedermeyer said. "Companies don't just do something like that once."
Elon Musk's "hype campaign"
In recent years, Niedermeyer has emerged as one of Tesla's most insightful and exhausted critics. And in August, Niedermeyer published Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors . Based on previous reports and offers of some fresh beer, the book gives a skeptic their perspective on the up-and-coming electric car manufacturer.
Niedermeyer identifies 2013 – the year Musk demo Model S's battery replacement features – as a turning point.
That was the year the Model S started selling in significant volumes. Tesla made its first quarterly profit and the stock rose to record levels. In response, Niedermeyer writes, Musk "launched a hype campaign that continuously rattled off Tesla's ambitions and set him apart from anyone else in the public sphere. His wild-eyed production goals, seemingly impossible technological promises, clumsy sense of humor and relentless humor hunt for media coverage became a fast train. "
In 2013, for example, Musk argued that solar panels and batteries would allow SuperCharger stations to continue operating even if the electrical grid went down. "Even though it is a zombie apocalypse, you will still be able to travel across the country using the Tesla recharge system," Musk said.
Yet three years later, in 2016, Musk tweeted that while Tesla already had "some" solar panels installed, "that" full rollout "of solar panels was dependent on an imminent upgrade to SuperCharger technology. According to Niedermeyer, "only half a dozen or so" of the first 800 supercharger stations had "solar panels of some kind" by June 2017. Tesla did not respond to my email asking how many SuperCharger stations have solar panels today, but there still seem to be many stations without them.
In October 2016, Musk announced that all new Tesla vehicles should have the hardware required for full self-driving, and he predicted that it would take about two years to release the necessary software. Three years later, Tesla still struggles with mastering self-driving in parking lots. Musk continues to claim that full self-drive is less than two years away, but it's still hard to believe.
"Many of These Things Happen"
Hamish McKenzie, author of the 2018 book Insane mode: How Elon Musks Tesla triggered an electric revolution to end the Age of Oil argues that we should not overlook Tesla's achievements.
"What is amazing is, even though he lacks all deadlines, a lot of these things happen," McKenzie tells Ars. Tesla has missed self-imposed deadlines for the delivery of each of the new car models. But the vehicles were eventually shipped, and customers have generally been satisfied with them.
It is not surprising that McKenzie would have a more positive influence on Tesla than Niedermeyer. In January 2014, he left the job as a journalist for Pando to become Tesla's main writer, and he worked there for just over a year. He wrote Insane Mode after leaving Tesla; today he is the co-founder of the technology startup Substack.
McKenzie acknowledges that Musk has repeatedly made unrealistic predictions about how quickly technologies could be developed. "I don't know if it's a conscious strategy or not," he told me. "I think he believes in the things he says when he says them."
At some level, introducing unrealistic promises is an inherent part of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs must convince a bunch of people – customers, employees, investors and others – to take the risk of a new and untested company. It basically means predicting success even though failure is a likely outcome.
It's especially true when someone starts a car company. The most likely outcome of a car start is bankruptcy, as a number of Tesla's electric car competitions have shown in recent years.
"It's crazy that Tesla exists as a car company," McKenzie said. And, he said, it's even more crazy that Tesla succeeded as an electric car company – something most dismissed as wildly impractical when Tesla was founded in 2003.
A way to interpret Musk's behavior over the last 15 years – make unrealistic promises, delay Paying to suppliers, taking deposits long before products and features are ready to ship – is that he does just what it takes to get a new car company off the ground. Getting Tesla to where it is today has required raising billions of dollars from investors, and the company skated on the edge of bankruptcy several times over the past 15 years. If Musk had been less shameless about using hype and borderline gimmicks to get investors and customers in the door, Tesla could easily have plunged into the abyss.