Sunday, January 15, 2017

Tucker Tesla – no future for Elon Musk's cars

Elon Musk spoke, and European countries have a nervous breakdown. Tesla is planning a 'megafactory' in Europe. No surprise that every country and region is flirting with Tesla now. Poor Brexit Britain, it disqualified itself, but for the others it will be a winter and spring full of suspense until Mr. Musk will speak again. And to the winner I will say, enjoy it while it lasts. Because anyone who is familiar with the Tucker story, knows how the Tesla adventure will end. Musk and his companies will be there in our future, but Tesla won't. So, if you want a Tesla megafactory within your borders, you better start thinking about future re-employment and outsourcement programs as well. 

Tesla Model S

I have never driven a Tesla Model S. Frankly, I'd love to be behind the wheel of one, if only for an hour. The Tesla Model S has become a common car on Dutch roads, helped by massive tax incentives. Apparently, it is even the best selling car in Norway. Which is cheeky, since Norway was the homeland of an early, small and capable electric vehicle, the Th!nk. Yes, that acclamation mark is correct, that's what the marketing guys came up with. Briefly owned by Ford, but when it was on its own feet again, it stumbled. Too bad, I've seen 'm managing high and steep Swiss mountain roads.

Tesla's success is hardly surprising. Here we have an electric vehicle with a range that will allow for only nightly charges for most owners. Tesla's technique is hardly groundbreaking though. Building an electric car is not a major achievement to begin with. Make it big and expensive, and you can load it with batteries that allows for a 500 kilometer / 310 mile range. Mind you, that's what you can expect under
optimal conditions. Tests show that in winter driving you will loose half of that range. Having said, Tesla's popularity draws from something else too. It is not just the range. It is the new halo toy for the show off crowd, the people who buy iPhones and Nespresso coffee machines, and who's income allows for more vehicles, that they can use for their vacation trips. Tesla fits perfectly in their quintessential range of fashion items. Am I exaggerating? Now, just explain why buyers were waiting in a queue to pre-order the upcoming Tesla Model 3, like they were for a new iPhone a few years ago. If you want a compact EV like the bland styled baby Tesla, you could just walk into a Nissan showroom and order a Leaf. I'm sure they can provide you one right from stock. Or, if you will settle for a more limited range, a Renault Zoe. But Tesla aspiring wannabes will never do that. Just like a Samsung or Windows phone will never do for them. Or a Tassimo coffee machine.

 1919 Detroit Electric during the Cascades endurance run

1919 Detroit Electric charging during the Cascades endurance run

Tesla is not the first popular electric car. At the beginning of the 20th century, electrics were massively popular for city use. Detroit Electric and Baker Electric were market leaders - their cars looked like Grandma Duck's car - but there were more. In 1899 Belgian driver Camille Jenatzy set a speed record of 105 km/h in his electric La Jamais Contente, a name you would expect from a Chinese car company today. Ah, those magnificent men in their driving machines, to paraphrase a movie from a few decades ago. But when automobility became more and more important, the popularity of electrics faded. Detroit Electric proved that there was nothing an electric couldn’t do, and drove one through the Cascade mountains. But don't blame buyers to prefer a car that you just could fill up in a few minutes, and did not have to recharge for hours at some mountain railway station that allowed you to plug in. That will take away the joy of traveling, no matter how agreeable the company was. And you already had to take the numerous tire punctures in account in those days. So, in the 1920s the electrics had to settle for a marginal role in the automotive scene. Baker Electric didn't even make it to that decade, it closed its doors in 1915. Detroit Electric managed to hold on longer and was in business until 1939, but built only a few cars every year after 1920.
1899 La Jamais Contente

1915 Baker Electric, spotted in Hillegom, The Netherlands.

So, where does Tucker come in here? Tucker did not build any electrics, did it? Right, it didn’t. Actually, it hardly built any cars at all. 51 to be precise, all pre-production vehicles. And yet, it is one of the most notable cars in postwar American car history. Because the Tucker 48 Torpedo, designed by Alex Tremulis, was gorgeous, flamboyant, low slung, and offered many unusual and innovative features. Three headlights, an air cooled six cylinder engine in the rear and many safety options made it stand out of the crowd. Preston Tucker knew he had to do something special to warm the hearts of the car starving buyers after world war II. Because after all, the Big Three – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – only offered warmed up prewar designs when car production resumed in 1946. But the empire struck back. The Big Three had no appetite for the new kid on the block, pulled some strings, and Preston Tucker was indicted for stock fraud because he allegedly exaggerated his business model and the technical features of the car when he was gathering capital for his venture. The company had to close even before production started. And when Tucker was cleared of all accusations in 1950, it was too late for the Tucker automobile. Big Tree mission accomplished.

1948 Tucker 48 Torpedo

Of course I am not predicting that the Big Three will indict Elon Musk for stock market fraud. There is no 'Big Three' anymore to begin with. The Big Twelve now – GM, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, Volkswagen, Renault-Nissan, Peugeot-Citroën, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Kia – will simply do what they do best. Catch up and offer competing electric cars, offered at a price that will undercut the Tesla cars. Because they have deep pockets and access to capital, a vast dealer network, and lure buyers with interesting trade ins and financing programs. Tesla will have no answer to that. Funding has been a problem for Tesla so far, and it is clear that Musk and his associates already economize by cutting the styling department. Let's face it, a Model S sports a generic design that borrows styling cues from Audi and Jaguar. And the instrument panel is simply awful and does not look like what you expect in a car with this hefty price tag. The Model X? Let's not even go there. The competition is gearing up, and Tesla should better be prepared. General Motors already introduced the Chevrolet Bolt, aka Opel/Vauxhall Ampera-E, that has the same 500 kilometer / 310 mile range as the Tesla Model S. But at less than half the price. 

Opel Ampera-E | Vauxhall Ampera-E | Chevrolet Bolt

And in the long run Tesla will not be able to stand out because of its superior technology. Because an electric car is actually rather easy to make. The true future of electrics is fuel cell technology that will generate electricity in the car itself by using hydrogen. Research and development is extremely costly. But Honda and Hyundai already offered fuel cell vehicles in a lease program, and Toyota followed in 2016 with the Mirai you can actually buy. Can Tesla do a fuel cell car? I doubt that. The automotive industry has never been kind to independents. Tesla is doomed.


  1. Interesting take, Martin. Here in New England the subsidies for solar cells and the subsidies for electric cars have made both very popular.

    What I expect to drive demand for electric cars is the perception that human-generated climate change is a threat-but that is obviously not as serious as people claim, else we would have a wave of new nuclear plants coming on line to charge our cars!

    1. Renewable energy is the solution. In 2016 Germany could rely for its electricity several days during the year on solar and wind generated energy. And some generated by water, but that is not much. Germany aims to a 50% annual share of renewable energy in 15 years from now. We all benefit, and it creates many jobs in new innovative businesses too.

  2. From Ypsilanti, Michigan (heh heh)...
    Terrific essay, Martin. Did you know that Preston Tucker was from Ypsilanti? His stone house is still something folks drive by here.

    1. I read a book about him, saw the movie, so I should have known. But I forgot about that.

  3. Did you mean to write "Big Tree"?

    or Big Three

    I don't know why it seems much easier to see these things in the the writing of others than one's own.

    British Columbia has seen a number of false starts with hydrogen and fuel cells. Two different versions of hydrogen buses have been short lived at BC Transit. And the "hydrogen highway" our provincial government was babbling about at the 2010 Winter Olympics has yet to be established in any meaningful way. Someone once said to me that hydrogen fuel cells were "promising - and always will be."

  4. Ha, thanks for the heads-up! No one else seems to have spotted that.

    On the hydrogen hoghway: it took quite some time before there were enough charging poles here, and now there are even charging stations along the motorways.