Current Affairs - January 7, 2022
Edward Niedermeyer is the former editor in chief of The Truth About Cars blog. He has been a contributor to Bloomberg View, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other outlets. His book on Tesla, Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, has been called the best take on the company to date by Forbes. It is a remarkable piece of work. There is probably no greater expert on the career of Elon Musk and the development of Tesla. Niedermeyer is an expert on the auto industry, with a specialty in electric and autonomous cars. He’s the host of the Autonocast podcast, which is about the development of autonomous cars.
The interview transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
I’ve really been looking forward to this for a while. I’ve cited your work before. Your book is truly fascinating. It’s quite timely having you on. I just looked at the front page of the New York Times this morning. The headline says: “Pushing for self-driving Tesla, Musk downplayed tech limits.” It’s straight on the front page. We’ll get into the issue of autonomous driving and its development and the safety issues around it. But here’s where I want to start. I think that Tesla and Elon Musk are quite fascinating. As people who’ve read my work on Musk might probably know, I’m not a huge fan of Elon Musk. There are such fans that do exist, as you certainly have found out. You have now spent a considerable portion of your life and many, many hours researching this company, this person, this industry. You’ve developed a reputation as a skeptic of many of the claims put out by Tesla Motors and Elon Musk. Before we get to the debunking aspect of things, I want to start by asking, Why write the story of the development of this company, in particular? What drew you to the story and made you feel like it was worth spending all this time researching and writing about?
Thank you so much for having me. It’s a funny question to think about. I certainly would love to be able to sit here and say that I saw how fascinating this story would become and that my journalistic instincts led me to stake out the territory and all that. I actually backed into it a little bit by accident. What originally drew me in was Tesla announcing a battery swap station. I originally got into covering cars by accident. I covered the auto bailout and the collapse of GM and Chrysler. And I saw that new technologies were coming into the space. With electric vehicles (EVs), there was a lot of excitement in 2008 when I was first starting. There was a company called Project Better Place, which is an Israeli company doing a battery swap-based business. It seemed to solve some of the key issues with electric cars, namely the cost of the battery itself. They would just basically lease you the battery. You buy the EV without the battery, and you lease it. And then it would be an instant recharge.
So this is where they take one battery out and they pop another one in so you can just keep going like gassing up your car?
Yeah, exactly. They piloted it in Israel and Denmark. That company fell apart. It was a learning moment for me. Just having a good idea is not enough, right? And then Tesla started talking about battery swap. And it was very strange because Better Place’s business model was built around swap, and it made sense for them. With Tesla, it didn’t really make sense because if you own the car, and you own the battery, and you’ve taken care of that battery, do you want it swapped out with some battery whose provenance you’re not familiar with? Probably not. And so I became really intrigued by it. And I couldn’t find anybody describing actually using the station. They unveiled it. There was all this fanfare. Musk said it was all automated. But it was all happening behind a curtain. This was 2015. So there’s been a lot of water under the bridge now in Tesla world since then. And long story short, on a whim one Memorial Day weekend, I went down to the swap station, which is in a cow stockyard in the middle of the California Central Valley. And what I found there was that it was a busy holiday weekend, and Tesla had not opened it. It had not invited, as it claimed, the people who were using its vehicles to drive between LA and San Francisco. They said they were targeting the people with invites to use the station. There were long lines of people at the superchargers. People I was interviewing were saying, We would happily pay hundreds of dollars to just swap out our batteries and go now. Kids were crying in the backseat. What Tesla did do, instead of making that station open as it had told the public it was—and, by the way, they told the California Air Resources Board, which was subsidizing it quite heavily—was ship in some extra superchargers and hook them up to diesel generators. Instead of seeing this cutting edge future battery swap technology, I saw Tesla—literally the long tail pipe problem, as it’s called—become very, very short, as these diesel generators puffed out emissions and recharged these Teslas. Then when I went to Tesla and told them what I found, the way they handled it was extremely jarring to me. And I realized how cynical this company could be. And I just had this instinct that that kind of cynicism is never an isolated thing. There’s never just one cockroach like this. When you find one cockroach like this, there will be more. And that just really led me to start digging into every aspect of what Tesla has done. And the crazy irony is that it’s been the perfect story through which to understand these really massive evolutions that are going on in the auto industry.
But what’s striking is the statement that they put out, which was about a separate issue—about trying to get their customers to sign nondisclosure agreements so that they wouldn’t tell the government about the problems with their cars. What’s strange about this press release is the language. It’s not in professional language. It says, We don’t know if Mr. Niedermeyer’s motivation is to set a world record for ax-grinding or whether he has something financial to gain by negatively affecting Tesla’s stock price. And then they quote tweets by Elon Musk. And one of the themes that runs through your book that is very, very strange is this paradox of Tesla. On the one hand, it appears to be a very innovative and effective car company producing these cutting edge products that dazzle everyone. And on the other hand, as you say, there is a P.T. Barnum quality to it. If you look behind the curtain, everything’s falling apart, and it’s not a professional operation at all. And it’s not that it’s a total fraud, but that there are fraudulent elements to it. I mean, there are real cars, and the cars are really impressive. They go very, very fast. But also a bunch of stuff is fake. What’s going on?
I think you’ve touched on the heart of what makes the story so fascinating, particularly to anyone who is interested in investigative journalism. And the core issue here—and this is what I saw in 2015 when I looked into this battery swap thing—was this massive gulf between the public perception, which, as you say, is purely rooted in seeing this company as an innovative tech company entering the auto industry. There’s this inevitability of tech disruption of the automakers which tapped into this. And so there’s this whole narrative that largely lives online, actually, and has this whole apparatus built around continuing to craft and adapt this narrative every day on social media and online. And then you have the reality of what’s actually happening. And these two things are very, very far apart. And, of course, I’m someone who wanted to do investigative journalism, so my instinct was to go, Well, I’ll tell people the truth. I’ll go, and I’ll dig and uncover the truth—which, by the way, is very difficult because people who have worked for the company who know it from the inside, and who have exposure, potentially, to Elon Musk, specifically, are very afraid to go on the record and talk about this stuff. But I was able to uncover a bunch of stories about a bunch of different aspects of this company, again, under the assumption that when people see the truth, you know, the truth wins out. And what’s been fascinating is that it hasn’t been the case. So, part of the challenge of this story is that there are many stories. There’s the story of Tesla as an automaker. There’s a story of Tesla as a driving automation technology developer. There are so many aspects of the story. Perhaps the most neglected aspect of the whole story, and the most important one, is Tesla as an online phenomenon, because I think it taps into a lot of what we see coming out of the internet in terms of radicalization, in terms of how easy it is to build these self-sustaining movements that really can’t even be touched by facts. And I think it has as much as anything to do with the auto industry or the future of this technology or anything like that. That strikes me as almost the most troubling and problematic aspect of all of this.
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