Because I’m a minister long-concerned for the ethics of how we get and use energy, my recent trip to tour the Tesla factory to the San Francisco bay area (Fremont) had an inspiring feel to it, like going on a pilgrimage to a shrine.
Tesla doesn’t advertise or use dealerships, yet it is rapidly transforming the car world. This isn’t just for money. CEO and early investor Elon Musk’s life-intention has a “massively transformative purpose.” Above the doorway to the factory it reads, “Our Mission: To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
Tesla electric cars are part of his smart, practical tri-part vision that also includes using solar rooftops to charge batteries in cars, homes and businesses. Even if the electricity driving a Tesla were generated in the dirtiest coal plant, it would still be far less polluting than running a gasoline or diesel engine. When the energy comes from solar or wind generation, we would literally be driving on free, ongoing, natural, clean, sunlight and breezes.
If you think electric cars are new or wimpy, you’d be wrong on both counts. Electric cars started about the time gasoline ones did.
New ones, like the Tesla, are astonishingly fast and strong. The electric car’s torque is thrilling. The Model S (with the most batteries) recently went from 0 to 60 MPH in 2.3 seconds, making it the fastest production car in the world. The larger Model X, a sort-of sleek SUV, can tow 5,000 pounds.
We got to ride in Brandon’s large, white Model X, and though it is strong beyond elegant, he kept it well below the 165 MPH top speed. Like many Teslas, his is already equipped with the cameras and radar needed to easily upgrade it to a self-driving car. Of the thousands of other cars on the road, we saw only a few electrics. Most are like my old Tarus V6, churning out various pollutants, like the carbon dioxide that is forcing global warming. World-wide, such old technologies are draining our money while causing costly ecological disasters. We need to change to electrics quickly; Tesla is leading the way.
After four hours of driving we stopped and stretched at a Tesla Supercharger site where we chatted with other Tesla owners. A 440 volt full charge to a depleted battery takes about an hour, time enough to get some food. Brandon pays nothing for the charge, but new purchasers of Teslas will get only a limited amount of free charge. Tesla won’t profit from the future charging but they will use the income to create new charging stations. Also, they have announced all of their charging stations will eventually be powered by clean, renewable energy sources like solar. How much will driving cost? About $15 to go from San Francisco to L.A., or about $120 to go from L.A. to New York City. Home charging costs even less.
The huge, white Tesla manufacturing factory is a mile long. Inside, skylights and epoxied floors help make a bright, clean atmosphere where employees enjoy a gym and four open-air cafeterias. The diverse workers looked happy with their work. Tesla started with a Roadster sports car, creating 2,400 between 2008 and 2012. Then they made a thousand cars a week by 2015, and they expect to create five hundred thousand cars ─ Model S’s, X’s, and 3’s ─ in 2018.
I like cars. I’m from Detroit where I once worked for Ford. I wished I had toured the Rouge River Plant there, where raw iron came in one end and finished cars drove out the other. In Fremont, raw aluminum is the preferred ore. Like Henry Ford, Elon Musk tries to vertically integrate all aspects of production in-house, though he does use some 300 suppliers, mostly in the Bay area. Enormous robots swish huge body panels this way and that, bending and welding with speed and precision. One press is seven stories tall.
The unibody construction is a marvel. Made of 98% aluminum, it weighs only 410 pounds. The heavy weight of the cars (the S weighs about 4,900 lbs. while the X comes in at about 5,300 lbs.) is mostly in the motors and batteries. The three-pole AC motors have a half mile of copper wire in them. The seven thousand encased thumb-sized batteries weigh in at 1,200 lbs and are protected by a thick, smooth titanium under-plate. The weight is slung so low it is hard to tip the car over. The car is designed to crumple in a crash, absorbing much of the impact. The Model S received the highest safety award of any car ever tested.
Elon Musk was ridiculed for daring to try to start a car company during the recession. Car companies are notorious for failing. Yet he risked the profits from his selling PayPal into the young Tesla company. Fortunately, GM and Toyota had given up on the Fremont plant, and Musk grabbed the over-sized facility for pennies on the dollar, buying also some of the huge presses and robots. He opened the plant nine days after buying it.
Elon Musk has also been ridiculed for using government subsidies, even though that is exactly what government subsidies are for – stimulating new, needed technologies. His $465 million loan was paid back nine years ahead of the due date. Other subsidies have gone to creating the world’s largest factory, the gigafactory battery factory in Nevada, to employ 6,000 people, and the solar cell factory in Buffalo, NY, employing 3,000. The ATVM (Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing) program started by President George W. Bush and advanced by President Obama, has issued only five loans towards promoting fuel-efficient vehicles, but it has already saved 35,000 jobs and 1.6 billion gallons of gas. It still has $16 billion to loan.
Critics of subsidies like to jump on the half-billion dollar Solyndra scandal, so-called. The real scandal was how crummy the reporting was on how well the overall program worked and how it has paid for itself plus interest. Ford, Nissan, and others have developed far more fuel-efficient vehicles. And to top it off, Solyndra was recently purchased by Musk’s SolarCity, reviving the original solar cell manufacturing intent. Tragically and true-to-form, President Trump wants to defund the program, which will slow the transition from problematic fossil fuel cars to cleaner, better, less expensive electric ones.
Tesla’s approach was to market high-end cars to affluent people in order to bring more affordable cars to the market. We only got glimpses of the new Model 3, just now rolling off the line. Smaller but similar in style to the Models S and X, the 3 will sell for about $35,000. Even before it was being made, some 300,000 preorders brought in over $11 billion. All this from a company that doesn’t advertise.
Do I overstate the case to call a mere factory a shrine? A shrine is a structure associated with a holy person or deity. Elon Musk is no saint, but I’d put him up there with Henry Ford as a principled, innovative, practical person with a holy vision that also cares for the larger society and environment. Is it holy to want to save our precious earth from the needless ravages of humanity’s huge technological predicament? To me it is.
Consider our current plight. Driving home, we were a rare but promising type of car among the thousands of the fossil fuel engines churning out pollution. As people care and upgrade, more and more will choose to go electric.
We don’t kill whales anymore for our reading light. It felt wrong and it was. Nor need we burn kerosene for that, or coal, or oil, or gasoline, or natural gas. Most of what we use fossil fuels for can be provided by cleaner, less expensive ways that are better for us, each other, and our earth. We don’t need to keep ruining our reliable weather to prop up old technologies that empty our wallets to enrich some of the most unethical people in history. We don’t need pipelines to feed our habit any more than an addicts need to mainline.
We need ingenuity and ethics, vision and practicality. That’s what I saw actualized by Mr. Musk and his wizards and workers in the Tesla factory, feasible hope for humanity’s need to travel in an efficient, economical, ethical way.
Byron Carrier lives in Ashland, Oregon where he is a member of the national Electric Automobile Association, Southern Oregon Hybrid and Electric Vehicles Association Chapter. One of only two in the state, the club is made up of new electric car buyers and those who retrofit older vehicles. Five members took the tour.