Episode 88: Tesla is a Fraud with Ed Niedermeyer 


Ed Niedermeyer: This company is just being so cynical about what it says its core value is, which is improving the environment and, you know, environmentally-sustainable mobility. And so it was like, if the company is so cynical about technology and the environment, it’s the two pillars of its brand, you know, I have this moment where it’s like there’s never just one cockroach. Like, if you find a cockroach like that, you find that level of cynicism in a company, like, that as a journalist is when you know there’s more.

AARON NAPARSTEK: Hey, I’m Aaron Naparstek. Welcome to The War on Cars. Ed Niedermeyer is an automotive industry journalist, and the author of Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors. In it, Niedermeyer cuts through the hype, and peels back the high tech veneer to reveal a car company and a CEO more intent on manufacturing public opinion than environmentally-friendly transportation.

Aaron: One of the best and most emblematic stories in Ludicrous takes place over Memorial Day weekend, 2015. Tesla had recently announced that it would be demonstrating a new battery-swapping system at an electric car-charging point between Los Angeles and San Francisco on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. In a flashy press conference, accompanied by thumping techno music, Tesla CEO Elon Musk demonstrated how the new system would work. A Tesla Model S drove on stage and stopped directly above a rectangular hole in the floor. After a minute and a half of unseen activity beneath the stage, the car drove away with its instrument panel showing a fully charged battery. The audience of Tesla fans went wild, as Musk promised that the new battery swapping system would be twice as fast as filling the tank of a gasoline car.

Aaron: Ed Niedermeyer was fascinated. He had reported extensively on an electric car company that had spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying—and failing—to develop a similar battery-swapping system just a couple of years earlier. He wanted to know how Tesla was going to make this work, so he packed his bags and headed off for a long, broiling hot holiday weekend at a truck stop in the middle of California’s Central Valley.

Ed Niedermeyer: Yeah, so Harris Ranch is a big cattle ranch, and there’s like a feedlot nearby, so the whole place kind of smells like cow. And it’s not exactly the ideal place to spend an entire Memorial Day weekend, but that’s what I did. I went and spent four days there. And sure enough, like on the first day, you know, people start coming in to use the super chargers that are there, and the lines start building.

Aaron: As the Teslas piled up at the supercharger station, Niedermeyer never saw anyone making use of a new battery-swapping system. In fact, he never saw any sign that a battery-swapping system existed at all.

Ed Niedermeyer: And there was more traffic than the superchargers could serve, but instead of opening a swap station, they had these chargers. People were waiting in these long lines. If you think about it, it takes 45 minutes for each Tesla about to charge. If you have two people in line, that’s an hour and a half before you can even plug in. Kids screaming in back seats, you know, people losing their patience. And, you know, I talked to people and they said, you know, “Yeah, like, I would pay any amount of money to be able to use a battery-swap station and just go right now.”

Aaron: Finally, on Saturday, workers from Tesla showed up.

Ed Niedermeyer: And then on day two, someone comes in and I think, “Oh, okay. Maybe they’re gonna use the battery-swap station now.” Well, instead what happened was they brought in a bunch of extra superchargers and put them up to diesel generators.

Aaron: You heard that right. Still no battery swapping, just dirty, noisy, glacier-melting diesel generators connected directly to Tesla superchargers.

Ed Niedermeyer: And the Tesla owners I talked to were really uncomfortable about the fact that they were sitting here and having a reporter asking them like, how do you feel about this not-so-long tailpipe, right? They call it the long tailpipe problem, is like, what are the emissions, where the electricity is being generated?

Aaron: Niedermeyer spent four days there. He never saw a single Tesla swap its batteries.

Ed Niedermeyer: And I was like, “Okay so this is—this is fake, right?” And then I started doing—I reached out to the company. They frankly lied to me. And I started doing the research, and I found out the whole thing was really just a way to game the California zero emission vehicle credit system.

Aaron: Okay, so this is where it gets a little bit wonky and complicated, but it’s kind of the most important part, so stay with me here. The state of California was trying to incentivize electric car makers to develop faster battery-charging technology. So in 2013, they revised their zero emissions vehicle credit system so that cars that were able to charge 80 percent of their battery in under 15 minutes earned almost twice as many credits as cars that charged more slowly. The credits were worth a lot of money to the automakers, and battery swapping was a way to earn them. There was a bit of a loophole in the rules, though: to earn the extra credits, a company only needed to show that battery swapping was possible; it didn’t matter if car owners were actually using this capability. Demonstrating it on just one vehicle at a big headline-generating press event, even hidden beneath a stage where no one could actually see how it worked, was apparently enough. After the big battery-swapping press conference, Tesla nearly doubled the zero emissions vehicle credits earned by its entire fleet of cars.

Ed Niedermeyer: And there was no mechanism in those rules to—you know, to force or even encourage, you know, these companies to actually swap the actual batteries in the actual cars on the road that were earning these double credits. They really just had to do it once, and it was just assumed, like, oh, this is just a thing that’s happening now.

Aaron: In 2014 alone, Tesla made $217 million from zero emission vehicle credits. And though Musk repeatedly downplayed their importance, the credits were crucial. They enabled Tesla to report quarterly profits instead of losses, and reporting quarterly profits allowed Tesla to borrow cash to pay off loans from the federal government. Paying off the loans sent Tesla’s stock price soaring. Niedermeyer had apparently discovered that the battery-swapping system that Elon Musk had touted on stage at a huge press event in front of the entire world didn’t actually exist in any practical, usable form. So Niedermeyer began publishing his findings and asking Tesla more questions.

Ed Niedermeyer: And that’s sort of, you know, one of the points in which the relationship got—got a little bit tense. [laughs]

Aaron: You mean your relationship with the company?

Ed Niedermeyer: Yeah. Yeah. For me, it was like, okay, look. Like, you have two things happening here, right? You have, on the battery swap side, you have this technological facade that’s propping up ultimately, you know, a financial facade, which is that this company can be economically viable, which it was depending on those credits to pretend that it was. And then on the other side, on the charger side, it was like this company was just being so cynical about what it says its core value is, which is improving the environment and, you know, environmentally-sustainable mobility. And so it was like, if the company is so cynical about technology and the environment, it’s two—the two pillars of its brand, you know, I have this moment where it’s like there’s never just one cockroach. Like, if you find a cockroach like that, you find that level of cynicism in a company like that as a journalist is when you know there’s more. Like, there’s always going to be more. And so that’s when I started digging into, like, every aspect of the company.

Aaron: And we’ll be digging into all of that and more with Ed Niedermeyer after this word from our sponsor.

Aaron: When our family visited the Netherlands some years back, one of our kids got a little bit whiny about biking in the rain. Our Dutch friend told him, “You’re not made of sugar!” In other words, hop on that bike. You’re not gonna dissolve in the rain, kid. You just need the right rain gear. When it’s wet outside, all of us here at The War on Cars wear Cleverhood. Cleverhood’s capes and anoraks look great while they keep you dry. Thoughtful details like reflective threading make you visible on the street at night. Cleverhood also donates five percent of profits to advocacy groups working to create safer, more livable and equitable streets in cities around the US. For a 20 percent discount on Cleverhood’s capes and anoraks, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter coupon code WEATHERPROOF when you check out. Code is good through the end of July. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars. Coupon code WEATHERPROOF for a 20 percent discount. You’re not made of sugar.

Aaron: Edward Niedermeyer, welcome to The War on Cars.

Ed Niedermeyer: Thanks so much for having me. This is very exciting.

Aaron: In recent years, more people have started to get the feeling that Tesla is a scam or a fraud. And it’s things like the boring company tunnels where we’re presented this idea that there are going to be these tunnels that are very, you know, high tech and futuristic, and move people, you know, at high speed through cities or wherever. And then we see them and they’re just these kind of one-lane car tunnels with flashing LED lights, you know, moving Tesla cars at, like, 15 miles per hour or whatever. But you feel like there are other deeper aspects of fraud and scam in the company. Where do you see that happening?

Ed Niedermeyer: Well, so first of all, the tunnels? I think you’re absolutely right. That was one. There was a guy, an account called Tesla Charts. It was a—he was a short seller. And he had this saying that there was a—what he called the realization. And that was when Elon Musk got into your field of expertise, and suddenly you realized, wait, this guy does not know what he’s talking about.

Aaron: [laughs] He doesn’t know anything.

Ed Niedermeyer: And at this point, you know, he’s been getting into so many different fields, whether it’s brain, you know, neurology or infrastructure or these other things that, like, a lot of people over the years have been having this realization sort of more and more. But yeah, so, you know, when I wrote the book, like you said, I was trying to illustrate these broader patterns. And, you know, from the very beginning, or at least from the very early days, there was always sort of this, like, willingness to kind of push the truth or do what it takes, you know? Like, we believe in this mission so much that we’re willing to do things that others wouldn’t necessarily do.

Ed Niedermeyer: But really, the most important thing that I think is illustrated in the book is this pattern of—you know, which is very common in Silicon Valley of, you know, you get into a business that you don’t really understand with the, you know, amazing confidence that tech guys seem to have, and you realize, oh, this is harder than I thought it was. We need to raise more money than we thought we needed, and so now we need to come up with another big promise to get that money so that we can fix our current problem. And then you get into this treadmill, right? The fundraising treadmill. And those promises that you then have to make to bring in, you know, more investor cash, they get bigger and bigger and bigger.

Ed Niedermeyer: And I think one of the unique things about Elon Musk is that—you know, it’s not that pattern. That pattern is super common in Silicon Valley, but it’s all transacted between private company, private startups and venture capitalists. And it’s like part of their culture that that’s sort of an acceptable thing to do, that venture capitalists almost want to be a little bit—like, they want the founders to be so aspirational that that line between what’s real and what’s aspiration gets fuzzy.

Ed Niedermeyer: And, you know, what Musk has done is take that into the public markets, where no longer are you dealing with accredited investors, which is a specific class, right, that’s defined in the, you know, SEC rules. You have to have a certain amount of money and you’re assumed to be sophisticated enough to take on higher levels of risk. And Musk is really just taking that into the public markets where people, it’s just moms and pops and pension funds and things like that. And so, you know, the lies and the overpromising and the deceptions and things, they start out small, but then, you know, going into each crisis, the deceptions kind of get bigger and then the promises to get them out get bigger.

Aaron: And I think they get more dangerous, too, right?

Ed Niedermeyer: Yes.

Aaron: Because they’re not just—we’re not just talking about financial scammy-ness and fraud here. We’re talking about somebody who’s putting cars on the road that are being billed as, you know, full self-driving robot cars, but they’re fundamentally being tested on public streets.

Ed Niedermeyer: Yes. And autopilot …

Aaron: And that’s dangerous.

Ed Niedermeyer: It is. And autopilot and full self-driving is where that pattern sort of achieves what I think is sort of the escape velocity, right? When you get that centrifugal force, and it just flies off into really scary places. And, you know, people don’t realize that before Tesla ever talked about autopilot or self-driving or any kind of driving automation tech, Google had actually developed a system called “Autopilot.” And it was like Tesla’s. It was what’s called a level two driver assistance system, which means it appears to be driving, right? But it requires a human to be fully engaged all the time.

Ed Niedermeyer: Now over the course of 2012, this system had been developed and refined a lot. Google tested it internally, let people take it on their commutes to and from campus, and found that people just did not keep paying attention. And no matter how often they were warned or told this is dangerous, the people would bring out their laptops and put on makeup and eat food and do all this stuff. And if you read the research that predates these kinds of driving automation technologies, that’s no surprise. This is going to happen. It’s inevitable. It has nothing to do with the skill of the driver or anything like that.

Ed Niedermeyer: And Tesla was in a deal to get bought by Google right around the time that Google decided not to bring this to market. And so he put this system to market that Google knew was unsafe, and I think he had to have known that Google knew it was unsafe. He did nothing to address the safety concerns that Google had with it, and told people, you know, oh, it’s practically self-driving. Which by the way, people then overtrust the system even more when you tell them, oh, this is basically self-driving and they don’t know better, then they treat it like it’s self-driving, which means that they’re not paying attention when the system runs up on something it can’t handle. And people have died. People have died in Teslas that have driven at high speeds into stationary objects.

Ed Niedermeyer: And if you think about that, you know, that’s a very unusual failure mode in driving. There’s a lot of ways to die, to injure yourself and others in a car, right? It’s a very dangerous thing, but this is an entirely new way to fail that Elon Musk introduced with autopilot. And again, there’s no way he can’t have known, or if he didn’t know that these safety risks were real, you know, he was negligent. And then when NTSB investigated multiple fatal crashes and said, “Tesla, you’ve got design problems that are allowing people to overtrust the system and die,” they did nothing. They have done nothing.

Ed Niedermeyer: And so I think, you know, if you look at Tesla purely as an electric vehicle company, sort of especially prior to that 2013, 2016, when full self-driving came out, which took it all a step further, you know, you can say, “Well, they’re an electric vehicle company. They’re scrappy, so maybe they bent some rules, but it was for the greater good.” Like, you can make some, like—I think reasonable people would kind of disagree, but I think when you get into that automated driving, that was the point at which it became to me unambiguously malign. And then with full self-driving, it became unambiguously fraudulent.

Ed Niedermeyer: And the whole thing was about inducing people to believe that autopilot was more self-driving than it really was, so that Tesla would be perceived as a leader. And so literally what it was was, like, inducing people, the people who trusted Tesla the most, to crash and die in order for their stock to make more money, in order for Elon Musk to become the richest man in the world. And to me, it’s like, yes, it’s a new technological area. Yes, it’s complex. Yes, the regulator is not set up to understand and handle these problems. But, like, as a problem, it’s pretty clear cut, right? Like, you don’t want to have the richest man in the world getting there by inducing people to make driving even more dangerous than it already is.

Aaron: You know, Tesla is certainly not the only car company or company period, working on autonomous vehicle technology. Do you believe that that technology is simply, you know, all kind of fantasy tech? Or is there some version of it that could be useful?

Ed Niedermeyer: So this is one of the most frustrating things, I think, for me. And there’s a lot of frustrating things in all of this. But I actually—so autonomous vehicle technology is real. It absolutely exists, and it can exist and it will exist. And I think it will be one of the most important technologies of the 21st century. And I say that not in the, like, triumphalist, it’s all gonna be good sense. I say that specifically because I hope the kinds of people, especially who listen to this show, understand that it’s not guaranteed to be any one thing. It’s a technology that still has the potential to be a lot of different things, and it will be what we make of it.

Ed Niedermeyer: And I think it’s one of the—so Elon Musk, I think if you go and you ask people on the street, you know, you take 10 people and you say name a company that’s a leader in the self-driving space, they’ll say Tesla. And the reason that’s the case is because Tesla is the company that is selling the traditional dream of a self-driving car, the thing that Detroit was talking about in the ’50s and even earlier about a car that you’re gonna own. It’s just like a car. You own it. It goes everywhere you want. It just happens to drive itself. People don’t realize Tesla’s the only company selling that.

Ed Niedermeyer: And this is what I mean. This is another—this is the most extreme example of him taking a technology and fitting it to—like, contorting it to fit his business because he’s in the business of selling cars. And so for him, autonomous vehicles are a buy this car, you know, so that you will get this capability down the road. It’s an incentive to buy his car, whereas everyone else in the space, like, no one is talking about selling self-driving cars to people. It’s all about robo-taxis, you know, shuttles, delivery, semi-trucks and sort of like, you know, logistics.

Ed Niedermeyer: And what you have to understand is that the core technology in self-driving cars is, you know, machine learning, AI. The term—and it’s so counterintuitive because it’s a longer, more complex phrase, but I think it helps people understand what’s really going on with it, is “Probabilistic inference.” Okay? And so it’s essentially using statistics to make informed guesses about the world around you. Now if you think about that, right? If you live in a fishbowl, you can create a dataset fairly easily that allows you to make pretty accurate, probabilistic inferences about the world around you, because that world is small, okay? And that’s why every other EV company is developing what’s called “Level four technology.”

Ed Niedermeyer: And again, even this is misleading because people think, “Oh, well, four—you know, five is more autonomous than four,” or, you know? But no, level four and level five are both fully autonomous, no need for any human oversight or input, but level four simply says, we’re gonna do this constrained within a certain area. And that area can be, you know, a college campus where there’s no other cars. It can be, you know, a neighborhood. It can be a city. So level four itself is a really wide variety of things. But ultimately, what it means is it’s a fleet operating in a constrained environment.

Ed Niedermeyer: And the other thing they do is they say even with a constrained operating domain, which helps your probabilistic inference be more accurate, you also need hundreds of thousands or at least tens of thousands worth of sensors to make sure that the data you’re getting about the world around you is really accurate. Whereas with Tesla, not only are they trying to make inferences about literally the entire—anywhere that a human could drive, right? So an unconstrained domain, but they’re doing it with cameras alone. Which means that, you know, there’s all kinds of opportunities for cameras to misperceive things. And so you’re operating with very, very far from perfect knowledge about the world around you, and therefore the performance of your probabilistic inference is also degraded.

Ed Niedermeyer: And so what Tesla is doing—and they’re doing that because I mean, this is what I mean about him contorting the technology to fit his business model. He’s doing it because for him, the variable that he can’t change is that he wants to sell cars to people.

Aaron: Right.

Ed Niedermeyer: And so you have to have them be cameras because cameras are cheaper, lidar and radar are too expensive, so you can’t have them. And so they have to sell level five. And so again, but the reason it’s succeeding is not because it’s plausible. And everyone in the EV sector if you ask them will tell you ’til they’re blue in the face, what they’re selling is in no way plausible. The reason it’s succeeding is because it’s what people want to hear. It’s the self-driving car that they’ve been expecting this whole time. Whereas the other companies are saying, you know, yeah, our fleet of robo-taxis will give you a ride when you want it. And people are like, well, what’s the difference between that and Uber? Why do I care?

Aaron: Right. So, like, people aren’t really excited about—oh yeah, I could get into this golf cart robo-taxi and it could take me around a finite section of a well known, you know, place like Manhattan, you know? Like a place with, like, a nice, clear street grid or whatever. People really just want to be sold a car, I guess, in the way that they—in their sort of fixed mental model of what a car is.

Ed Niedermeyer: That’s exactly right. And this is why Tesla has been successful. They have said, “We’re gonna take electric vehicle technology and get it as close to people’s basic understanding of what a car is and should be that’s been developed for a century.” So they have this veneer of futurism where people think, like, “Oh, I bought this car and this experience. It feels like a smartphone. It’s so different than other cars. It’s so quick,” whatever. All the things that people like about it is this veneer of futurism that asks them to change nothing, right? They’re still buying a large, heavy, powerful, frankly difficult to control sometimes, status-imbuing luxury car, premium car. And it asks nothing of them. Whereas if you’re in the robo-taxi business, you know, you are in some ways making the pitch to people, like, maybe you don’t need to own your car. Maybe there’s a, you know, fixed fleet of autonomous vehicles that can serve, you know, a huge number of rides. There’s real efficiencies there. But as a consumer, you know, that car that’s parked outside 90 percent of the time, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. You want it sitting there being wasteful.

Aaron: [laughs] Right.

Ed Niedermeyer: So that it’s ready when you want it, you know?

Aaron: Sitting in this space where we could have our dedicated bike lanes and our bus lanes, and wider sidewalks and all the things we really need in a city.

Ed Niedermeyer: Exactly. And I think this is what I really hope people understand is that, you know, Elon Musk has talked about features like, you know, oh, you’ll be able to, like, get out of your car and it’ll follow you around like a dog. Instead of parking, the car’ll just circle the streets. We are so lucky that he has not been able to promise on this absurd technology, or deliver on this absurd technology that he’s promising because if he did, cities would be so, so, so much worse because we would have literally—you know, single occupant vehicles are a problem that cities are trying to address. We would have zero occupancy vehicles, right, adding to that problem, making it worse. Whereas if you have an autonomous vehicle fleet, each one of those things is so expensive, especially in these early iterations, that the only way to make it work is to literally make sure that they are utilized, I guess, close to a hundred percent of the time as possible.

Ed Niedermeyer: And so a level four robo-taxi fleet, their incentives, it’s very distinctly different than Uber and Lyft. Their incentive is to have as few vehicles as possible serving as many rides as possible. Their goal is ultimately to serve all the rides in the city with as few vehicles as possible.

Aaron: And just backing up a step there. I mean, I feel like in some ways what you just described, you know, the fewest number of vehicles serving the most number of people in the city, to me, you just described the bus in a way.

Ed Niedermeyer: Yeah.

Aaron: [laughs] You know? It’s like, well, we have that. We invented that a while ago. You know, it’s the bus, it’s the subway. And maybe when you don’t need to go a long distance, you know, you hop on a bicycle or some other vehicle. And I guess, you know, one of the questions I have for you is, like, what does your version of progress look like? And we have all these new technologies, but it’s a question of, like, do we even need these new technologies? Like, the technologies we had in 1890, trains, you know, subways, bicycles, these technologies are pretty good and can still be used today. Like, is this tech sort of distracting us from the actual solutions that we need, which are perhaps simpler?

Ed Niedermeyer: Yeah. It’s a great question, and it’s one I think I kind of grapple with, like, almost every day in some form or another. I mean, when I started writing about cars, I hadn’t owned a car, you know, for like five years at the time. And so, you know, my background, I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, where you definitely don’t need a car. I grew up biking. So for me, progress is about moving from the monoculture that we have now, the car monoculture that we have now, where we take a car, whether we’re going a mile or 500 miles. And by the way, I mean, you know, 95 percent of trips, of vehicle trips in the US are 30 miles or shorter, right?

Ed Niedermeyer: So this is the other thing that Tesla’s had this really pernicious effect on is convincing people you have to make EVs that are road trip capable, that can have hundreds, 300 miles, whatever, 400 miles of range, this is less than five percent of the trips that people actually take. And you split that battery in half, you can have two 150-mile cars. That’s more than three times the average, you know, miles that a person drives each day. Or you can have, you know, however many e-bikes, right?

Ed Niedermeyer: And so I think, you know, especially as supply constraints, you know, build up around battery—you know, supply chain infrastructure, I think those are some hard choices we’re gonna have to make. And I really think it’s crazy for us to say EVs can’t succeed until they’re all 300, 400 miles. We’ll never get to where we need to go that way.

Aaron: Just to try to sum up what I think you’re saying here and in your book is that Tesla gives us this kind of veneer of futurism, right? It gives us this sense that we’re looking at something completely brand new and high tech and world changing. But ultimately, what they really are is just like the classic American car company. They’re selling us this very old idea.

Ed Niedermeyer: Yeah. Like to the point where even their cars are really—they’re classic American cars. They’re big, they’re heavy, they don’t have tight turning circles so they’re not good in cities and in Europe, right? And they’re like drag racing machines. They don’t, like—you know, it’s not like a Porsche where you want to get it out on a back road. It’s literally just for that traffic light thing. It’s the most Detroit vehicle possible. It’s even manufactured poorly. They would have terrible panel gaps like the Detroit car in the ’70s did.

Aaron: Right.

Ed Niedermeyer: It is as classic American a car as you can get. And again, it just shows you that little veneer of Silicon Valley gloss on top of it, like, prevents people from seeing that at all, which is, frankly, again, it’s Elon Musk’s brilliance as a brander and as an exploiter of, you know, these, like, subconscious prejudices and beliefs that are buried down deep in all of our brains.

Aaron: Is there some value to that, though? So you’ve got, like, this guy who’s an amazing showman and salesman, and so he is fundamentally selling us an old idea that we understand. We all understand the car, you know? And we have this whole infrastructure in place to market and sell cars. And Musk is very good at that. But he’s selling us electric cars. And fundamentally we need to get off gasoline, we need to get off fossil fuels. So there is a way in which, you know, he’s doing something that we need to do, and he’s figured out how to sell us electric cars that we will actually buy, because people have been trying to sell electric cars for decades, frankly, and it hasn’t worked.

Aaron: Is there something there that we can say, okay, like, Musk is a kind of fraudster, but he is using it for some ultimately, like, good purpose, moving us toward this, you know, electric mobility future just in the same way that, you know, we called the first cars, “Horseless carriages.” Like, they were sold to us in a way, like we understood horse-drawn carriages, so they sold us the first gasoline-powered cars as “Horseless carriages.” And maybe that’s all Musk is doing here, and it’s a process that we need to go through.

Ed Niedermeyer: Yeah, a hundred percent. So I think that his specific genius is, as you say, it’s perfect for this transition period. And I think, like the whole showing that EVs can do road trips thing is a great example of this, where it needed to be done to open people’s minds at all, right? Like a lot of Americans, like, they would not even consider this unless they knew, like, okay, there’s a dedicated charging network, it’s got these 350-mile whatever range batteries.

Ed Niedermeyer: But again, like, that’s not a scalable solution over the long term. And I think that’s kind of the—that’s the danger of Musk, right? And I think where it gets really pernicious is where, you know, he has become now such a dominant presence that, like, everything revolves around him. And every time a company comes out and tries to talk about something they’re doing with technology, it has to be shoved into his frame of reference. And that’s really pernicious because it prevents us from understanding that the technology has so many different possible futures. And I think that that’s what excites me about covering this technology and moving from cars into covering technology is that there are so many different ways this can go, so many different directions. And that’s what Elon Musk is now. Now that he’s sort of played his role, he’s now holding people back from understanding that.

Ed Niedermeyer: And again, one of my frustrations is that because he’s so dominant, people think all EVs are cars that you’re gonna buy and that are gonna drive themselves. And again, he’s literally the only one, but because he’s so dominant, you know, everyone just assumes all the other companies are lined up behind him. And they absolutely aren’t. And there are much better futures that are possible with this technology. And, you know, understanding them is gonna really require kind of getting him out of this dominant space that he’s in.

Aaron: So what do we do about Elon Musk? What do we do about Tesla? It just feels like this 800-pound gorilla that is always in the room now. And we just see this company preventing a lot of progress from taking place. You know, like transit projects stop because Elon Musk is gonna build a tunnel instead or whatever. What can we do about it?

Ed Niedermeyer: Well, it’s an interesting question because for me personally, you know, I wrote this book. It’ll have come out three years ago in August and, you know, it sold okay but, like, not what I was hoping for. And it’s taken again, almost three years, and now all of a sudden, like, the sales are going up, you know, again, and I’m being asked to write about this stuff, and there’s a real vibe shift happening. And I think it’s because, you know, Musk has become so detached from reality and so detached from any kind of constraint.

Ed Niedermeyer: And I think as this stuff, you know, goes on, it just gets more and more obvious to more and more people. Like, wait a second, this guy’s supposed to be a genius? And yet now that he’s talking about something that I understand, like, I can’t—I’m having a hard time understanding why people think he’s a genius. So I think, like, to some respects, he needs to be sort of allowed to just keep going, because I think he has a death wish. Like, he wants to push this as far as it possibly can go. And I think—look, I think the government regulators on the auto safety side at least, are wise to him. I think that you’re gonna see in the next year or two, maybe even less, that you’re gonna see some action on autopilot and full self-driving and things like that. He was very well designed to avoid our societal immune responses, but I think they’re finally slowly starting to kick in, and I think that’s really good. And I think that, you know, it’s not gonna be enough to just stop him. I think what’s really important is that we learn the right lessons from this experience, that we understand why he was so successful, why it took so long for him to be stopped, and why he was able to sell totally implausible things and not have anyone really seriously question it.

Ed Niedermeyer: Because I think the answers to those questions, you know, tell us a lot about the future opportunities that we have with these new technologies and the pitfalls that we face. And I think that beyond just dealing with him—again, I see him as he’s gonna ultimately be a victim of gravity. Like, he’s defying gravity, and it’s just a matter of time before gravity gets him. What’s not inevitable is that we as a society take the right lessons from it. And I think that’s the really important part.

Aaron: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. You can buy a copy of Ed’s book, Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors in The War on Cars store on Bookshop.org. Check out Ed’s podcast, The Autonocast. Follow him on Twitter as well. You can find links in our show notes.

Aaron: Thanks to our sponsors, Rad Power Bikes and Cleverhood. For 20 percent off on the best rain gear for biking and walking, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and enter code WEATHERPROOF. Code is good through the end of July. Likewise, there are always great deals available at RadPowerBikes.com.

Aaron: If you would like some War on Cars stickers, apparel, water bottles, other swag, you can either go shopping in the store at TheWaronCars.org, or become a Patreon supporter. Click “Support Us,” and starting at just $3 per month, we will send you all kinds of great stuff.

Aaron: Shout out to our top Patreon sponsors, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker and James Doyle. This episode was produced and edited by me, Aaron Naparstek. It was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.

Ed Niedermeyer: The lesson embedded in this is I think it’s a really important one about America. I think if you want to make changes in this country, you have to—you don’t have to make your peace with it, you don’t have to accept that it’s unchangeable, but you have to accept that it’s a real thing, which is that we are better at solving hard technological problems than we are at solving easy political problems.