I’m not a car enthusiast. I drive a Subaru Outback – how boring is that? But I enjoy reading auto reviews and commentaries written by top-tier writers who can dazzle me with their automotive enthusiasm and insights without mentioning torque or other technical terms I don’t fully understand or care one iota about.
Kyle Kinard of Road & Track is one such writer. Kinard last week posted an article entitled, Who the Hell is Going to Buy a Lucid? that I thoroughly enjoyed despite disagreeing with its premise. A Lucid is on display at the company’s store in my nearby Century City mall and I often pay homage to the car as I make my way to Panini Kabob Grill, one of the best restaurant values in Los Angeles and possibly the entire country. If I had money to burn, I’d possibly fork out $170,000 for what Kinard characterizes as a “badass electric rocket” that can go from a standing start to 60 m.p.h. in 2.5 seconds and then barrel along at 168 m.p.h. for more than 500 miles without recharging.
Kinard was the first auto writer to make sense for me the lure of a Tesla. I’ve never been wowed by the car, and company founder Elon Musk embodies all the tech geek qualities I despise. A Tesla looks to me like chunks of metal wielded together without much love, pride, or design thought. The car strikes me as a glorified iPad with four wheels and a steering column. Friends and family have offered to let me take their Tesla for a whirl, but I can’t be bothered. I have no desire to drive such a soulless car.
I get there are lots of people, mostly of the male species, who are dazzled by technology and for whom Tesla is automotive nirvana. What I didn’t understand was their tolerance for Tesla’s shoddy workmanship and its notorious unreliability. Consumer Reports ranks Tesla among the most unreliable cars, second only to Ford’s Lincoln brand. Tesla plans to recall more than 475,000 cars for two separate safety defects. One defect could cause the rearview camera to fail and the other could cause the front hood to open unexpectedly.
Kinard explains my thinking was flawed because I mistakenly perceived Tesla as a car company. Here’s Kinard’s take:
Tesla is not a tech company, despite a popular line to the contrary. It’s a luxury lifestyle brand; Nobody talks about their Macbook with the same reverence Tesla buyers reserve for the Model S.
But what is it, exactly, that Tesla buyers are so latched on to? They view themselves as first adopters, clever consumers, climate warriors, and techno-futurists. Some of that pride is surely rooted in the belief that a Tesla is a better mousetrap, and for many buyers, it is. All of that speaks to this idea of “post-luxury” as forward-thinking altruism.
More than just saving the turtles, Tesla owners are broadcasting those perceived values to others. Social awareness is indeed both virtue and commodity in 2021. And for the better part of the last decade, a certain segment of our population has decided that the best way to signal all the right virtues was to park a Tesla in front of their energy-efficient Silicon Valley condo.
To Tesla enthusiasts, the brand represents the future of automotive and Musk is the technology prophet leading us to the EV promised land. In my mind, Tesla’s unreliability is a reminder of America’s troubled automotive past, where U.S. automakers knowingly sold cars that were defective and unsafe. Among the seriously dangerous cars was the Chevy Citation, which I’m still suffering PTS from because of the tendency of the car’s breaks to lock during rainstorm. (See here for more about my Citation experiences and why I’d never again buy any GM product.)
Tesla’s unreliability is making it possible for Ford and GM to continue with their long traditions of making defective cars. Ford’s much ballyhooed electric Mustang, manufactured in Mexico and introduced in late 2020, hardly inspires confidence. The car has already been subject to three recalls, including one because the front frame bolts may not have been tightened properly. Electrifying trucks is considerably more formidable than cars, so we’ll see what sort of reliability Ford’s F-150 has when its released later this year.
Still, I’d bet on Ford’s F-150 trumping GM’s planned electric Silverado pickup, scheduled for release in the second quarter of 2023. Am I the only one who remembers GM’s recall of its entire fleet of electric Chevrolet Bolts because of exploding batteries? My definition of an optimist: Someone who buys a Silverado in its introductory year. The media gave GM CEO Mary Barra a pass when she declared last week that GM would lead the way with a personal autonomous vehicle. Pardon my skepticism, but I seem to be the only one who read this article about Dan Ammann, GM’s former president, inexplicably leaving Cruise, GM’s San Francisco-based autonomous driving unit in December. That struck me as a very big deal. There’s something about Mary that she can pull down $40 million in one year overseeing an uninspiring fleet of cars and trucks.
The U.S. media not only gives Tesla a pass, but they also serve as the company’s PR department, which understandably Musk phased out years ago because it was redundant. Much has been made about Tesla’s ability to withstand the worldwide chip and other supply chain shortages that hampered sales of other global automakers. What’s been overlooked are the corners Tesla cut to keep its sales humming, including delivering cars without USB ports and equipped with 2017 battery packs. It’s all part of the Silicon Valley “almost is good enough” zeitgeist.
Toyota was the game changer in U.S. automotive history. The company taught Americans that cars could be safe and reliable, and that’s been the company’s not-so-secret sauce allowing it to become the No. 1 selling automaker in America in 2021. The automotive press insists the crowning achievement was a fluke because GM’s and Ford’s sales were hampered by shortages, but so were Toyota’s. Toyota and its Lexus subsidiary rank among Consumer Reports’ most reliable brands. It’s also noteworthy that Japanese automakers account for eight of the ten top spots.
What marvels me about Toyota is that achieved its success despite its awful marketing. Toyota’s commercials are lame, and its former slogan, “I Love What You Do For Me Toyota,” the only one I can remember off the top of my head, was better suited for a chain of concierge services or massage parlors. Fortunately for Toyota, automotive advertising is pretty bad across the board. GM’s tagline This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile for the launch of a new generation of cars in 1998 alienated its loyal customer base (like my Dad) and failed to attract younger customers.
Toyota is under fire in the media for being late to the electric vehicle game. The company has invested heavily in hydrogen and has argued that abruptly transitioning to electric vehicles from internal combustion engines is unrealistic and fraught with problems. Toyota advocates a more gradual transition utilizing hybrid cars, a technology it excels at. Toyota launched its hybrid Prius model in 1997, a car I associate with people who truly care about the environment.
Admittedly, Toyota’s position is self-serving, but it makes sense to me. It’s going to take years before electric vehicles are perfected and there’s sufficient and reliable infrastructure to support them. I’m all for having Musk’s army of tech bros and sycophants serve as guinea pigs and spend years driving cars in permanent beta mode.
Count me among the few who question Tesla’s long-term viability. The brand caters to a very niche audience: According to market research performed by Hedges & Company in 2018, Tesla’s average owner is a 54-year-old man making over $140,000 a year with no children. Electric cars in general, and Musk in particular, have a long way to go before gaining the support of women.
It’s understandable. Women are turned off by Musk’s obnoxious hubris and his juvenile, sexist behavior. Here’s a sample: In late October he tweeted, “Am thinking of starting new university: Texas Institute of Technology & Science.” Chandra Steele of PC Magazine let me in on the joke. The acronym for Musk’s proposed school is TITS. Steele provides other examples of Musk’s sexist behavior and makes a case as to why it matters. One critical fact Steele overlooks: Eighty percent of car buying decisions are influenced by women.
Musk also has another formidable problem: He’s no longer beloved in China. The Chinese apparently aren’t as tolerant as Americans of shoddy workmanship and have been making a lot of noise on social media alleging that Tesla vehicles are unsafe. Tesla has sued some of its critics and shamefully asked China’s Communist government to censor the company’s critics. Bloomberg reports that in China, Tesla has hired an army of lawyers and PR people to do damage control. American automotive writers should be ashamed that Tesla treats their Chinese counterparts with more respect.
One must appreciate the irony that Americans have tolerated China’s shoddy products for decades and yet the Communist country’s residents are critical of the wares of America’s most celebrated technology entrepreneur.
If I was a Tesla investor, I’d be worried about Musk’s truthfulness and seemingly instability. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that despite Musk fostering a myth that he lives in a modest home near the Mexican border that he rents from his SpaceX venture, he spends most of his time living in an opulent waterfront Austin estate owned by a billionaire friend and former PayPal colleague.
Reading the story, I was reminded of Dennis Kozlowski, the former and once revered CEO of Tyco. Fostering an image that he was hard-nosed about curtailing Tyco’s costs and expenses, Kozlowski conducted all his media interviews in a modest office with tattered furniture that reporters always took note of. Kozlowski’s real office was quite opulent.
Kozlowski, who was given a standing ovation at Harvard Business School and hailed as the business genius of his day, later was convicted of crimes relating to unauthorized use of Tyco funds, for which he spent six years in the slammer. I’m not suggesting that Musk has done anything illegal, except to note that he settled SEC fraud charges and he reportedly is under investigation again. Tesla also has suffered a brain drain of talent, including the departure of two top executives who joined Apple, which also is developing an electric vehicle.
If electric vehicles are the future, I’m hoping Toyota and its Japanese automotive brethren ultimately lead the way to the finish line and set the standards. At the end of the day, reliability is what I care most about and that’s what these companies represent to me. I’ve even come up for a slogan for Toyota’s first all-electric vehicle in the U.S., which I’m confident won’t be released until its ready for prime time:
“This Is Not Your Father’s Tesla.”