Jon Mittelhauser is one of the early developers of the World Wide Web. As a Master’s student at the University of Illinois, he co-wrote the first widely used web browser, NCSA Mosaic, and helped to define many of the earliest web protocols. Upon earning his Master’s degree for the work on Mosaic, he left the university and became one of the founders of Netscape Communications. Since Netscape he has worked for various startups (some successful and some not!). He currently spends his time as a dad, angel investor, and consultant for early stage companies. He also admits to spending a fair amount of time daydreaming about the Tesla Roadster, which he already has on order…
Tesla Motors recently invited me to be a guest blogger, and, as you can tell, I accepted. However, I immediately realized that I had no idea what I could write about. I am very excited about what Tesla Motors is doing, but pretty much everything I know about the Tesla Roadster I learned from *reading* the blog. Clearly I can’t focus on details about the car itself, so I will need to focus on my reasons for being excited about it and being an early customer. I’ll also share my arguments for electric cars and how I hope that they may lead to solving some of our larger energy issues.
I chose the title “Energy” for my blog entry because it was a common theme in my head as I analyzed what excited me about Tesla Motors and the Tesla Roadster. However, you are going to have to read the rest of my ramblings and some background to discover that I may mean more by that term than you expect.
I recently attended an event at the Tesla Motors office for customers who had pre-ordered a Tesla Roadster. The event was held on a Saturday afternoon. Since my wife and daughters were away for the weekend, I found myself in the rare situation of having nothing else on my schedule. I ended up spending more than three hours just talking with the Tesla Motors staff and listening to the questions that other customers were asking. I was there for so long I think some of the Tesla Motors staff were starting to contemplate whether they were going to need to call the police to have me forcibly removed! However, the conversations of that afternoon and the many questions asked helped me to analyze my motivations for reserving the Tesla Roadster.
At one point, I was asked how I had heard about Tesla Motors and I had to respond that I honestly had no idea! That was fascinating to me. The questioner was obviously surprised by my answer, but the more I thought about it, the less surprised I was. It was just another example of something that happens all the time in Silicon Valley.
Without getting too metaphysical on you, Silicon Valley has an energy that is unique from anywhere else I have ever lived. One aspect of this energy is an underground communication system, which always knows when something new and cool is going on.
I first experienced this when I moved out here to help start Netscape. The days I wore my Netscape logoed gear, people would stop me on the street and ask me questions – at that point Netscape had barely been around for a month.
Tesla Motors has that energy right now. They have a buzz about them. I tested this by mentioning the company to a variety of buddies who work in the valley. A good 75 percent of them already knew about Tesla Motors. Now, for the most part these are hardcore tech geeks, not car guys. They couldn’t begin to tell you about any other new car models coming out during 2007, but they knew what Tesla Motors was doing.
Why does this matter? I’ve seen a lot of startups come and go, and, believe me, buzz has a tangible value.
First off, when a company in the valley is hot it attracts the best people. Think about it. You are a hot-shot Stanford University engineering student about to graduate. Would you rather go work for General Motors or Tesla Motors? It’s not even worth discussing! The underground communication network reaches well outside the immediate Bay Area and I guarantee that some amazing people are contacting Tesla Motors about job opportunities.
This allows Tesla Motors to be very selective in its hiring. It goes without saying that the better the employees, the better the company and the better the product. With great people you can do a whole lot more while spending a lot less! This was one of the lessons I learned while at Netscape. The difference between an A+ engineer and a B engineer isn’t a matter of percentages (e.g. 25 percent better) but rather multiples. One A+ engineer may be worth 10 of those B engineers. Tesla Motors can attract those people thanks to the buzz.
There is also a big difference between the mentalities of engineers. I believe that one of the things that the founding engineers of Netscape shared that made it successful is that we were all extremely pragmatic. Some engineers prefer to tackle hard theoretical problems and spend a lot of time in conferences debating these possibilities with their colleagues before attempting to build something. Others simply go ahead and build it and see if it works and then refine from there! As you can probably tell from my characterizations, I prefer the latter.
My favorite example of this happened extremely early in the development of the web, before we had even founded Netscape as a commercial company and were still working as students on its predecessor, NCSA Mosaic. At that point, web pages didn’t support images mixed in with the text. We were sitting around discussing what cool feature to add next and somebody suggested inlined images. We stayed up all night and the next day we had the feature implemented and within a week it was released. I believe that this feature was instrumental to the explosive growth of Mosaic in the next six months and ultimately the success of the web, whereas earlier protocols (anyone remember Gopher?) had stagnated.
That pragmatic philosophy eventually helped shape Netscape and I believe that I saw many examples of this as Tesla Motors CEO Martin Eberhard was showing me around the company’s engineering lab. At one point I passed a strange contraption that literally involved electrical leads, water, some metal piping, and a garden hose. Martin explained that they had the need of a specific type of test apparatus and instead of spending $10,000+ on a commercial test apparatus, one of the engineers had devised his own. I can’t get specific on what the apparatus did, but suffice it to say that the Tesla Motors solution was very elegant (and more accurate than the commercial one) and probably cost less than $100.
The second reason that buzz has tangible value is that those employees are incredibly motivated. Tesla Motors is a car company with the Silicon Valley startup mentality! The employees are going to work insane hours but will love every minute of it. They truly believe that they can change the world and the positive buzz just helps reinforce this on a daily basis. Part of the reason that I hung out for three hours that Saturday afternoon is because I was enjoying the energy in the room. The employees and the customers kept reinforcing this in each other in a vicious cycle of enthusiasm. It was fun to witness.
A third reason is that buzz makes it much easier to get additional money if a startup needs it. I don’t think Tesla Motors needs this for the Tesla Roadster’s production. They could probably get to be profitable without any additional influx of funds simply by selling the Tesla Roadster. However, to accomplish their longer term goals and really ramp up the production of their future vehicles, they will need to do expensive things like build factories. Buzz will help them negotiate with cities and states and raise funding dollars while giving up a smaller percentage of the company.
It is something of a chicken-and-egg argument but another way to look at it is simply to ask what it takes to build and maintain a *real* buzz in the valley. Many startup companies try to get that energy through artificial means but they don’t sustain it. The reason Tesla Motors has the energy around it is because smart people perpetuate it for them. They take a look at what Tesla Motors is doing and they tell their friends. So you can also argue that buzz simply happens when a company “gets it.” Tesla Motors certainly appears to get it and I hope they can maintain this energy as they grow. This is always one of the biggest challenges that a successful startup faces (and one that Netscape wasn’t entirely successful at).
Okay, enough about Tesla Motors as a startup. Let’s hit the other type of energy that you expected me to cover. Why am I excited about the Tesla Roadster itself and why do I believe in the future of electric cars? For those of you who have read every detail on this blog for the last few months this is mostly review.
So, why do I believe in the future of electric cars? People who have heard me discuss technology have probably heard me use the term “inevitable technology” to describe the web. I truly believe that the transition to electric cars is also inevitable. What are the factors which will drive this change? My top five are listed below.
Electric Versus Gasoline
1b. Domestically Produced
My favorite observation about the current crop of Tesla Motors buyers is revealed if you ask them why they want an electric car over a gasoline powered car. Approximately half will say that they want the electric car for environmental reasons. They are very concerned about environmental issues such as global warming and believe that we need to transition to zero emissions vehicles such as the Tesla Roadster. The other half will answer that they are worried about our dependence on foreign sources of oil and consider this to be an issue of national security. An electric vehicle is powered by energy produced domestically and can greatly reduce our dependence on unreliable foreign sources of gasoline.
I’m certainly not familiar with many products that can help both the environment and national security! For a country that loves to pigeonhole people with labels such as liberal and conservative, how would they characterize this group of buyers? It certainly seems to cover the spectrum.
This is the big shift in thinking that Tesla Motors brings to the electric car’s image. No longer will people look at electric cars as glorified golf carts. One ride in the Tesla Roadster and that image is blown forever. I was going to write a whole section on torque curves and how an electric motor is better, but Paul Boutin at Slate beat me to it in It’s Electric: The Tesla Roadster – A Hotshot Sports Car that Runs on Batteries. The fact is that the Tesla Roadster will out perform almost every production car out there. That alone makes it a must have for many car fanatics.
What makes it fascinating to me, however, is that any driver can actually attain that performance. When you read the performance statistics about the latest Ferrari in a car magazine, those statistics are what a professional driver was able to squeeze out of the car with perfect coordination of the gas, clutch, and shift lever. An average driver will never attain those performance figures. In a Tesla Roadster, peak torque is available off the line, which means that every driver will have instantaneous power and will truly feel the amazing performance. This will make the Tesla Roadster one of the most fun cars on the road to drive and will be a major factor in sales. The same performance factor will hold true in the upcoming Tesla Motors sports sedan (code-named WhiteStar) when it is compared to its competition.
Hmmm. How should I put this? Let’s try this: Internal combustion engines are insane!
The simplistic explanation is that an internal combustion engine works by compressing a fuel and air mixture inside a chamber and then exploding it via the spark plug. For a more complete answer go to How Stuff Works: How Car Engines Work. While it is very clever, it certainly isn’t simple or elegant. In fact, the engineer in me would dare to say that an internal combustion engine is basically a kludge that has perpetuated *way* too long. It simply requires too many parts and too much precision to be reliable. It requires spark plugs with complex ignition timings, intake, and exhaust valves to control the air/fuel mix, pistons sealed with piston rings, crankshafts that move on bearings, etc, etc. Beyond the complexity of the engine itself, it requires a complete fuel system to get the gasoline to the engine, a complex lubrication system, and a full exhaust system to get rid of the by-products. Needless to say, since we all have experienced it, with that number of components a lot of things can and do go wrong.
Compare that to a basic electric motor. How does that work? You apply an electrical charge and it turns. Batteries, wire, and the motor itself. One moving part! It is extremely elegant and has very few reliability issues. The single most amazing thing to me during my Tesla Motors visit was the size of the motor. That tiny thing is what makes the car go 0-60 mph in about 4 seconds!
Any new system is bound to have some initial issues and I certainly am not relying on my Tesla Roadster to be 100 percent without them. However, the fact is that an electric car has a lot less complexity than a gasoline car. That will make them a lot more reliable down the road and will be a major factor in their long term success when people start doing realistic cost of ownership analysis.
4. Fuel Costs
This one won’t be a big factor for Tesla Roadster sales, but as Tesla Motors progresses down their product roadmap it will become a larger factor. Not only will it be cheaper in the long run to fuel an electric car, but it won’t be anywhere near as variable. Gasoline prices go through major price fluctuations many of which are caused by uncontrollable factors. Which leads us to…
5. Independent Fueling
In the long run, one of the nicest things about an electric car is that it can be fueled at home with no external help. Even today, for most people a solar panel on your garage roof can fuel the Tesla Roadster for your daily commute. As Silicon Valley and other entrepreneurs are tackling solar power, it seems like every month I am reading about another breakthrough that drastically improves the efficiency of solar cells, makes them more practical, or drives the cost down. Currently the best solar cells convert sunlight at around 22 percent, but in the last month I have seen articles about companies demonstrating more than 40 percent efficient cells. Other startups are figuring out ways to print solar cells as a thin film that can be integrated with roofing materials, wrapped around pillars, etc. It isn’t unrealistic to believe that down the road most of us will be able to easily produce all the energy we need locally in a very cost effective and aesthetically pleasing manner.
Why does this matter? It is similar to my arguments about why we need to get rid of internal combustion engines. The current system is simply way too complex. The United States consumes around 384.7 *million* gallons of gasoline per day, according to the Energy Information Administration! It starts as crude oil, which needs to get pumped out of the ground from a small number of places in the world (many of which have political consequences). It gets shipped thousands of miles by a complex system of pipelines and supertankers. Then it gets refined at huge refineries and turned into gasoline, which once again gets shipped around in pipelines. Eventually trucks take it to hundreds of thousands of gas stations where you fill your car up with it on a weekly basis. It’s crazy to think this system actually works!
The latest Clive Cussler book has a villain who is blowing up components of the international crude oil distribution network (pipelines, supertankers, etc). Needless to say, this causes a drastic price spike, severe gasoline shortages and would eventually lead to a full collapse of the economy. Now the villain in the book was fictional but the problem is real. Whether the cause is domestic or international, a terrorist or a natural disaster, the system is vulnerable to massive shortages and price fluctuations.
Obviously, I don’t expect any of this to change overnight. Even if electric cars were to take off astronomically, most of us will still be dependent on the electrical distribution network (which would at least limit the vulnerabilities to domestic issues). My hope, however, is that electric cars, like the Tesla Roadster, will be a driving step in a drastic simplification of the energy distribution systems of the world.
Which brings us to why go with electric cars rather than hydrogen or some other “new” fuel system….
Electric Versus Hydrogen and Other Alternate Fuels
1. Works Today!
As you all know, Tesla Motors is finalizing safety testing and a year from now there should be hundreds of Tesla Roadsters driving around in private hands. How could they accomplish this while spending well under $60 million? As impressive as the work that Tesla Motors has done is, the fact is that it is still derivative technology. This isn’t to minimize the company’s accomplishment. It has done incredible work on its motor technology and Energy Storage System (ESS). However, none of this required radically new inventions, such as what will be required to produce a commercially viable alternative fuel car. The core concepts of electric cars are well understood and can be seen in the $19.99 car that Radio Shack is selling for Christmas.
Right now a practical hydrogen system is simply a dream. People seem to forget that hydrogen isn’t naturally occurring and must be produced (not to mention distributed). How is it produced? Usually by running energy through water. There is that word again. Where do we get the energy? Coal, nuclear, solar, etc. Sound familiar? The exact same sources used to produce electricity.
So what good is hydrogen really? As far as I am concerned, it is basically a battery technology. You put energy into water, get hydrogen out and store it for later use. Evaluated in that context, it is a very lousy system. It is expensive to produce, hard to store and distribute and not particularly efficient. The billions of dollars being spent on research may improve this but won’t fundamentally alter the fact that hydrogen is a method of transporting energy not an energy source.
2. Electricity Is Agnostic
It can be produced from “dirty” (but relatively cheap!) sources like coal. It can be produced from “clean” sources like solar and wind. It can be produced from nuclear reactors (which I personally consider pretty clean but won’t argue about). If somebody produces a new energy technology or source tomorrow it can be used to produce electricity.
3. Existing Distribution Infrastructure
We have an existing infrastructure to distribute electricity. Many argue that the current system can’t handle the demand of powering an electric vehicle infrastructure. That is a silly argument. It might cost a lot of money to upgrade the system to handle the demands if everyone switches over to electric vehicles, but it is a heck of a lot cheaper to upgrade a distribution network than to create one from scratch. And, of course, any transition will be fairly gradual, which will give time to upgrade the electrical system as needed.
Depending upon the rate of progress in terms of local energy production (e.g. solar) this might even be a relatively minor need. Recent studies also indicate that there is plenty of unused capacity already in the system to handle the demand! Not to mention that a hydrogen distribution system simply replaces one overly complex system (e.g. gasoline production and distribution) with another.
Wow. I didn’t really start out with the intention of writing such an epic. If you made it this far, I hope that you found it worthwhile. I am passionate about Tesla Motors both for what they have already done and for what they represent.
Again, it is all about energy:
- The engineer in me is offended by the complexities of how we get the energy which powers our vehicles as well as the internal combustion engine that consumes that energy.
- The pragmatist in me recognizes that the more complex the system, the more that can go wrong and, therefore, the more energy (and money!) necessary to keep it running smoothly.
- The alarmist in me worries about the energy this country expends to develop and protect the existing system from its own inherent complexities and how vulnerable that leaves us to people who wish us ill.
- The entrepreneur in me believes that the energy I witnessed at and around Tesla Motors can drive them to success with the Tesla Roadster and their future cars.
- The eternal optimist in me hopes that Tesla Roadster’s success will be the first step toward wholesale adoption of electric vehicles.
- The visionary in me sees a future without complex energy distribution systems, a future where everyone simply produces the energy they need locally.
Only time will tell. But I’m glad that I will be along for the ride…