Apple and Tesla are Never, Ever Getting Together

“Back of the cabinet mentality” meets “pee on the tree and leave”

Google gave me 8 million hits for the phrase “Apple Tesla merger”. 

At first it sounds reasonable. Irresistible, even.

But look deeper and we see the “My Dog is a Cat” fallacy, officially called the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

The Teslapple version goes like this. 

    1. Apple had a charismatic CEO and a cult-like fanbase.

     2. Tesla has a charismatic CEO and a cult-like fanbase.

     3. Therefore Tesla is like Apple.

They should be together!

Except they shouldn’t, won’t, and can’t. 

Combining Apple and Tesla would be less mixing cats and dogs, than mixing cheetahs and chihuahuas. And Apple wouldn’t be the chihuahua.

As vacuous as most talk about corporate culture is, Apple and Tesla’s cultures are absolutely incompatible. Any collaboration would fall further south, faster, than Tesla and Toyota’s temporary partnership. And we know what happened there.  

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Apple’s Back of the Cabinet mentality

There’s a famous parable of Steve Jobs’ adoptive father teaching him to make the back of a cabinet (which no one would see) as good as the front (which everyone would). 

That lesson is one of the North Stars guiding Apple. The Back of the Cabinet mentality is Apple’s ethos. From a Twitter thread by user @MachinePlanet. 

Apple often falls short, of course. The key is that when it really does, there really are consequences. Apple postpones products (or features) when necessary. Like they did with the first white iPhones, which were long-delayed because prototype quality didn’t meet Apple’s standards. They respected the customer enough not to sell them inferior products.

And when Apple Maps was a disaster, Apple fired Scott Forstall after he refused to sign a public letter of apology to customers. Forstall was supposedly Jobs’ spiritual heir, the closest thing to a second Steve. The ethos clashed with the individual, and the ethos won.

Tesla’s Fallback: Pee on the Tree and Leave

If Apple is led by the North Star of the back of the cabinet mentality, then Tesla (well, Elon Musk) is led by the South Star of “ship sh-t and fix”.

That’s what I’d write if there was a star at the south pole (there isn’t) and if I could get away with four letter words (I probably can’t). Tesla no longer fixes customer vehicles on a timely basis either, making the “... and fix” portion questionable.

So I’ll call Tesla’s philosophy Pee on the Tree and Leave.

It’s Tesla’s philosophy because Elon Musk would rather be well-known for doing something, than known for doing something well. He lacks Steve Jobs’ perfectionist tenacity, putting the work into great product announcements, but not the products themselves.

In 2017 Tesla took deposits for 300- and 500-mile semi trucks, to great fanfare. (“Pee on the tree”) They then coasted on the publicity for four years. (“And leave”)  It’s now 2021, and with California introducing a ZEV mandate for heavy-duty trucks, Tesla has built its third prototype. Freightliner alone has deployed its 250 mile-range eCascadia semi trucks with 35 different fleets.

Many, many other cases come to mind, but I’ll only highlight two, to be mindful of readers’ time.

Where There’s SolarCity There’s Fire

Solar photovoltaics are all but foolproof. NREL found that only 0.05 per cent of photovoltaic installations ever developed faults. For systems as much as 15 years old. But 2.9 per cent of SolarCity (Tesla) solar systems installed on Wal-Mart roofs developed fires. In the first few years.

SolarCity had fires 58x as often as the entire industry had faults. (Graphic from link above.)

How could SolarCity / Tesla be so groundbreakingly bad at solar?  “Pee on the tree and leave.” High profile contracts won (“pee on the tree”) there was only corner-cutting to be done (“and leave”).

In Henkes vs. Tesla, filed in California in November 2020, a former SolarCity employee asserts that Tesla knew of the problem with its Amphenol connectors in 2017 (Wal-Mart sued Tesla in August 2019). The plaintiff claims he suffered retaliation and eventually termination when he urged the company to respect its customers enough to inform them, for their knowledge and safety. 

Tesla executed a stealth recall instead.

Soviet Style Manufacturing

Forced to choose between quality or quantity in 2018, Tesla infamously began producing Model 3’s in California in open-air tents. Not since Stalin relocated factories to the Urals and ordered tanks built before the buildings were finished, had this happened. And from accounts, build quality has been comparable. Tesla further chiselled customers by reducing the paint allocation for each Model 3, a feature now standard for Model Y buyers.

Paint quality and quantity aren’t even back of the cabinet issues. They’re front of the cabinet issues. Tesla (Elon Musk) abandoned pride-in-product to meet a production goal; it cut quality to take customers’ money (“pee on the tree”) and left them to fend for themselves (“and leave”). 

Tim Cook seems like a composed man, so he would only have sternly scolded Musk and team for their failure to plan logistics. Steve Jobs would have screamed at the team for contaminating Apple’s brand with Soviet build quality and workmanship. Imagine how Musk would’ve taken that reproach.

Keep Apple’s “back of the cabinet” mentality in mind when you consider Tesla’s Fremont factory, back of the cabinet Model Y parts, and its state-of-the-art-in-2009 Full Self Driving software below. (Click to enlarge.) 

These are less the tip of an iceberg, than the tip of an ice shelf. 

Having taken deposits since 2016, Tesla rolled out its Full Self Driving features late last year. The circa-2009 Waymo autonomous capabilities were met with widespread disappointment from fans and derision from everyone else.

The ongoing Full Self Driving fiasco would be like Apple taking payment for the iPhone 12 late in the Obama Administration, keeping customers’ money for four years, then delivering a handset with the capability of the very first Android phone ever: the T-Mobile G1, a phone so old it had a keyboard.

For a failure so feature-complete, Jobs would have gathered the Tesla team in an amphitheatre, launched into MobileMe-style tirade and relieved Musk of his duties. 

Jobs was Apple’s perfectionist bulwark against inferiority. He kept standards high. But Tesla doesn’t have a Steve Jobs. And instead of apologizing for FSD’s inadequacy, Elon Musk hyped its modest, industry lagging capabilities, celebrating improvements as determinedly as SpaceX celebrates fireballs. (“Think of all the valuable data we collected!”)

Of course, if you insist on calling everything a success, then nothing is. Products, announcements, and reviews become exercises in mandatory clapping. Which is the position Tesla’s fan community finds itself in, as hardliners push back against even silk-soft criticism, lest critics weaponize negative comments against them.

Tesla’s fans and well-wishers might be forgiven for not ordering better corporate governance in light of the SolarCity safety / Amphenol whistleblower -- who has time to go through court filings? -- but their silence about the company’s open descent into chiseling is remarkable. It’s almost like a learned helplessness; they’ve forgotten they have the right to be delighted by Back-of-the-Cabinet premium goods, and not belittled by the hundred inconveniences, indignities and cut corners of apathetic product design, planning and production.

Steve Jobs didn’t tolerate inferiority from Apple. Apple wouldn’t tolerate it from Tesla. But Elon Musk does. It’s a fundamental deal-breaker, a perfect incompatibility. And that’s why Apple and Tesla are never, ever getting together.

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PS - What would Jobs think of Musk, who once described Apple engineers as Tesla rejects who couldn’t cut it at the electric car maker? We already know. Years ago Jobs said his problem with a very rich man was that his company just made really third-rate products. That man is the fellow Elon Musk is feuding with. Elon isn’t the next Steve Jobs, he’s the latest in a long line of “Bill Gates”es.

PPS - A couple other cases of “pee on the tree and leave” (I’ll append others as time avails) include:

1. Tesla unveiled beautiful solar roof shingles for its SolarCity merger in 2016. Shingles that were non-functional. Which is to say, vaporware. (“Pee on the tree”) 

Deployments did not follow (“and leave”) though promises did. And when Tesa finally began performing  some installations for customers whose reservations it didn’t cancel, cleantech journalist Eric Wesoff noted the shingles were shipped from China. A skeptic might think Tesla announced a technology, then waited for someone else to invent it, a technique Musk used with the hyperloop concept. 

In fairness, Tesla does spend less on R&D than well-known powerhouse Jaguar Land Rover. (h/t @DowneastCapital) 

2. The three-row, 7-seat Model Y -- hoped for by many fans, and a potentially excellent product if executed well -- was very much the bait and switch critics expected. 

Fans got “catfished”.

With an afterthought third row too short and small for safe or comfortable adult travel, this car epitomizes how Musk’s Tesla is a headlines-focused company (“pee on the tree”) and not a customer-focused one (“and leave”). 

The uneven levels between the trunk and folded-down rear seats would also have maddened Steve Jobs, whose aesthetics would never have allowed it. (Sources: Twitter, YouTube and InsideEVs.)

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