[Pre-script: the “Mollie Benjamin” pseudonym was too subtle, so I’ve reverted to Matthew Klippenstein for everything except the Figures.
In Animal Farm, Mollie was a sheep who escaped the farm for a better life elsewhere, while Benjamin was the donkey who survived by not getting involved. Both describe me, as a fellow who left my Tesla fandom behind, and who never owned or shorted the stock, except for a one-month period in 2018 when I owned one share to vote for more Board oversight of Musk.]
The first Model S battery pack fire occurred in early October 2013.
Soon afterwards a reluctant messenger would have been dispatched to Elon. He (it was probably a he) would have had to explain to Elon that a proper battery shield would have prevented the upsetting fire and the still more-upsetting negative publicity. Toyota’s engineers had been right.
Frustrated, humiliated, Musk lashed out.
Around October 21, he slammed Toyota’s pet technology of fuel cells as bullshit. The angry teenager I once was would’ve done the same, thinking these thoughts:
“Fuck you for being right. Fuck your technology. I hate you. I’m smarter than you. I’m better than you. Fuck you, fuck all of you, fuck everyone around you.”
Every Oedipus mocks his Tiresias’ blindness, and Musk is an usurper like every other -- but that’s a different essay.
The battery shield affair was the first time I caught my eyes being deceived by Tesla's pleasing green veneer. The shadows were as subtle as Red Wedding forewarnings, and guileless Stark that I am, I all but ignored them. But they were there. Even in that March 2014 love letter to safety:
“Not needed for a high level of safety.”
An odd phrase, and unnecessary. Why an unprompted self-exculpation? Why not a heartfelt affirmation of customer safety?
And the rest of the paragraph: clinical and unfeeling, sterilized of empathy -- the implacable rational ideal. And yet...
And yet that same paragraph was loaded with defensive, even absolutist language.
These were not the words of a man confident in his competence, dutiful in his diligence. This was the rigid, brittle insistence of an anxious man justifying himself under uncomfortable cross-examination. A man protecting vulnerability by projecting certainty.
This man who spurned expertise in private still sputtered, grasped, clung to public esteem.
Peter Pan had a Tinker Bell complex.
[Post-script: To misquote the popular musical, I wanna write something that’s gonna outlive me.
I’m littering these essays with Easter Eggs like “Mollie Benjamin”, hoping to make Electric Vehicle Farm as re-readable as The Simpsons is re-watchable, giving it both informative and ironic value.
And I use “irony” deliberately, because in ancient Greek tradition, the Eiron is a clever underdog character who triumphs over the Alazon, a boastful imposter character.
And that fits the $TSLAQ - Musk dynamic perfectly.]
[Post-postscript: Seven years on, fuel cells continue to be a tiny niche of the zero emission vehicle space.
Was this predictable? Absolutely! Fuel cell production capacity has barely crested 10,000 vehicles/year, and there’s still very little infrastructure: the same problems early EVs faced, incidentally. Thinking that Big Oil sabotaged early electric car efforts is on par with thinking Big Electricity is sabotaging fuel cell vehicles today.
That said, the industry is growing exactly along the trajectories of solar and wind in prior decades. Consider the immodestly-titled chart below.
Miss the rise of wind in the 1990s, solar in the 2000s (aughts) and batteries in the 2010s? Fuel cells are your chance for a four-peat!
Whether I was an engineer or a stock analyst, I’d choose fuel cells over wind, solar and batteries, because I’d have a better chance at becoming one of the gurus in the new field, than in trying to climb past all the experts in the established fields. (Disclosure: I’ve spent most of my engineering career in fuel cells, interspersed with renewable energy consulting and EV infrastructure too.)
Are fuel cells less efficient than batteries at turning renewable electricity into forward motion? Yes. Does this matter? No. Wind turbines are far more efficient than photovoltaics, and folks still seem okay with solar. And in a warmer, fuzzier example, tracheal systems are far more efficient than cardiovascular systems. 👇
Think you’ll get erudite, expansive prose like this from a Tesla fan substack? Hell no.