Would you buy the first fax machine?

Tesla indoorsThe New York Times‘s David Pogue wrote today about an extremely cool-sounding purely electric car, the Tesla Motors roadster. Silent, fast, a seven-hour recharge on household current, and unpleasantly expensive at $100,000 each if you pre-order.

And then there’s this:

Nobody can service or repair this car except Tesla, and at the outset, there will be only five service centers are planned (two in California, and one each in New York, Chicago and Florida; if all goes well, Tesla plans 15 more in a few years). If the car breaks down, or if you run out of electricity (which happens after 250 miles), the company cheerfully suggests that you call a flatbed truck to deliver your car to one of those five stations.

You also have to replace the battery after about 500 charges, they say. So if Tesla doesn’t pan out (and here’s a skeptical review), you could very well buy the thing and end up with the automotive equivalent of a Betamax VCR, a nifty device that doesn’t quite take off and becomes, over time, useless. This is a nasty problem that besets most potentially revolutionary technologies — what if it doesn’t catch on, and you end up owning just about the only one? And it’s a Catch-22, too. Nobody’ll sell hydrogen fuel till there are hydrogen cars, and nobody’ll buy hydrogen cars till there are hydrogen fuel pumps most places they want to go.

Some see this as a proper use of government subsidies: give the system a kickstart before letting it run on its own. That’s the thinking behind the B.C. (and California) government’s “Hydrogen Highway” program, at any rate. The trouble with that is that if you can make hydrogen fuel efficiently, you might as well just fill up batteries like the Tesla’s, as Pogue points out. The government tendency, when faced with a choice of VCR formats to support, is not to pick VHS (the market’s choice), nor even Beta, but to choose audio CDs because they’re made in the finance minister’s riding.

(See Tory Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s inclusion of ethanol-fuelled vehicles, which you can’t actually buy fuel for, in his new rebate program, for a concrete example.)

The truth is, a Tesla-like product probably offers the best chance of success. Not this car specifically, but a product with a healthy company prepared to stand behind it and say, at a minimum, “We’re going to be here for the life of the product we’re selling you. Maybe not beyond that, but we promise not to screw you.” Then decide whether you believe them or not before putting your $100,000 down. That will tend to limit early adoption to people who can afford to lose the money, but what the hell — let them take the risk.

One other note: Pogue’s commenter Jim Thompson notes that Tesla’s people are Silicon Valley types.

Contrast that with Detriot where they give some lip service to the environment, but fight against any proposal for even slightly better fuel mileage. Their promised green designs are best seen as delaying tactics. The ever shrinking big 3 are so trapped in their bureaucracy and limited thinking that all we can do is watch them die a slow and agonizing corporate death.

Silicon Valley might try to sell a lot of vapour, but at least entrepreneurs there don’t have an established business model to defend. Nothing to lose and everything to gain from doing things differently.

Photo credit: Flickr/jurvetson


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