Tesla’s True Accomplishment: Building a Great Car

The internet was abuzz this week with the news that the Tesla Model S electric car was rated the safest production automobile ever tested by the government, performing off the standard five-star scale for various safety categories. This is big news – but why? Matt Yglesias notes that because it’s a mass-market electric car, “anything that happens to the Model S isn’t just a car story. It’s a business story, it’s a politics story, it’s an energy story, it’s an innovation story, it’s an interesting story.” But ultimately, any Tesla story is a car story first and foremost, uniquely relevant to the automotive industry and those who cover it. And that is what makes the Model S such a groundbreaking accomplishment. It’s the surest sign yet that electric vehicles just might be a huge part of the future of transportation after all.

For the first time ever, an electric car is every bit as good as a non-electric car—and possibly even better. As Car and Driver put it, it’s “not just a good electric vehicle, it’s a good car.” Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year award went to the Model S: “Sure, the Tesla’s electric powertrain delivers the driving characteristics and packaging solutions that make the Model S stand out, but it’s only a part of the story. At its core, the Tesla Model S is simply a damned good car you happen to plug in to refuel.”

Juan Barnett, a writer for Jalopnik, Gawker Media’s automotive site, did some gonzo investigation from the car-enthusiast perspective to see if this really wasn’t another appliance with seats. After crashing a Tesla owner meetup, he was shocked by the collective enthusiasm for the Model S itself, rather than the environmental or political message it represents. “Owners greeted one another and made introductions just as I remember from my meetups as a Corvette owner,” Barnett wrote. “Their object of passion, while slightly different than mine, is still fundamentally rooted in automotive.” And these weren’t Leaf/Volt/Prius owners moving on to the newest rolling political statement, Barnett found: “Throughout the day I didn’t meet one person who’d been driving a green car or showed any blatant support for polar bears, the ozone or Al Gore.” Most had come previously owned other high-performance/luxury cars, like the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG and the BMW 7-Series.

And that’s the crux of it. In order for electric cars to become a viable alternative form of transportation, normal consumers—and car lovers—have to be won over, not just already-committed greenies. As Yglesias noted, we care about safety ratings, a normally boring topic, when it comes to the Model S because of its far-reaching political/environmental implications beyond its goodness as a car. But it has only achieved the potential for such implications because of its goodness as a car, which is what distinguishes it from its plugged-in predecessors. The electric car is alive and well; all it took was for someone to remember the “car” part of the formulation.

Ben Florsheim

Ben Florsheim is an intern at the Washington Monthly.