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.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ben Florsheim

Ben Florsheim is an intern at the Washington Monthly.