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Sunday, December 4, 2022

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News + PoliticsOpinionFriends don't let friends buy a Tesla

Friends don’t let friends buy a Tesla

Should we encourage Elon Musk's Twitter behavior by continuing to fund his major source of income and wealth?

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If you drive around the Bay Area, you’ll see electric vehicles everywhere—and a healthy percentage will be Teslas. Whatever one thinks of Elon Musk, his company deserves much of the credit for making EVs mainstream. Lots of other companies are in the game now, but Tesla was there ahead of them and proved that electric driving could be a mass-market proposition.

Will Musk’s craziness—which his recent acquisition of Twitter seems to have cranked up to 11—sink the company that’s largely responsible for his immense wealth, that essentially financed his Twitter takeover, and which still controls 60 percent of the U.S. EV market?

kNo Co2—but buying a Tesla makes Musk richer. Image by Antonia Zugaldia, Wikimedia Commons

It might. And, I would argue, it should.

I’ll spare you a detailed rehash of the chaos at Twitter—the explosion in use of racist language after Musk took over, the mass firings and talent exodus that (among other things) gutted the Trust and Safety Team, the on-again off-again verification policies that led to a burst of fake accounts impersonating everyone and everything from LeBron James to drug maker Eli Lilly, and on and on.

Some of this has actually been pretty funny, like the fake Eli Lilly account announcing that insulin is now free and sending the company’s stock into a momentary tailspin. But journalists and activists worldwide who have used Twitter as a communications and organizing hub feel as if a platform that became vital to their work is collapsing, and that is decidedly less funny.

But perhaps even more unnerving than the Twitter madness is Musk’s increasingly regular flirtations with the far right. Shortly before the recent midterm elections, Musk tweeted a Nazi meme and urged followers to vote Republican. He promoted a wacko, homophobic conspiracy theory about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. He’s hobnobbed online with other far-right conspiracy theorists, including pizzagate promoter Mike Cernovich. On Nov. 15 he engaged in cheerful (and noxious) banter on Twitter with Libs of TikTok, the infamously anti-LGBTQ Twitter account that has sent mobs to attack drag shows, pride festivals and medical facilities like Boston Children’s Hospital that provide gender-affirming care for trans people. Four days later there was a massacre at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs as it prepared to mark the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

That same weekend Musk surveyed his Twitter followers—including all the folks I just mentioned—about whether he should allow Donald Trump back on Twitter. Then the guy who recently complained that Twitter was packed with bots and fake accounts decided to reinstate the insurrectionist-in-chief based on that poll.

Musk’s increasingly MAGA-friendly behavior provoked author and global politics scholar Brian Klaas to tweet that “Elon Musk is lighting the social cachet of owning a Tesla on fire.”

But is he really?

The Chronicle recently made a faint stab at looking into the question, talking mainly to current Tesla owners. Focusing on current owners rather than potential buyers was an odd choice, since not many drivers are likely to trade in a car they already own just because the company’s CEO pissed them off. What matters more to Tesla is whether those shopping for a new vehicle will be put off by Musk’s behavior.

And they might be. MAGA folks aren’t the ones buying EVs. It’s no coincidence that there’s a way higher percentage of EVs on the road in San Francisco or Los Angeles than in Tulsa or Birmingham. Check out pretty much any social media conversation about EVs and the negativity comes overwhelmingly from far-right, MAGA types. Notably, a May 2022 Pew Research survey on attitudes toward electric vehicles and climate change found a sharp partisan divide: Democrats supported government incentives for buying EVs by 84 percent to 15 percent while Republicans opposed incentives by a 53-46 margin.

While Pew didn’t publish a partisan breakdown on those considering purchasing an EV, it did find that, of the 41 percent who said they were very likely to consider an EV for their next vehicle, the top reason cited was “to help the environment.” Nearly three quarters of those who said they’d consider an EV listed environmental concerns as a major reason for doing so.

Those are potential Tesla buyers, and Musk seems to be telling them to go to hell. All available evidence suggests that far-right, homophobic MAGA adherents are barely present in the EV buyer pool, while people repelled by Musk’s new pals constitute the core market for clean vehicles.

And can we talk about safety? Other than repeated problems with its Autopilot driver assistance system, there’s been no sign of Tesla cars having a particularly bad safety record,  but every time you get behind the wheel of your car, you put your life in the hands of the people who designed and built it. You trust that the brakes, steering, etc., will do what they need to do to help you avoid wrapping yourself around a tree. Consumers typically don’t know much about what goes on inside the engineering and quality control functions within a car company, but would you want to drive a car from the same guy who, at his other business, just fired the people who make sure that the metaphorical brakes and steering keep working?

Personally, I’d feel safer on a roller coaster built by drunks.

It’s too early to know yet if Musk’s recent behavior will impact Tesla sales, but the latest Kelly Blue Book Brand Watch survey had a worrisome sign: Shopper interest in Tesla dropped markedly in the third quarter. That, of course, predates the most recent Twitter craziness and there are plausible explanations that don’t involve Musk, but it’s a reminder that feelings about consumer brands can shift suddenly and drastically.

Investors certainly seem to be nervous. Tesla’s stock has stumbled all year and hit the skids again after Musk’s Twitter deal was consummated, losing more than half of its value between Jan. 1 and Nov. 18.

Be that as it may, should you decide what kind of car to get because one company’s CEO is a jerk with far-right leanings? In the Chronicle story, local EV advocate Marc Geller said no, telling the Chron, “Don’t not get a Tesla because Elon Musk is an asshole.”

For the record, I consider Marc a friend, and he gave me lots of useful advice when I started shopping for an EV nearly three years ago, but I think he’s wrong on this. While Tesla’s excellent proprietary charging network offers a meaningful advantage for users who do lots of road trips, most drivers don’t need a Tesla—there are lots of competing models that will suit most people’s needs just fine—and voting with one’s dollars can make a difference.

Some will argue that all car companies are bad, and that’s generally true. The automotive industry has an unpleasant history, pushing to tear down public transportation systems in the mid-20th century, lobbying against safety standards, and more recently working to water down emissions and mileage regulations. None of these companies are exactly our friends, and in my fantasy world US cities would be much less dependent on private autos than they are now.

So yeah, car companies are bad. But by any rational measure, Musk is worse. Other car company leaders don’t control communications platforms used by millions of journalists, activists, and political leaders. They don’t have millions of followers who hang on their every word. And they don’t pal around with Nazis. On her worst day, General Motors CEO Mary Barra couldn’t do as much damage as Musk if she tried. And Musk’s fortune is largely built on his stake in Tesla; it’s what enables all his other destructive behavior.

It’s hard to imagine why someone who cares about the climate, and about humane values generally, would buy a Tesla when viable alternatives are available. And increasingly, they are—but with a catch that might just save Tesla from disaster.

On the one hand, lots of new EV models have either recently appeared in showrooms or will arrive in the next few months—from old-school brands like Ford, Nissan, VW, Audi, Hyundai, Kia and Cadillac, as well as EV startups like Lucid and Rivian. These new EVs have gotten generally strong reviews in the automotive press and have proven popular with buyers—that is, if you can get one.

And that may save Tesla, which is way ahead of its competitors in production capacity. The others have EVs that people want, but it will be two or three years before they can build enough of them. Take Ford’s Mustang Mach-E electric crossover, for example: People love it, and sales are up—but not nearly enough to meet demand.

For a while, Ford actually stopped taking orders for the least expensive version of the Mach-E because it was so back-ordered. In early November it reopened the waiting list, but with a warning that buyers can expect to wait 30-35 weeks to get their vehicle. Similar stories abound for other popular EVs. No one is yet able to build nearly as many as Tesla, and recent massive investments in EV production capacity will take a while to come online.

While many buyers can wait, some can’t. If your old clunker just died and you need new electric wheels now, you’ll have a lot fewer choices, which works to Tesla’s advantage.

But if you’re not in a mad rush, you have alternatives. I’m glad my EV isn’t a Tesla, and if I were shopping now, I wouldn’t dream of helping to subsidize Musk’s growing sociopathy. Remember: Friends don’t let friends buy a Tesla.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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