Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Review: Ludicrous by Edward Niedermeyer

Tesla and Elon Musk have been newsfeed staples for a decade. I’d kept up with the general story arc and formed an opinion on how revolutionary/earth-saving their technology is (that is to say, not very). This work of investigative journalism does a great job filling in the gaps in my knowledge, and highlighting themes characteristic of Musk’s public relations style and Tesla’s decision-making. The book is well organized; each chapter is based around a topic (defect reporting, the announcement of the model X and the ensuing production woes, autonomous vehicle technology). This structure allows the common beats to shine through: Musk’s willingness to bend truths and skirt regulations, the emphasis of flash and style and status symbols over practical or environmental considerations, the disregard for hard-earned industry wisdom in favour of a silicon valley software engineering mentality.

The author is sharp in his criticism of Elon Musk, but does grant him some accomplishments. I was swayed by the author’s argument that car consumers did not really want (at least in the early to mid 2010s) electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf but wanted a status symbol with the cutting-edge, naysayers-be-damned branding that Musk built for Tesla. Did Tesla help move the needle on increased demand for low-carbon emission vehicles, and spur its competitors to develop alternatives? This is an impossible counterfactual to answer. But I do think it’s clear that Tesla’s electric vehicles had a small, financially inefficient impact on reducing global emissions. It’s fascinating that this was written in 2019; Tesla’s valuation has increased by an order of magnitude since then without much more to show for it.

I also learned a lot more about car manufacturing than I expected: how manufacturing and design stay in close step and how company cultures are shaped around this, how post-market reporting of defects are reported and investigated, how business models and car designs are shaped around this high-capital investment and low-profit margin business.

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