History of automobiles (History.com)
Executive Producer & Host: Kristofor Lawson.
Mixing & Production by James Parkinson.
Jasmine Mee Lee is our assistant producer.
Artwork by Andrew Millist.
Theme Music by Nic Buchanan.
KRIS: Is Tesla the Apple of the motoring world?
Mark Tipping: Without doubt. This is a piece of software on wheels. I mean my updates come through, when we bought the car it didn’t have autopilot… it gets enhanced all the time.
KRIS: Woah… oh my goodness…
Mark Tipping: You didn’t swear. Well done.
KRIS: Wow, I felt my eyeballs roll back into my head. Wow. That’s an experience.
KRIS: In case you haven’t guessed, I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a Tesla. Specifically a Tesla Model S P85D… and it’s owned by Mark Tipping.
Mark Tipping: I’m a car nut, I love cars. I’ve had Ferraris and Lotuses and all sorts of things. And I knew about the Tesla, and one day I was walking down the street about four and a half years ago, past the Marriott hotel in Melbourne, and there was a Tesla sitting there.
KRIS: Mark took it for a test drive, and immediately fell in love.
Mark Tipping: I just loved the performance. And it was quite funny, I joked with him at the time because the Model X had been announced. And I said, “I really love the car”, but if you put the front motor out of the Model X into the Model S, I’d buy it like that. Two weeks later Musk made the announcement of insane mode, and the P85D so I said to my wife, ‘I Think we just bought a car.”
KRIS: When you buy any regular car, once the decision is made, generally you can either make an immediate purchase at a dealership and pick it up that day, or you might have a short wait while your configuration gets built. However with Tesla’s, the process works a little different.
KRIS: Whenever there’s a new model, the company opens up pre-orders. You put down a deposit, which for Mark was around $3000 Australian dollars, and then you wait… and this waiting process can take years. If you were to put down a deposit right now on a Tesla Model Y, chances are you wouldn’t receive it until at least 2021, maybe later. It all depends on where you are in the queue. And when Mark bought his car, almost four years ago, barely anyone was driving them.
Mark Tipping: “I didn’t know anyone who owned one, I met some people reasonably quickly, but there weren’t that many about, it was very much a case of spot the Tesla. And we’d sort of smile and ‘Oh there’s another one’. But nowadays, every day you see Tesla’s on the road”
KRIS: Mark eventually found a group of kindred spirits, other owners who loved their Tesla’s as much as he did, and those owners formed a group called the Tesla Owners Club of Australia, Mark joined, and he’s now the President. The group promotes the ownership of Tesla vehicles and also gives existing owners a sense of community. And there are Tesla Owners Groups like this all around the world, and this is key to Tesla’s huge cultural success.
KRIS: Tesla famously spend zero money on advertising, and that has led to a groundswell of people who are ready to look past all the delays and problems to put down money for a car that might be years away from delivery. It’s not that dissimilar to the earlier days of Apple - which was able to command a loyal following, yet faced its own unique set of challenges. Which leads me back to my core question. Is Tesla the Apple of Cars?
KRIS: From Lawson Media, This is Supercharged - a show about power, conflict, and the people who are driving change. I’m Kristofor Lawson.
KRIS: And in Season one, we’re exploring electric vehicles, and how Tesla is forcing the entire automotive industry to move towards an electric future.
KRIS: This is episode one. The Apple Of Cars.
KRIS: I’ve always had an interesting relationship with cars. I was never what you’d call a fanatic, or a rev-head, or even an enthusiast, but I grew up in a family that was surrounded by vehicles. For as long as I can remember my Dad has bought cars, fixed them up, and then re-sold them. And at some point in my early teens he went full-time into the car business. So when I hit 17 I was right in the driver's seat… eager to gain the freedom that came from having my own set of wheels, and there were plenty to choose from. But the truth is my relationship with cars is like the majority of owners, a vehicle is about convenience and function more than anything else. And that convenience has for over a century been powered by petrol.
KRIS: But right now we’re in a period of transition, as the gas-guzzling cars of the past are pushed to one side and the electric car is quickly becoming king. And the company at the forefront of this movement is of course Telsa.
KRIS: Have you noticed, since you bought the vehicle, have you noticed the perception of Tesla as a company change?
Mark Tipping: Yeah, when we first bought it, we had to take delivery in St Leonards in Sydney, but we were based in Canberra at the time, so we had to drive the car down to Canberra to register it. And when we stopped at Pheasants Nest, we couldn’t leave there for about 25 minutes because of the crowd gathered around the car.
KRIS: We’ll be looking deeply at Tesla throughout this series, but right now I want to focus on the enthusiasts. Because when you look at the major players in the EV space, none can really compare with the loyalty that Tesla, and CEO Elon Musk, have from their customers.
Mark Tipping: By the way, a couple of my friends, ‘Mr and Mrs T on Tour’, have you heard of them?
KRIS: No, I have not.
Mark Tipping: They’re a swiss couple that are touring around the world at the moment, They’re meant to be here at two o-clock, I thought I’d introduce you.
KRIS: Oh, yeah, great. Awesome.
KRIS: Mark and I have pulled up at Tesla’s first supercharger location in Melbourne, Australia. And he’s keen for me to meet Mr and Mrs T, their real names are Nicole and Ralph.
Ralf Schwesinger: Our surnames are Nicole Wanner & Ralf Schwesinger.
KRIS: Mr and Mrs T have been travelling the world in a Tesla since April of 2018. In fact, when I met them, they were on a three month trip around Australia - in a Tesla that someone from the local Tesla Owners Club, loaned them for the journey.
Nicole Wanner: That’s the great thing, because in all these countries you always have the Tesla owners clubs, so when you travel there you always have a family. You meet with people, like-minded people, you share stories, and your experience driving the car, which is really really cool.
KRIS: Mr and Mrs T first became Tesla owners after they were looking for the perfect car to cater to both of their needs. And then at the Geneva motor show in 2015 they came across a Tesla. And they loved it so much, they decided to buy one. And two years later, some friends had been invited to visit Tesla’s fremont Factory, and had spare tickets and invited them to come along. And it was on this visit that they decided to make a dramatic change, to pack up everything they owned and start travelling.
Ralf Schwesinger: And Franz von Holzhausen the chief designer at Tesla, had a speech at that day and he was saying why he was joining Tesla, leaving his secure old job and joined a startup. And part of what he said was well if you believe in something, you sometimes simply have to leave your comfort zone to get it done. And that was kind of like the final drop, and after that day in the hotel, we made the decision to quit our jobs, quit our apartment contract, drill everything down as much as we could to save costs, and just leave and start, and make those experiences that we share on our website and later on also in a book.
KRIS: So Mr and Mrs T, packed up their home in Switzerland and started their journey.
Nicole Wanner: We thought we’d just start at home and drive along the sun. So we drove south to Italy, and then France and Spain and Portugal, and then also to the North because we also wanted to visit Scandenavian countries and we heard that in Norway there are so many Tesla’s which is true, you can see them everywhere.
KRIS: The pair travelled throughout Europe and then drove around New Zealand, before coming to Australia. At the time of recording they were in North America, and hope to travel through Asia at a later stage.
Nicole Wanner: I feel so safe, I know the car is really safe when I drive, so it’s more relaxed way of driving, also because of the autopilot of course. That’s one thing. And then also you don’t need to have a bad conscience because you're driving on a zero emissions basis. It’s really cool.
KRIS: Mr and Mrs T are really dispelling the myth that you can’t go places in an EV, and they see their Tesla in the same way as an iPhone, you get to your destination and you just plug it in. And this is something that many Tesla owners have told me. When you own an electric car, and specifically a Tesla, you don’t think about running your car to empty as you would in a petrol powered vehicle. You’re always plugging it in to get a little bit more juice whenever you have the opportunity. And for Mark, this provides a significantly better experience than going to a service station.
Mark Tipping: It’s a horrible user experience, you drive to a petrol station, you stand there with your hand on it. You smell all that petrol. You then stop, you go inside, you queue up to pay for that bad experience. When it comes to charging electric cars, most of your charging is, you get home, you plug it in, you go inside and see the family, and in the morning you get up and unplug it. It’s about 20 seconds of your time, that you spend, the car spends more time, but it’s your time is what matters.
KRIS: And if you want to travel, Tesla owners have access to the vast supercharger network which provides fast charging to get you on your way quickly. In the US there are close to 700 locations, although in countries like Australia the network is much smaller with around 30. For a Model 3, you can get 180 miles or 289 km of range in just 15 minutes. And if you’re travelling further afield, the main supercharger network is supplemented by destination chargers.
Mark Tipping: You stop every two hours for 20 minutes, and charge the battery up to get to the next one, and then each time you stop though you’re socialising with people because people want to talk to you about the car. And then the other thing you do is you turn up at a hotel and plug it in to a destination charger. And in the morning it’s charged.
KRIS: For those with EVs made by other manufacturers, the charging infrastructure is much harder to find, although companies like Chargepoint, Electrify America, and Chargefox in Australia, are working quickly to change that. Which we’ll talk more about in a later episode.
KRIS: But before we move on, it’s important that we take a step back and look at how we got to this point, where Tesla became king of the EV market… and that’s coming up right after this break.
KRIS: While Tesla is leading the EV industry today, it may surprise you to know that electric vehicles have actually been around in one form or another since the dawn of the automobile…. And they were competing directly with early steam and internal combustion engines.
DAVID KIRSCH: It was a new technology that was being developed in the 1890s and the early electric vehicles were really what we would now call horseless carriages, they were simply horse-drawn vehicles, where the horse had been removed and a small electric motor had been added, and a big bucket of smelly lead-acid batteries to power the electric motor.
KRIS: This is David Kirsch, author of the book The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.
DAVID KIRSCH: So these were really very primitive vehicles but so were the early internal combustion vehicles. You know none of these early technologies were in any way optimised for on-road service, steam vehicles took 20 minutes to a half hour to heat up to get the boiler to a proper operating temperature, and the internal combustion vehicles were very cranky and hard to operate. So there was no perfect technology in that time. All of them were very problematic.
DAVID KIRSCH: And one of the big questions in that early period was, which one of these technologies would improve the fastest? People believed, the experts if you will, of the day, thought that electricity and electric battery storage would be the technology that would improve the fastest.
KRIS: This was an era of innovation, where more and more uses for electricity were being discovered and engineered. So it shouldn’t be surprising that electric vehicles were in development. It was also a time of competitive business models. The electric power stations saw an opportunity to sell more electricity, so they were incentivised to support these new inventions.
DAVID KIRSCH: By production in 1899, I think maybe it's 1900, electric vehicles accounted for the largest share of vehicles manufactured… most of those electric vehicles were used as electric taxis. They were not owner operated… Some of them had these huge balloon tyres that were very much prone to failure, actually even more so than the batteries… the batteries were imperfect for sure, but did the job.
KRIS: These vehicles weren’t required to travel long distances, so the imperfections were easily forgiven. But in some ways, they were also ahead of their time. One of the companies in New York, that operated a fleet of electric taxis, even utilised swappable batteries.
DAVID KIRSCH: So what would happen is if you were out with a fare and your battery was running low, you would pull into the central station, they would back the taxi up to kind of a holding crane, pull out the thousand pound tray of sulfuric acid sloshing, lead-acid batteries that had been exhausted and swap in a new one, in three to five minutes. The passenger hops back in and out they go. So these were, again, imperfect technologies but this battery swapping station at least was a workable solution to allow the vehicles to operate without a significant range constraint for most of their service needs.
KRIS: There was so much experimentation happening at that time, that even Henry Ford dabbled in electric vehicles, working with his close friend and mentor Thomas Edison.
MATT ANDERSON: They started sort of working together not long after the Model T had been introduced in 1909. And Ford was interested, at that point, in sort of any kind of alternate technology, and it would remain an interest of his throughout the rest of his life.
KRIS: This is Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford Museum.
MATT ANDERSON: It's a real friendship between the two of them. And yes, that got Ford involved in electric vehicles, kind of experimenting with Edison on batteries, which were the big issue then, as they continue to be today. Trying to find a battery that was light enough to not rob the car of a lot of its power, and that also could hold a charge for a longer period of time, and give a greater range than the 50 or maybe 80 miles rather, at the outset, that they could have gotten in 1910, 1915.
KRIS: Henry Ford grew up on a farm in Dearborn, Michigan. During his early years he was exposed to lots of tough, manual labor… which sparked his interest in mechanics. As a young man, he was a huge admirer of Thomas Edison and eventually went on to work for him.
MATT ANDERSON: He was working on steam boilers and electric generators in his day job as chief engineer at the Edison Illuminating company. So, he certainly was familiar with those technologies, but it was the internal combustion engine that caught his fancy. And that's what he worked on, that's what he built first as an experimental model in 1893. Then his actual automobile, and the working quadricycle of 1896. So, I think he was a believer in the internal combustion engine from the beginning.
KRIS: And it was in 1896 that Ford and Edison crossed paths at a conference in Atlantic City. Edison overheard Ford talking about his quadricycle, which he’d built earlier that year.
MATT ANDERSON: And supposedly, Edison had turned to Ford and said, you know, "Young man, that's it, you've got it! This is the future of transportation." Ford always credited that moment as being the key breakthrough, the inspiration, that kind of kept on going, pushing on automobiles, and eventually would lead to Ford Motor Company. You fast forward a few years after that, and then, you know, Ford and Edison are now sort of on equal status, if you will, in terms of their wealth and their fame. And they get to be personal friends.
KRIS: This eventually leads them to work together on developing an electric vehicle, shortly after Ford introduced the Model T in 1908. The Model T itself was revolutionary, but these early combustion engines were noisy and dirty. You could feel the vibrations as they rattled down the road, and you had to start them with a crank. Comparatively, the electric vehicles of the time looked like a pretty good alternative. They were much quieter and easier to maintain, so you can understand the appeal they would have had.
MATT ANDERSON: On an electric car, you have none of those problems, they're dead quiet, they make no noise. You get in, you just flip the switch or push a button and off you go. Electric cars, I'm thinking of the Detroit Electric, in particular, was a popular brand, they had a closed cab, which was kind of rare on a gasoline powered vehicle. So you'd get into this car that was already quiet to begin with, and then you're surrounded in this closed cab. So, it was really quite pleasant, compared to driving in a gasoline vehicle at the time.
KRIS: So Henry Ford and Thomas Edison join forces, utilising Edison’s battery technology. Edison even went so far as to claim in 1914 that, “The electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future”. But the Ford-Edison partnership was short lived.
MATT ANDERSON: Yeah, Ford and Edison had experimented developing a Model T with an electric power system, or electric motor and batteries. But, you know, supposedly as the press started to get wind of this about 1913, 1914, you know, Ford begins to kind of back away from that and gets less interested in it. He liked the press for the good press that it might get him, but he had kind of a love-hate relationship, I think with them, and didn't much like them spreading his business or his ideas all around. You know, he liked to be a little secretive with what he was developing.
MATT ANDERSON: But my own thought, is probably what really kind of broke apart this experiment or putting an end to it is, that Ford frankly just got too busy building Model T's with gasoline engines. The demand for these cars is something we just can't imagine. I mean, people were buying Model T's in 1914, 1915 are people who've never bought a car before. So you've got, you know, literally the entire middle class in the United States as potential customers, and Ford just can't build these cars fast enough.
MATT ANDERSON: So he moves onto the moving assembly line, and that basically takes up all of his attention, all of his time, it's - he's just too busy turning out cars and making money. There's not much time to experiment with these other technologies.
DAVID KIRSCH: Often people refer to the Edison-Ford collaboration and say, "Oh well, what might have been?" But I think if you were to look at the production figures from 1912, 1913, 1914, I would guess electric vehicles are accounting for less than maybe five, four, three, two percent of the total automobile market already by then.
KRIS: While electric vehicles of the time had their upsides, the battery technology in order to power them wasn’t as advanced as the internal combustion engine. And gas powered cars also provided something that electrics simply couldn’t.
DAVID KIRSCH: Early customers of automobiles were looking for something more, something different. Here we encounter the idea of touring and being out into nature, escaping the confines of the urban environment. For that purpose, the internal combustion vehicle was a real sort of adventure machine.
KRIS: Electricity just wasn’t widely available in rural areas. And when you combine that with the abundance of crude oil and Ford driving down costs and increasing production of the Model T, the electric vehicle had well and truly lost the race.
DAVID KIRSCH: So after internal combustion gets this early lead, and in particular after the Model T is introduced, then it's very hard for any electric vehicle maker to compete with Ford. The Model T is kind of a universal technology, you can do anything with it. You can use it for delivery, you can use it on a farm. So it became a kind of universal vehicle.
KRIS: And if two individuals as bright and successful as Edison and Ford couldn’t improve on the electric vehicle and make it viable, it was probably never going to happen in those early days. Henry Ford had a global vision, and the internal combustion engine was the logical path forward to mass production and mass consumption - a concept now known as “Fordism”, which helped shape our modern industries and economic systems.
KRIS: When Ford introduced the Model A in 1927 the electric vehicle was well and truly on the way out, and by about 1935, EVs had all but disappeared. Our cities and roads had been transformed, as gasoline vehicles became entrenched in our society…
KRIS: But then a global oil crisis in the 1960s and 70s sparked a resurgence.
DAVID KIRSCH: It's very interesting thinking about the competition between electric vehicles and internal combustion in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s… at that point, the electric vehicle technology is competing against the installed base, if you will, of hundreds of millions of internal combustion vehicles. Our entire way of life by that time had been configured around the capabilities of internal combustion. We had suburbs, and highways, and annual model changes, and car shows, and racing, and… we were a thoroughly internal combustion based society in the mid 1960s. And I think actually three things were contributing to the ecosystem. The first was actually the environmental crisis. We start to see urban smog developing in several of the big metropolitan areas. We also have the oil crisis that comes then in the early 70s and we start worrying about our dependence upon imported oil. And then a little later, we start worrying about economic independence. If we can reintroduce electric vehicles, we'll get a trifecta; we'll create some energy independence, we'll solve some environmental problems, and we'll somehow stimulate a domestic vehicle industry to boot.
KRIS: Most of the EV development during this time was experimental. Companies like General Motors produced concept vehicles, and hobbyists began engineering their own battery powered cars.
DAVID KIRSCH: There was always a do it yourself movement. Starting in the late 60s but running throughout the period, kind of homegrown technologists, not unlike what grew up around the personal computer movement in the 1970s in the Bay Area of California. And those individuals would hold rallies, have club meetings, there was something called the Electric Vehicle Association that had 10 or 15 chapters around the country and these tended to be hobbyist engineers who were very dedicated to building and operating electric vehicles.
KRIS: Electrics continued in this sporadic nature, coming in and out of fashion over the following decades. They briefly emerged again in the 90s with more prototypes - and in 1996 GM released the first mass produced electric vehicle, the EV1.
GM EV1 Commercial: “The Electric Car is Here.”
KRIS: Then came the rise of hybrids, with the Toyota Prius in 1997.
Toyota Prius Commercial: “There’s a change happening and it begins with Prius, Toyota’s revolutionary hybrid vehicle. Transportation is finally evolving.”
KRIS: Which leads us to today.
KRIS: While the internal combustion vehicle came from behind to dominate transportation, it’s now the electric car that’s striving to overtake and command the future.
KRIS: And if you’re noticing some parallels between the history of EVs and the place they now occupy in our modern auto industry, you’d be right.
KRIS: Electric vehicles have long been on the outer. People haven’t always taken them seriously, partly because of their limitations but also because of some of the earlier designs. Many of the concept vehicles just didn’t look like a car that anybody would want to drive. But what Tesla has done is make EVs cool.
DANA HULL: Well there's no question that Elon Musk and Tesla have really changed the dynamics of the auto industry, they created a compelling electric vehicle, more than one, and now every auto-maker in the world is sort of heading into the EV space. So love or hate the company and what they've done, I mean they have really changed the industry. They are an American car company. They build their cars here in the United States. And they only make electric cars, and they've kind of forced everyone else to reckon with them.
KRIS: This is Dana Hull.
DANA HULL: My name is Dana Hull. I'm a journalist here at Bloomberg News in San Francisco, and I cover Tesla, SpaceX and autonomous vehicles.
KRIS: We’ll be hearing from her throughout this series. One of the reasons Tesla have made such a splash in the auto industry is their unique approach to manufacturing and selling electric cars.
DANA HULL: From the very get-go, you know their plan was always to start selling cars at the high-end, and then use that money to sell cars at the lower end. So they've moved downmarket from, you know, the original Model S to now the Model 3, which is far more affordable… and you know, after the Model 3 they want to make the Model Y, which is a crossover. They've got a semi truck. They're talking about a pickup truck. So they have a lot of products in the pipeline, and eventually they want to have a compelling electric vehicle in every market segment that's dominant. And if they can achieve that, that'll be extraordinary.
DANA HULL: I think the question is that in terms of volume, Tesla's still a really small player. I mean Tesla delivered 63,000 cars in the first quarter. That's not that much. You know, they will grow over time, but if you look at the overall electric vehicle industry, it's still minuscule compared to the internal combustion engine.
KRIS: But without Tesla, we may not even be talking about electric vehicles at all.
DANA HULL: I don't think the auto industry would be where it is without Tesla. And the auto industry buys regulatory credits from Tesla. I mean here in the US, I mean because of issues around emissions, particularly in California, like if you're not selling a certain amount of electric cars in California, then you need to buy regulatory credits from somebody who is. So we know for example that Fiat Chrysler buys a lot of regulatory credits from Tesla. As we get more serious as a global community about the climate crisis that we're in, the hope is that we will shift more towards electrification of all sectors. You know, not just transportation but also the energy infrastructure. And I think that’s - the auto industry would not be doing what it's doing if Tesla had not done it first. I mean, Tesla really went out on a limb and said, "We're going to make a compelling, high performance luxury electric car, and people are going to buy the car because they think it's cool and they love the way it drives." And they really changed the perception of an electric car from like an ugly golf cart to something really cool, you know single-handedly. I mean you have to give them a lot of credit for that.
KRIS: So where did Tesla come from and how did they become such an influential company? That’s coming up on the next episode of Supercharged.
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