When a story decides to be written from me, there is no escape. To bring it to paper is a relief, like scratching itchy skin. You can try to postpone it a little bit, but that’s about all that you can negotiate. Today, it’s an itchy day again, and I predict there are some more days ahead.
My week involves business travel from Germany to Tesla’s headquarters in Fremont, California, during the worst pandemic the world has seen for century. The life we are used to is changing. Whenever a vaccine is found and distributed, it will not erase the lasting change that happened to us already. But to change is a positive thing, and although many will argue it isn’t, without change, a lot would end that deserves to continue.
The legacy automotive industry needs to change in order to continue, but it insists instead on remaining as we have known it for a century, which would be fatal and the end of that industry. The process to convince incumbent automakers to change is an exhausting exercise, and some show an astounding stubbornness and a conviction to die as fast as possible.
My trip to California is a trip to observe more of the most fundamental paradigm shifts the auto industry has ever seen — the change from the combustion engine to the battery electric vehicle. It is so fundamental a shift that automakers that don’t change fast enough will be eliminated as fast as species on Earth are disappearing right now from climate change. This is a paradigm shift we are all watching in disbelief every day. To change comes with risk, but without risk, there is no survival.
I have taken risks in my life, but they have always been controlled risks, and each time I was rewarded for accepting that something could go wrong. This was true for scuba diving to depths even experienced divers should not go, sailing in stormy weather in a small boat with each wave filling the boat with more water, and when paragliding with new equipment at a new location and a new weather situation (which was at least 2 “news” too much to stay safe). And I did not even mention how often I’ve driven above +200 km/h on the German Autobahn.
Today, I take another risk, and I hope and expect to be rewarded again. I fly from Germany to San Francisco, a place the German foreign offices have on its warning list at a time when flying to the USA is almost impossible and my return results in a quarantine. It is a trip in the time of a severe pandemic dominating the life of the majority of humans on earth. It is a natural phenomenon you read about happening in the past but didn’t expect to happen in your lifetime. Like with the black plague or Ebola, a volcanic eruption, or a revolution, it is an incidence you watch in Hollywood movies and read about in books but always happened in places and times far away. This time, it is real, and we all are in the middle of it.
The reason why I am willing to take this risk is that, as far as I know, I am the only European who has been invited from Tesla to participate in person at its long-awaited and postponed Battery Day and annual shareholder meeting. This is an event that can make a huge difference for humanity in its fight against climate change. This could indicate how Tesla will bring us affordable sustainable transportation much faster. To have been invited is a huge honor that I don’t believe I deserve.
I did not anticipate this at all, because I was completely certain I would not be able to enter the USA anyway, as Proclamation 9984 clearly states that, in order to protect US citizens against infectious risks, Europeans are not allowed to travel to the USA unless they have a green card or are a student. Neither of those apply to me. Therefore, there was no way for me to even consider going and I made no plans.
After I learned that a remaining option existed to enter with a so-called National Interest Exception (NIE), I smiled mildly and did put all chances to a final test. “Nie” in German means never, and to apply for a waiver that is called NEVER is no encouragement, and even seems like a joke. More importantly, how could I be seen as applicable for a NIE? However, having survived many oddities in my life, I decided to give it a try, as there was nothing to lose. For reasons I will never know, I received approval from the embassy and US homeland security and did receive a waiver to travel to the USA.
It can be said that I am a person of national interest to the USA now, which American friends educated me later on is a status you don’t typically want to have. Better be careful what you wish for! National interest sounds good for a European, but it can also mean that you are a risk, threat, or enemy to the USA, which I can confirm not to be. This funny naming coincidence reminds me of the name Audi gave to its first true electric vehicle, e-tron. As we learned later, this is a French expression for “shit.” Better be careful what name you wish for.
Even odder, I received as documentation from the embassy a friendly short email that congratulated me and confirmed I was good to go. With mixed feelings, I arrived at the Resident Evil movie, an almost empty Munich Airport, expecting some “un-death” around every corner, but I found only a few employees who appeared bored and happy to see a talking face. To be declined further passage alongside laughs at the next checkpoint was my #1 expectation, but the email was read with interest instead and, surprisingly, they waved me through.
Even the flight attendant on the plane approached me as if I was the only guest with only a German passport and no green card. The plan was just about 20% full and the flight attendant asked with curiosity how I managed to get that NIE exception. After I answered her friendly questions, the pilot informed us that 8 guests arrived without the required documentation and were declined entry onto the plane. We thus had to wait until their luggage was unloaded. I was convinced I should be #9, but somehow, they overlooked me.
Surviving 11 hour-long respiratory challenges with a PP2 (N95) mask on the deserted plane convinced me that my ears will remain bent forever to the outside and my nose downwards by the force of the band of an extra secure mask. Face recognition to unlock my iPhone may now have severe technical problems. My conviction was still strong that I won’t pass the critical stare deep into my eyes of the immigration officers checking my documents in San Francisco. The mistake would certainly be clarified and explained at last, I thought, and me been sent back home to Germany on the next plane for another 11-hour long respiratory exercise with a lung that feels only half-filled and half-emptied each time I breathe.
As expected, I saw a severely frowning custom officer’s forehead looking seriously and deep into the computer until he waved over another person that brought me into a separate room. My predictions started to become reality. As assumed, they asked me to sit down and wait, and later to stand up and come to another desk, where a third officer armed like in a battlefield teased me with an additional question about my national interest exception, the profound purpose of the trip, and how I earn my livelihood. None of them were easy questions to answer, and he made a lot of notes, which were not helpful to calm me down too. Surprisingly, though, I was wrong, and all of a sudden I walked free onto the streets of San Francisco.
My inner voice, though, continuously claimed that sooner or later my luck would find a sudden ending. I knew the next challenge was just right ahead. Although I had received emails and tweets from Tesla that I was good to go for the highly anticipated event that very few people were invited to, shortly before I went to the airport in Germany, an email from Tesla reached me declaring that my registration for the event was not complete and that I need to finish that via a link in an email they referred to that I never received. It felt like jumping over one hurdle after another without knowing how the next would look.
My friendly response to Tesla did not generate an answer, but I decided to travel anyway and take my chances. At least I am in San Francisco now, but who knows if I will get access to the anticipated big day for Tesla, a possible inflection point for its shareholders, the automotive industry, and the world as a whole in the transformation to sustainable energy. We are at an inflection point caused by new battery technology that will make fully electric vehicles cheaper, longer-lasting, and better than any fossil fuel vehicle ever.
If that is not enough in stressing my luck, being a shareholder since 2015, my broker in Germany, a subsidiary of BNP Paribas, which is a global investment bank of high international reputation, decided to decline to send me a proxy or confirmation for my shares in my depot for unknown reasons, and this is usually a hard requirement to enter any shareholder meeting. The decline was received after waiting for an answer for 10 days right to the day I left. A previous confirmation from BNP that I, of course, would get a confirmation and documentation for a shareholder meeting with Tesla was ignored.
Well, I am still an optimist, against all odds, and believe in the principle “don’t worry, be happy.” To solve what is right in front of me with priority is a lesson I learned in life. Therefore, I’ve decided not to think about tomorrow and move along.
With that in mind, I go to bed now as a person of national interest to the USA that accidentally was allowed to travel from Germany to California in a time when it’s forbidden by presidential proclamation for all citizens on the continent I am living in. If that does not give you a feeling of being special, then something is severely wrong with you, but I still don’t.
Having fewer challenges to solve in the next few days would be appreciated, but who knows what tomorrow brings?