By Robert Tod Chubrich, an investor living in Los Angeles and CleanTechnica reader
I am one of a generation of investors who put our money in Tesla, defying an army of naysayers and short-sellers to become so-called “Teslanaires” last year as its stock skyrocketed over the course of the pandemic, offering a ray of hope for the climate amid the devastation wrought by COVID-19 and California’s apocalyptic wildfires.
For years a series of cranky old men from Detroit to Wall Street predicted Tesla’s imminent doom. How could it possibly be worth as much as Ford or GM, they would say, when it makes a small fraction of the cars they do? Just wait, they said, till GM released the Bolt, its supposed “Tesla-killer,” whose drivetrain and electronics were outsourced to LG, that went on to sell a tiny fraction of Tesla’s cars. Just wait — and we did, eagerly — only to see Jaguar and Audi release their own subpar electric models with similarly anemic sales, while engineering powerhouses like BMW, Daimler, and Toyota fumbled about, promising a fabulous fuel cell future that never quite arrived. When Volkswagen finally launched its first mass-market long-range electric car, the ID.3, it didn’t even bother trying to sell it in the States, and its inventory sat in parking lots across Europe for nine months as Volkswagen engineers scrambled to finish the software. A parade of grandiose startups, hailed as major competitive threats to Tesla with their own purportedly visionary founders — from Fisker to Faraday Future to LeEco to Nikola Motor — fizzled out as also-rans or outright frauds.
Our seemingly fanatical devotion to Tesla and belief in its CEO was widely ridiculed. What could possibly inspire our almost religious fervor?
We came of age as our politics devolved into a sclerotic partisan spectacle that utterly failed to address the central challenges of our time, chief among them climate change. At the same time, our space program languished for want of ambition and resolve, leaving our astronauts, the heroes of decades past, stuck circling the globe endlessly in relative obscurity.
We found our hero in Elon Musk, who rose to prominence in the wreckage of the 2008 financial crisis, when the subprime mortgage casino erected by our parents’ generation ground to a halt, dashing our career prospects. As the once-in-a-generation hope sparked by Obama’s election dwindled into resignation at Republican denialism and obstruction that rendered comprehensive climate legislation impossible, Musk emerged as a singularly daring, dynamic, and idiosyncratic entrepreneur-engineer, whose unmatched brilliance and determination enabled him to simultaneously tackle the two greatest existential challenges of our time — transitioning our economy off of fossil fuels with Tesla, and making our civilization multi-planetary with SpaceX. With an inspiring vision for our future, he rallied together the world’s most talented engineers to make the impossible possible, relentlessly innovating and running circles around the complacent and hidebound incumbents in their respective industries. In his spare time, he invented the hyperloop, a new mode of rapid mass transit, set into motion a revolution in tunnel boring with The Boring Company and in human-computer interfaces with Neuralink — and he tweeted. Boy, did he tweet: answering customers’ pleas, sharing memes, courting controversy, and even finding love.
In the wake of Trump’s election, the high hopes of the Obama years curdled into horror at a president who dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax, withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement, and ridiculed rising young leaders like Greta Thunberg who had the courage to speak scientific truth to power.
Our other institutions likewise failed us. Leading universities told us divesting their endowments from fossil fuels would be imprudent, and that retaining investments in obsolete technologies imperiling human civilization was the sensible thing to do. Banks continued to fund coal projects, insurance companies continued to insure them, and the fossil fuel giants continued their massive investments in exploration, drilling new wells even as existing reserves far exceeded what we could burn without inducing catastrophic warming. Nothing, it seemed, could pull our ostrich-elders’ heads from the sand.
Tesla was our only hope. So we invested. We saw phenomenal products and a culture of constant innovation that applied Silicon Valley methodologies — agile development, a holistic view of user experience, and a software-centric architecture — to delight customers. Tesla made bold strategic moves other automakers would not in order to ensure its success, creating its own sales and service centers despite an extensive campaign of legal harassment from state legislators captive to dealership lobbies; building its own nationwide fast-charging network to assure its customers the time-honored American freedom of the open road; and acquiring SolarCity to form a vertically integrated and wholly unprecedented clean energy and transportation conglomerate. We recognized Tesla’s overwhelming data advantage over its peers in the race to develop autonomous cars, as it used its million-strong fleet to train its machine-learning algorithms. We saw the enormous value it could create through grid services like frequency regulation and demand response, coordinating its generation and storage assets to manage the variability of renewables. We realized the investments its competitors had made in obsolete combustion engine technologies and manufacturing would soon become expensive liabilities and write-offs. We braved disappointments and setbacks and held on, until the investment community finally wised up and realized Tesla was here to stay, its short interest evaporating as it joined the S&P 500 index, a newly minted blue-chip investment for a world in the midst of a very messy rebirth.
Tesla’s triumph has sent a message it’s time our institutions heeded: the fossil fuel era is over, like the collective nightmares of the Trump administration and 2020, and good riddance. Thanks to Elon, we’ve set our sights on the Moon and Mars — and despite the monumental challenges that lay ahead, we have a future we can look forward to. And Elon, if you’re reading this — I’d love to invest in SpaceX.
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