Tesla, Saturn, & The Conundrum Of The Cult

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The Tesla saga is getting weirder by the minute. First we learned the company was terminating 10% (or more) of its global workforce. Then we learned that Tesla really isn’t a car company at all. Rather it is an AI and autonomous driving company. Next we learned the entire Supercharger team has been terminated. Today there are reports the company is pulling way back on its plans to use high pressure casting to build its cars after years of telling us the opposite. Three years ago, Tesla had achieved a cult-like status among its customers. But today? Well, that is the focus of the following disquisition.

In the 1980s, the CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith, became the reluctant co-star of Michael Moore’s Roger And Me. The film chronicled how Smith closed a number of GM factories in order to boost the company’s bottom lime but at the expense of many assembly line workers who lost their jobs as a result. Smith was not a lovable man, by most accounts, but he was distressed that no American manufacturer could build a quality car at a price most people could afford. He was tired of seeing all the Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas on the road but few counterparts from American companies.

One day, Smith shocked the GM board by announcing the company would create a new division — Saturn — and fund it with an initial investment of $5 billion, which was a lot of money in the mid-80s. The heads of the other GM divisions were less than thrilled by the idea. Chevrolet and Pontiac in particular took umbrage at the proposal, thinking that every Saturn sold would come at the expense of models in their own product lineup. But Smith was adamant and soon construction began on a new factory nestled in the rolling foothills near Spring Hill, Tennessee.

The name of the new division was taken from the Saturn V rockets that propelled the US space program, not the planet. That’s the reason the name of the new division was written in NASA script and not Times New Roman. A slew of talented engineers from Oldsmobile signed on to the Saturn project and moved to Tennessee to be part of it. They invented lost foam casting techniques that had previously been reserved for custom casting jobs. They created a transmission that could be either manual or automatic and built on the same assembly line. They devised a way to push concrete through a conventional paving machine for the parking lots around the factory.

Saturn & Innovation

There were lots of innovations in management at well. The UAW contract was only about twenty pages long. Grievance procedures were streamlined. There was no executive dining room — everyone ate the same food in the same facility — and workers were expected to clean and maintain their work area themselves. The assembly line featured a palett system that workers could raise or lower to fit their physical attributes. One team of workers traveled the entire length of the factory on one palett to build each car so they could feel like they were part of a team and not just a human cog in a giant machine.

The sales process was unique in American history. All the showrooms were light gray with red accents (a theme later adopted by Toyota) and all the sales desks were open to the showroom. Managers’ offices were all glass. The sales staff was trained to focus on helping customers to make good buying decisions based on their needs. Every new customer was treated to a tour of the service facility, which was calm, organized, and clean.

I myself applied for a sales position, but with great trepidation. “Car salesman” is not a term that generally gets great respect in the community. As I sat patiently outside the general manager’s office waiting for my interview, someone barged in to say a customer was unhappy about something and what should be done? The GM asked one question: “What’s the right thing to do for the customer?” After that I no longer feared being a car salesman, so long as I could do it a Saturn dealership.

Saturn grew by leaps and bounds. Dealerships had monthly or quarterly rallies for customers with bouncy houses and chili cook-offs. One day my store hired a monster truck to come crush an Oldsmobile. The kids loved it but the Olds dealer next door was not amused. Every year, the factory hosted a Homecoming event in Spring Hill and thousands of happy Saturn owners would trek from the far corners of America to attend the festivities.

The media started referring to Saturn as a cult and they weren’t entirely wrong. Saturn people couldn’t stop telling anyone who would listen how happy they were with their cars. All of this is not to say Saturns were perfect. They weren’t. They were built to sell at a certain price point and sell they did. The original car — the SL sedan — was deliberately designed to fit female customers. There was a rumor that “SL” stood for “Saturn for ladies” and that somewhat larger cars more dimensionally suited for men were on the drawing boards.

They never arrived. Roger Smith departed as the head of GM, and the heads of Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick got out the long knives and carved any new development funds for Saturn out of the budget. Saturn started selling rebadged Chevrolets and Opels. The focus on customer satisfaction withered and slowly but surely the brand died. The cult of Saturn was over.

Is The Cult Of Tesla Next?


George Santayana, whose real name was Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, was a Harvard philosopher who is widely credited with being the first to say, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Elon Musk is an amazing person who has accomplished wonderful things. He did not invent the electric car, but he can rightfully be called the father of the EV revolution. Auto manufacturers all around  the globe are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into establishing battery supply chains and building factories to manufacture electric cars. The Chinese are the clear leaders in the field, but Korean, Japanese, and European car companies are not throwing in the towel, at least not yet.

Here’s the point of today’s screed — What happened to Saturn could happen to Tesla, and Musk seems completely oblivious to that possibility. Recently he said Tesla is not a car company. What? All these years it has been laser-focused on the car business and its shareholders have been wowed by visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads as they envisioned a company that would grow 50% a year — because that’s what Musk promised — and become the largest car company on Earth, cranking out 20 million new electric cars a year at factories all around the globe.

Now suddenly that dream is off the table and we are all supposed to pivot to Tesla being an AI and robotaxi company? C’mon, Elon. How stupid do you think we are? It seems more and more that Musk is just a huckster not unlike PT Barnum, whose mantra was, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The evidence is mounting that Musk is just another in a long line of tech entrepreneurs whose goal is to get rich quick by moving fast and breaking things. Others of that ilk are Travis Kalanick of Uber fame and Trevor Milton, who once rolled a fuel cell-powered Nikola Class 8 truck down an incline to fool people into thinking it was operational. To some, Tesla today is little more than a classic Wall Street pump and dump scheme.

Put A Real Person In Charge Of Tesla

A recent op-ed by Mack Hogan for Inside EVs advocates for putting an adult in charge of the car manufacturing side of Tesla. If Elon wants to pursue AI and robots, fine. Let him do it on his own time and with his own money. “The only person who consistently gets in Musk’s way is Musk himself,” Hogan writes.

“The man’s quick, gut-driven pivots don’t seem to work out well when the business is mature. He’s prodded every dial and button at X — née Twitter — and the result is clear: The website that once defined the online conversation is now a cesspool of spam and bigotry. It’s never had a worse relationship with its advertisers. And its CEO has never been so radioactive.

“And yet America can’t afford for the same fate to befall Tesla’s auto-making efforts. The company is just too important. Very few other automakers right now offer such a compelling slate of EVs backed by Silicon Valley-grade software, a dealer-free buyer experience and an internally built, reliable charging network. Tesla is not just important to the EV market; it is important to the US’ strategic geopolitical position. It is the only large scale EV manufacturer in the country that has global relevance, the chops to compete with Chinese EV manufacturers and an existing, satisfied EV customer base.

“It doesn’t need a disruptor in charge. It needs an executive. One who executes. Someone who can helm a complicated, large organization while retaining the institutional knowledge and talent to keep its edge over the competition. It doesn’t need to solve autonomy to succeed. It does not need one big swing. It needs a million little decisions, made by a CEO that isn’t distracted by SpaceX, X, Dojo, autonomy, and anger over “the woke mind virus.”

Hogan suggests the company under the guidance or a seasoned professional leader (Herbert Diess?) could make cars that people want to buy by redesigning the Model S, switching the Model 3 over to an 800 volt architecture, and building out the V4 Supercharger network. “These projects all surely sound boring to Elon Musk. That’s exactly why he shouldn’t be in charge of them.” Hogan says.

The Takeaway

40 years ago, Saturn made cars that people wanted to buy and everyone thought the company was here to stay. They were wrong. I did a track day at Watkins Glen in a Saturn SC2 coupe many years ago. All weekend long I had strangers coming up to me and gushing about how they loved their Saturns and what great cars they were. It is sad to think GM took all that brand equity and tossed it into the trash heap.

The message here is that there is no guarantee that Tesla will succeed in the long run. History is littered with car companies like Saturn that were once flying high but faded into oblivion. Elon clearly has no use for history and thinks there is nothing that happened in the past that should impact his thinking today. George Santayana would say that is a dangerous mindset for a chief executive to have. History may well have the last laugh on Elon.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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