While things have been quiet on the Tesla legal front in the battle for recognition between Martin Eberhard and Elon Musk, some of the bystanders in the saga are continuing to come forward with their takes of the story. Earlier this week, we heard from Tesla's former senior vice president of marketing, Darryl Siry, in a piece that ran on Wired. Now, former communications director David Vespremi is responding with a counterpoint to Siry's article.
The heart of the legal argument revolves around who did what in the very earliest days of Tesla's existence in 2003-2004 and then what happened in 2006-2007 as Tesla approached Job 1 for the Roadster. The two men have their own versions of those events and how that relates to what has been said by and about Musk over the past 18 months.
Keep in mind that neither Vespremi or Siry were there in the earliest days of Tesla. Instead, Siry's piece looks at the Roadster's evolution from the AC Propulsion tZero. Vespremi's response goes way beyond that and places Tesla in some historical context in the progression from the EVs of a century ago as they "cross the chasm" to mainstream acceptability. You can find Vespremi's entire response (it's a worthwhile read) after the jump.
Related Gallery2009 Tesla Roadster v1.5
[Source: David Vespremi]
The following was contributed by David Vespremi:
Tesla helped cross the chasm to mainstream electric vehicle acceptance
In his recent contributed blog to Wired's Autopia, entitled "Will the Real Tesla Founder Please Stand Up?" Darryl Siry posits that Elon Musk and Martin Eberhard have, in effect, taken their eyes of the prize in attempting to set the record straight about which of the two men can rightfully lay claim to founder status for Tesla Motors.
Let's get right to the point and address the core of Mr. Siry's missive,
"But the truth is, the idea that led to the Tesla Roadster didn't come from Eberhard or Musk... neither Martin Eberhard or (sic) Elon Musk came up with the idea of an electric sportscar (sic) with excellent range and amazing acceleration."
While it is true to say that the Tesla Roadster is an electric sports car with excellent range and amazing acceleration, the reverse statement is not equally true. There have been, there are, and there will be other electric sports cars with excellent range and amazing acceleration; ownership of that idea is not the issue. However there is only one company producing the Tesla Roadster and ownership of that is the issue.
Siry employs this bit of false logic to steer around the core of Eberhard's claims and, in so doing, glosses over Tesla Motors' many accomplishments as a technical innovator, as a marketing innovator, and as an honest-to-goodness car company. These points have been validated not just by hundreds of road legal vehicles in the hands of paying customers, but also by investment from both a major car manufacturer and even U.S. taxpayers. At the end of the day, it is against the backdrop of these accomplishments that Tesla Motors stands in a class apart from the skunk works programs and backyard shop offerings that held technical promise but were neither designed for, nor anticipated to evolve into, the kind of scale needed to meet consumer demands.
Logical fallacy aside, mindful readers with an interest in the Tesla Roadster's evolution would be well advised to put AC Propulsion in its historical place – namely, as a company that took the advances of Aerovironment (in the form of the GM Impact program which led to the EV-1) to the next step. Going back further, it was a team from Cal Tech, led by Wally Rippel, which piqued Aerovironment's initial interest in electric cars via the GM-sponsored Sun Raycer. And that is just for the "nouveau electric car." We can go back a hundred years or more if we want to dig even further into the electric horseless carriage archives – after all, behind every originator is another originator.
For those interested in the progression, AC Propulsion falls roughly midstream in this sequence: Caltech-> Wally Rippel->Sun Raycer->Aerovironment->Al Cocconi->Impact (and by extension, EV1)->AC Propulsion->Martin Eberhard (rescuing ACP with his investment in capital and the introduction of commodity lithium ion batteries)->Tesla (founded by Eberhard/Tarpenning and principally funded by Elon Musk). What a difference an "o" makes...
The idea for 'an electric sportscar (sic) with excellent range and amazing acceleration' may have stalled with AC Propulsion if Martin Eberhard had not entered the picture with his investment in capital and the introduction of commodity lithium ion batteries.
These lithium ion battery cells were first used in the Tesla Roadster – and gave it the unique combination of range, acceleration, and, just as important, reliability. In fact, an electric car is only as good as the batteries that allow it to compete with combustion cars across these key criteria. Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning brought the lithium ion silver bullet solution from their prior company, Nuevo Media, and their Rocket eBook. The Rocket eBook will be best remembered by Silicon Valley geeks as a quirky historical footnote en route to today's Amazon Kindle – a paperless, electronic book. Rewind the VHS tape to 1999 or so. In order to meet the demands of a cross-country flight, including a reasonable layover, Eberhard and Tarpenning realized that neither lead acid nor nickel metal hydride battery chemistries were up to snuff. They needed something lighter, more compact, and with significantly greater storage – and ideally, none of the pesky "memory" that would shorten a battery's life from repeated charging/recharging. It was this same lithium ion battery technology that catapulted what would otherwise have been relegated to a novelty act into a viable mainstream consumer car. Well, that and DOT certification, airbags, doors that open, bumpers that bump, lights that work, home-friendly charging stations, and a host of other refinements that set apart a kit car from something that one could expect to buy at a dealership and drive home on public roads.
While it is perhaps understandable for Siry not to have an accurate grasp of Tesla's technical and historical context, as its "CMO" Siry would at least be expected to get the market relevance of Tesla's place in the resurgence of interest around the electric car and the importance of brand ethos (i.e. Apple computer and Steve Jobs' role in shaping that brand). Case in point, as a marketer and Tesla insider, Mr. Siry is no doubt well acquainted with Geoffrey Moore's seminal book, "Crossing the Chasm," in which Moore identifies a chasm between the early adopters of the product (the technology enthusiasts and visionaries) and the early majority (the pragmatists). Moore points out that the visionaries and pragmatists have very different expectations, and explores those differences. Moore suggests several essential techniques to successfully cross the "chasm," including: choosing a target market, understanding the whole product concept, positioning the product, building a marketing strategy, choosing the most appropriate distribution channel and pricing... Sounds familiar? Tesla Motors has crossed a chasm that has been up until now, one of the deepest and widest in existence. This is why they have become widely recognized as the poster child for Silicon Valley bravado and resourcefulness.
The "founders" of Tesla have captured our collective imaginations and inspired continued debate on a wide range of issues from domestic dependence on foreign oil to global warming, and the role of the automobile in shaping our collective future. Neither Eberhard nor Musk could have predicted how timely and poignant Tesla's debut would be in the context of a GM bankruptcy. The fact is, rather than celebrating Eberhard, Tarpenning (and even Elon Musk) for their role in advancing electric vehicle battery technology, and electric vehicle marketability, the importance of "founder" is in its standing for the courage, tenacity, and, yes, sheer arrogance to take the big risk and fly in the face of convention. Musk risked his money and Eberhard risked his time and name. AC Propulsion may have pioneered the tools, but the risk was borne by those that followed, as does whatever glory "founder" denotes in having crossed that chasm.
Siry and others may be aware of an analogous (and richly ironic) fight of historical significance over "founder" recognition between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison in what has become known as the "War of the Currents." See if this Wikipedia summary sounds familiar: "Edison was a brute-force experimenter, but was no mathematician. AC cannot be properly understood or exploited without a substantial understanding of mathematics and mathematical physics, which Tesla possessed. Tesla had worked for Edison but was undervalued (for example, when Edison first learned of Tesla's idea of alternating-current power transmission, he dismissed it: "[Tesla's] ideas are splendid, but they are utterly impractical."). Bad feelings were exacerbated because Tesla had been cheated by Edison of promised compensation for his work. Edison would later come to regret that he had not listened to Tesla and used alternating current."
While we don't yet know how this story will end, we do know that "CMO" Siry fails to do justice to what Tesla, the scrappy underdog company, has accomplished in its short, but well documented history, and what Eberhard and Musk have at stake in the battle to follow.
David Vespremi is neither a CMO nor a Tesla Founder. He does, however, have experience working for Tesla Motors under Eberhard, Musk, Tarpenning, and most especially, Siry, and shares his perspective as a voice within a company that at one point at least, was fueled neither by gasoline, nor electricity, but by the collective passion of the imperfect people behind it in their attempt to make their mark in shaping the global automotive landscape.