Launching A Space Ship Is A Snap Compared To A Car

Is it easier to put a man in space or an electric vehicle in every garage? Ask Elon Musk, the iconoclastic entrepreneur who heads up both Tesla Motors and SpaceX, the first private space venture to launch a vehicle and successfully dock it with the International Space Station.

The passing of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, comes to mind when thinking about Musk's dual quest to remake the auto industry with electric vehicles and to privatize space travel. Back when Armstrong took that first small step, it was thought that if we could put a man on the moon, it was proof there was nothing mankind couldn't accomplish, including stamping out poverty and curing cancer.

If history is a guide, it turns out it's easier to do the moon shot than tackle a myriad of pressing social issues.

That is precisely what Musk may eventually discover – namely that it is far easier to build spaceships than it is to build an electrically powered family car that will appeal to the masses.

Matt DeLorenzo is the former editor-in-chief of Road & Track and has covered the auto industry for 35 years, including stints at Automotive News and AutoWeek. He has authored books including VW's New Beetle, Chrysler's Modern Concept Cars, and Corvette Dynasty.

With SpaceX, Musk is entering a relatively level playing field in which the door has been opened to private enterprise. NASA's decision to end the Space Shuttle program has provided a big boost to these efforts. Businesses and governments alike still need to lift satellites and material for the ISS into orbit. SpaceX is reported to have nearly $2 billion in government and private contracts on the books and has a demonstrated track record of successful launches. While SpaceX is building Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules, its main product isn't the boosters and capsules themselves, but rather the service of transporting men and material into space. Product improvements are made to make these rocketships more powerful or efficient in order to complete the mission rather than making changes to merely to meet the whim of the market. And most important of all, SpaceX retains total control over its hardware throughout the lifecycle. With no shortage of customers, a limited number of competitors, and demonstrated competency in its core business, SpaceX is positioned to thrive.

Tesla is taking on a mature industry with many competitors and excess capacity in an uncertain economic times.

Meanwhile, Tesla is taking on a mature industry with many competitors and excess capacity in an uncertain economic times. The automobile business requires huge investments on products that sell for relatively small margins. And while Tesla is an EV-only company, other major manufacturers, like Nissan, Honda and Ford, compete with Tesla with pure electrics of their own.

Furthermore, the Model S will compete not only with other pure electrics like the Nissan Leaf, but also conventional gasoline-, diesel- and hybrid-powered cars that offer more range, quicker refueling times and lower sticker prices. And while Musk promises more affordable EVs in the future, the cheapest Model S, which starts at just under $50,000 after a $7,500 tax credit, is still around $20,000 more than the average new car, which retails more in the neighborhood of $30,000. The truth is that unless internal combustion is banned by the government, there will always be less expensive alternatives to the EV, barring some miraculous breakthrough in battery technology.

There's no doubt that Tesla has demonstrated that it can build EVs, as shown by the run of 2,000 or so Roadsters and that the new Model S offers credible performance (see MotorTrend's recent test where the sedan clicked off a 60 mph sprint of 3.9 seconds while delivering more than 200 miles of range).

The real test of Tesla isn't so much the ability to roll the Model S off the assembly line as it is how these vehicles perform in the real world.

But the real test of Tesla isn't so much the ability to roll the Model S off the assembly line as it is how these vehicles perform in the real world. Its success lies equally with the performance of the hardware and the soft side of the business – sales, service and warranties. SpaceX is more like a business-to-business proposition on the wholesale level, while Tesla is dealing strictly at the retail level. Being able to please individual customers on a large scale is a difficult task, one that Tesla has yet to prove itself. Will its factory-owned dealer network be up to the task? How will the first recall be handled? Is it prepared for the product liability lawsuits that are an everyday fact of life for mainstream manufacturers?

If things don't go well for Tesla, one scenario could have Musk selling Tesla off to either Toyota or Daimler, both of which have taken a stake in the company for its EV technology. In addition, under the new 54.5 mpg CAFE requirements, Tesla is in line to receive fuel economy credits that will prove to be extremely valuable to manufacturers who don't have EVs.

Tesla has crossed the first formidable hurdles by producing the Model S at its California plant and delivering cars to consumers. But now the real work begins.

Click here to read AutoblogGreen's recently published in-depth interview with Elon Musk in which he talks about financials, falcon doors and finding faults in the Model S

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      Why compare the Model S with the "average" new car? It is a mid-size luxury sedan, and it compares favorably with other cars in its price class (5 series, A6/A7), especially when you consider the long-term costs of ownership. There are other advantage to EVs that the author doesn't mention: packaging flexibility of the platform, excellent weight balance and low center of gravity which result in excellent handling, and fewer moving parts which should make these cars very reliable. Coming from a background in Silicon Valley, I don't think Tesla's executives and engineers are unfamiliar with product liability and consumer expectations. And Elon Musk seems to have an obsession with quality control (per the interview from a couple of days ago). Of course, the one major downside to an EV will always be range. If Tesla can deploy their supercharger network well enough to eliminate those fears, I think they will have a hit on their hands.
        Bryant Keith
        • 2 Years Ago
        I haven't seen a review of the roadster where it has not broken down during testing. I mean Top Gear broke BOTH of the ones they had. And EVs have a high cost of ownership with battery replacement. Not to mention the amount of toxic waste produced during the manufacturing of batteries. Honda that's a car that makes perfect sense and should be endorsed more heavily.
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Bryant Keith
          Nope, try harder when lying. Top Gear admitted the cars didn't break down, the "simulated" what would happen if the battery ran out. But there was still energy in the battery. So they decided to push a fully functioning car just to make EVs look bad. And who is supposed to endorse the Clarity besides Honda? Maybe someone would endorse it, if honda made more than 20 of them and SOLD them, not leased for a limited time. Why are they not releasing it and investing in infrastructure together with Toyota, Hyundai, GM, and Daimler or nissan, to name a few companies that have promised hydrogen vehicles?
      • 2 Years Ago
      iI think the author is missing the point. I was at dinner with Marc Tarpenning a few weeks ago and Tesla's market strategy was one of the topics we discussed. Marc pointed out that Tesla's goal was never to go after the vast mass market, but the lucrative luxury end, starting with sports cars. They first targeted Porsche et. al. and are now targeting Mercedes, BMW and Audi, not Toyota, GM and Ford. And, in that segment, their cars are VERY price competitive. When you count TCO, they are significantly cheaper for the equivalent size and performance. Have you ever even priced out a 5-series? At they low end they are $50k, the hybrid version starts at $61k. Fully loaded, they are well over $90k. Even if you look at 'mass market' cars like the Volt ($47k) or the Focus EV ($45k), they are extremely competitive. I'm not saying Tesla is going to survive, scaling up is really hard, but to call the Model S 'too expensive' or 'not competitive' is just daft.
        • 2 Years Ago
        The BMW that is most similar to the Model S is not the 5-series but the 6-series Gran Coupes. 640i starts at $76k and 650i at $86.5k...
      • 2 Years Ago
      I was skeptical about Tesla. Not much about the EV side of their cars, but about their business model and marketing tactics. I didn't like Musk either. Then some time passed, I've read more info, talked to more people "in the know", and figured their were actually building a company for the future, and that the first few years were just a mean to an end. Just as the Roadster. The Model S is good looking (almost objectively I'd say), is packed with features and options, it's a good performer (0-60 in 3.9?! Really???) and has a range that's likely 7-8 times the average miles covered by Joe Average. Yes, you can't take it to your SanFran to LA trip, but that's why they built the Karma in the first place. I actually don't see a reason for Tesla not being successful if not people prejudices and ignorance (as in lack of proper information). More than anything, it's going to be about how journos and critics depicts them. I'm all for Fisker and Tesla. I like standard cars, a lot, but I also like the more efficient side of hybrids and similar cars. Call it micr-hybrid, series or parallel hybrid, or KERS, I don't care, it's a fact that adding an electrical system to capture waste enenergy and use to power the car to any extent is more efficient than the ICE alone. Seeing the Toyota TS-030 Hybrid starting from the pits on electricity alone and than firing up the V8 was just awesome.
      • 2 Years Ago
      The Q&A with Musk which is referenced at the end of this article is much more informative than this article. You could get just as much, if not more, information reading the wikipedia on Tesla. There is not really anything new in this.
      • 2 Years Ago
      I used to think he was just a blowhard a-hole, but he's winning me over. It takes a type A personally of epic porportions to think they can make something no one else can, and then do it. I think pure electrics and electric/generator designs like the Volt will be the future, and offer everyone what they want. The Fisker/Volt is my preferred way of doing it, but Fisker is doing it all wrong.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Nothing but another "Old Man Yells at Empty Chair" article. After decades of being a gas car enthusiast, you want to find every excuse (valid or not) to stick with your beloved gas cars. We get it. I'm sure you gave similar rants when car makers stopped making cars with carburetors. But it is absolutely wrong to claim that prices won't go down unless there is a major battery tech advancement. Tesla is using commodity batteries that have historically dropped 14% in price per kWh on average each years for the last 15 years. (Adjusted for inflation.) Part of that comes from lower prices per battery, and part of that comes from more kWh in each battery. So there is no reason why Tesla's price can't keep going down even without a major battery breakthrough. Slow and steady iterative advances will do the trick too. The historic numbers don't lie.
      • 2 Years Ago
      The brunette looks like the mistress trying to not be photographed.
      • 2 Years Ago
        • 2 Years Ago
        Well. You haven't read any reviews of the Model S. Statements like "the best luxury sedan made in the USA" and with numbers to rival a $125K Porsche Panamera and the BMW M5. All made by an American company making a car that will help wean us off of foreign oil. Foreign oil, which is the biggest threat to American safety. That's part of the reason we still have troops, in harms way, fighting and dying for us. Did you forget about them, Thor? No you'd rather throw out the "green" epithet. As if "green" were a bad thing.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Everything about this car appeals to me... Except the astronomical price... I'll wait...
        • 2 Years Ago
        Wait for what??? The price of the Model S is in line with, if only slightly higher than other mid-size luxury cars of its caliber, as pointed out by Ferps above. If what you're hoping for is that the price of entry into this luxury/sport category is going to drop to say an Accord or Camry level, don't hold your breath. That's what used Lexus and Acuras are for. I also don't believe that Tesla will be developing a low to mid-priced offering any time in the future. Just doesn't fit the company's charter. I do believe they build components and technology that is being used in lower-priced EVs, such as the Nissan Leaf, so maybe you CAN own a piece of Tesla on the cheap.
      • 2 Years Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      Until recharge time is cut to 10 minutes (or an entire battery pack can be swapped out in 10 minutes at your local refueling station), this dream will always be a challenge.
        • 2 Years Ago
        This is the right start in right direction. Yes its not what you expect / WANT. I think it will grow once the "Cool" Factor kicks in. Just like Apple Iphone/Ipods.
      • 2 Years Ago
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