Mixed Messages

Big news yesterday from Tesla, as they announced their new electric truck. The truck represents some real advancements in electric power for heavy vehicles, and if the price is right, could mean some positive air quality improvements in the greater Los Angeles area, where diesel trucks are one of the worst emitters of GHG and disproportionately impact the lives of the most vulnerable residents of the region. The promise of electric vehicles, in terms of reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is huge. That is a great thing, and it is part of the trifecta of solutions that so many people highlight when envisioning a future that is shared, electric, and autonomous.

Elon Musk being Elon, and maybe relishing in being on the cover of the rolling stone, also announced the launch of a new Tesla roadster. The Tesla website boasts that this roadster can go from zero to sixty in 1.9 seconds, and has a top speed of 250 miles per hour or more. Elon himself couldn’t hold back, and said

“Driving a gasoline sports car is going to feel like a steam engine with a side of quiche.”

No offense to people who like quiche and are fans of steam engines , right? It seems like Elon was saying that this new car is super cool and super fast! Cool people want to drive super fast! If you don’t, you’re a loser who likes quiche!

From Tesla’s website Friday November 17, 2017

And therein lies the mixed message.

We have lots of problems in America and the world. So many, in fact, that it is problematic to try and figure out which problems are the most pressing and which problems we need to address first.

The electrification of our vehicle fleet is a great way to address a real problem of fossil-fueled internal combustion engines, and that is the problem of noxious GHG emissions that are making our children sick and making our planet’s temperature rise. Particularly among our poorer communities, where the impacts of GHG emissions hit harder.

We also have a serious problem in America of people dying on our public roads. Nearly 40,000 people die every year in traffic-related collisions. This is a public health emergency. Over the last 15 years, there is a fairly steady trend of roughly 30% of those deaths being directly related to vehicles speeding. So that means about 12,000 people per year, or 1,000 people per month, or more than 30 people every day will die because of vehicle speeds.

So the mixed message is this: Electrification of vehicles = Awesome! Super fast and cool speedy roadster = Even Awesomer!!

I’ve got a problem with this mixed message. It is laudable that Tesla is pursuing electric trucks. I hope they go further and look to electrify larger heavy industrial vehicles and equipment. Maybe they should look into electric container ships, since they currently run off of what is essentially asphalt and spew incredibly toxic emissions across the globe.

Promoting a culture of speeding, and driving in super fast sexy cars, is not helping. Transportation professionals know the struggle is real when it comes to keeping posted speed limits low, and we also know that increasing posted speed limits often leads to more speed-related collisions and fatalities, like they’re dealing with in Ohio right now. When Tesla makes a car that can go 250 miles an hour, you and I know there is some person out there, maybe more, who is going to try to do exactly that. We’ve all stood on the corner of a busy intersection in a downtown area and heard the chirping of tires as some person slams the gas pedal off the line. Personally, I’ve been totally freaked out by cars zooming along LA streets while I’m riding the public bike share system. So Tesla selling a car that goes from zero to 60 mph in 1.9 seconds — and 1.9 seconds is about the amount of time it takes you to say “Biloxi, Mississippi” in a nice southern drawl — means that there are people who are going to slam on the accelerator pedal and zoom through busy downtown intersections in these new roadsters. We don’t need that.

We need to be careful. We need to be thoughtful. If we want to achieve the stated goals of Vision Zero, if we really want to address the pervasive culture of speeding and other traffic offenses, and if we want to make cities more people-focused, we shouldn’t be patting Elon on the back for the new roadster. Instead, we should gently encourage Elon to offer safer solutions, focus on slow speed urban mobility needs. Of course, the investors in Tesla might not be interested in that, and that brings up the broader discussion of developing meaningful public-private partnerships in public transportation and infrastructure. That discussion will have to wait.



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Sam Morrissey

Transport enthusiast — VP, Transportation at LA28 - Past VP of Urban Movement Labs — Past lecturer at @UCLA. These are my personal posts.